A friend told me about a wildlife encounter she had earlier this Autumn near her cottage in the Lot valley in France. I can’t decide whether it’s comic or scary – or, possibly, both. The area is heavily wooded and, at this time of year, it’s also the height of the hunting season when not just organised parties of hunters but any villager with a gun and a zest for La Chasse roams through the trees, so it’s advisable, when taking a stroll, to wear a high-visibility jacket. Suitably clad, my friend was enjoying her morning walk when – from an adjacent scrubby field – a wild boar came racing through the undergrowth aiming straight for her. Fortunately he was only an adolescent, about the size of a bulldog: perhaps he was escaping from some other threat not actually charging her; but the result was still alarming. However, she was comparatively large and he was quite small; he braked frantically – Tom and Jerry cartoons come to mind – and shot off into the undergrowth.
In the woods and forests of France wild boar are common and, though they’re largely nocturnal and shy, signs of their presence are obvious – copious droppings, muddy wallows, pungent scent and ground disturbed by energetic rootling. In France robins are woodland birds, avoiding human guns and relying on the boars rather than gardeners to turn over the soil for them. Boars’ meat is highly prized, their presence tolerated. Once this was also true of the UK, but boar became extinct in the seventeenth century – until recently. Through escapes from captive collections and surreptitious releases the population has been growing. For several years now wild boar have been thriving in the Forest of Dean and there are significant numbers in the south and west of England and in Scotland. Opinions are divided: once an essential part of our native fauna, their offspring undeniably cute and their impact on their natural habitat on balance benign, but their impact on human neighbours – gardeners, arable farmers, fast motorists – generally less welcome. We live in an entirely man-managed environment and any attempts to rebuild our once balanced natural ecosystems will need to be managed too.
I must admit to feeling delighted when I hear that populations of wild boar have been developing in some of our thicker forests and that clans of beavers flourish on the Tay and the Devon river Otter. However, there is a debate to be had, and we need to be calm, judicious and, above all, well-informed.