Tuesday, 28 May 2013

Risk and wild boar (updated)




Last week I was down in the Forest of Dean, conducting research for a project on rewilding. As part of this I am visiting communities and projects at the frontline of the issue – speaking to those trying to bring wildness back to our landscapes, and also those living near the consequences. Some of these rewildings are intentional, but others, like the wild boar which now roam free in the South West, are accidental.

As I spoke to people in Forest, the gulf in opinions was obvious. To some people there is a spiritual duty to return these animals, for others they represent nature gone wild, and unwelcome intrusion on their peaceful lives. One thing which was highlighted on several occasions though is the potential risk they pose. Both supporters and opponents of the boar where united in their belief that a major accident could galvanise opinion against the boar. To me this is a classic example of our inability to judge risk, and to prioritise new things as riskier than those we know.

According to stats on the BBC, from 1997-2008 there were 427 fatal car crashes in the County of Gloucestershire (where the Forest of Dean is located). None of these appeared to involve wild boar. And yet one of the biggest objections made by opponents of the boar was their potential to cause traffic accidents. So assuming there is an accident involving boar in the coming years, is an eradication or mass cull justified? Does the risk they pose outweigh those caused by speeding, drunk driving, deer, dogs, poor weather etc? I would argue almost certainly not.

But what of the other risks posed? Wild boar, particularly the big males or nursing mothers can be intimidating animals. They are strong and fast, so fast in fact that stories of people being chased by boar are almost certainly reports of mock charges or exaggerations – the chances of outrunning a genuine attack are minimal. Nonetheless they would be capable of doing serious damage. The question is how serious is the risk, and how does this compare to others?

So far there has not been a recorded attack on a person in the UK. Sadly a couple of dogs do appear to hurt, and one killed, but this is still rare. In mainland Europe, where wild boar are counted in millions and are common, incidents have occurred, but are infrequent. So, given time it seems likely that at least one person will be attacked by a wild boar and injured, perhaps seriously. How should we deal with this? Well the first thing is to put it in perspective. Every year in England alone there are 210,000 recorded attacks on humans by dogs.i Since 2007, at least 9 people, including 6 children have been killed in the UK by domestic dogs. The toll on livestock and wildlife is greater still, with untold thousands killed throughout the country. Set against this the danger posed by wild boar seems minimal.

But hang on. There are millions of dogs and only a few wild boar, a straightforward comparison is not necessarily fair. Assuming an even per-capita split, there should be around 6.7 million dogs in England (8.3 million in Britain). With 210,000 thousand incidents annually this means that there are around 0.03 attacks per dog, per year. If boar were as dangerous as dogs you would expect there to be around 30 attacks per year, assuming there are about 1000 in the country. Given that there have been none in the last ten years, and looking at their record on the continent, it seems safe to say boar are probably less dangerous to humans than dogs. 

The point of this is not to say that boar are not potentially dangerous, or that my heart does not beat a little quicker when animals like this are around, but simply that risk is part of every day life, and that boar are a small one. Just as we take a calculated risk every time we get into a car, learning to manage that risk in a sensible manner is essential to developing a healthier attitude to wildlife and our environment. Indeed, it is the very absence of this sense of awe at the power of nature which many of us feel so keenly, and work so hard to try and bring back.

More on these issues to come....

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