Thursday, 23 January 2014

British wild boar under threat again

The last few weeks have seen a new, and predictable, outbreak of anti-boar hysteria in and around the Forest of Dean. One local Councillor has suggested that humans could be driven from the forest in no time. Another has complained that the damage caused by the boars is so extensive that the grass is now too soft to park your car on. Rooting by the animals has turned over grass verges and lawns from Coleford to Cinderford and beyond. It happens every winter.

The response in many quarters to the return of the boar has been equally predictable. Cull cull cull. They damage property, they are dangerous, they have to go. Never mind that this is a native species which enriches biodiversity in the forest by breaking up bracken, moving soil and seeds around and providing micro-habitats for other plants and animals. Never mind that attacks on humans are very rare and have not yet occurred in the UK, or that every year in England alone there are 210,000 recorded attacks on humans by dogs.1 In fact, since 2007, at least 9 people, including 6 children have been killed in the UK by domestic dogs. A further 427 were killed across Gloucestershire by cars over a ten year period from 1997-2008. No, the real issue is muddy lawns and verges.

The Forestry Commission, the body responsible for managing the forest, has openly said it would like to call for a far larger cull, perhaps as many as four hundred animals, of an estimated five hundred (this figure is disputed by many). The only thing holding it back is public opinion, a good deal of whom support the boar and worry about the effect this will have on the population's survival. Indeed the Commission is already struggling to fulfill its existing cull quota. Of 129 it has set itself to shoot in the 2013-2014 season, only around 76 had been killed by the end of December. Furthermore there are no good estimates of the numbers being killed illegally or in accidents. Without some idea of the scale of pressure on the boar, such high cull targets would risk exterminating the species once again, or driving it to dangerously low levels, by the back door. 

Of course, extermination is exactly what some people want. My conversations with locals in the area make it clear there is a small minority who are vociferously opposed to any wild animals beyond their control. As far as they are concerned there is no place for the boar in 21st century Britain. Now, three local UKIP Councillors have written to the government to request funding for a local referendum on what to do with the boar. It seems likely they are hoping for a mandate for a large-scale cull, or possibly an extermination.

This is not an argument against control. With no natural predators in the UK wild boar will naturally increase to the point where food and space becomes unavailable. The point is that we need to have a sensible policy which treats these animals with respect, recognizes their right to exist in this country and offers them legal protection from poaching and cruelty. Any culling must be based on sound, independent science, and with a view to the overall status of the species in the British Isles. By contrast the UKIP councillors and others want this to be a purely local issue. Outsiders should have no say in what happens to the boar in the forest. I can see why some would support this. Yet this argument is about so much more than the mix of species in a local woodland. The Forest of Dean is the first real stronghold of the wild boar in hundreds of years. What happens there reflects on our ability to accept change, to accept the wild and to accept the return of the native species which our landscape and our culture needs to be healthy. The wild boar need our help.

Here is a petition from the UK Wild Boar Trust, calling for them to have legal protection. I am not affiliated to the UKWBT, it just seems like a good idea.  


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