Wild boar became extinct in England at least 300 years ago. In recent years, however, small populations of feral wild boar have become established again as a result of escapes and deliberate releases from wild boar farms.
The Forest of Dean population is the largest of the breeding populations that now exist in England. The original population established in woodlands near Ross-on-Wye after escaping from a wild boar farm in the area during the 1990’s. However, in 2004 a group of around 60-farm reared wild boar were dumped in an illegal release near the village of Staunton on the western edge of the Forest above the Wye Valley. By 2009 it was clear that the two populations had merged and a breeding population was thriving in the Forest.
Status of Feral Wild Boar
As a farmed animal, wild boar are subject to the Dangerous Wild Animals Act 1976. That Act contains provisions for local authorities to licence the keeping of wild boar and specify conditions in the licence so as to ensure the animal(s) are confined in a way that prevents their escape.
The Wildlife & Countryside Act 1981 regulates the release of non-native species into the wild, and Part 1 section 14 of the Act makes it an offence to release, or to allow to escape into the wild, any animal that is not ordinarily resident in, and is not a regular visitor to the Great Britain in a wild state, or is otherwise included in Part 1 Schedule 9 of the Act. For clarity wild boar were added to Schedule 9 in 2010.
However, once the wild boar have escaped, or otherwise have been released in contravention of the 1976 Act the question of their status arises. In 2008 DEFRA published the document ‘Feral wild boar in England: An action plan’. That document sets out the Government’s position that free roaming wild boar are feral wild animals and as such do not belong to anyone, and that responsibility for managing wild boar rests with the relevant land owner / land manager. Thus, feral wild boar have the status of a wild animal, such as wild deer, and foxes. Further discussion of legislation relating to feral wild boar can be found on the Deer Initiative’s Best Practice Guide ‘Wild Boar Legislation’.
Behaviour of Feral Wild Boar
The most often asked question regarding the feral wild boar in the Forest of Dean is ‘are they dangerous?’ Feral wild boar can be large and unpredictable animals. Unlike the majority of wild animals in Britain, when disturbed by people and domestic dogs the wild boar do not necessarily retreat and hide, and they do have a tendency to defend their young when they feel threatened.
When a family group (known as a sounder) is disturbed by walkers, the tendency is for one of the larger sows to position themselves between the walkers and the young, often accompanied by much snorting, whilst the other sows in the group lead the family to safety. Once the family has moved off the defending sow will usually suddenly turn and run off to rejoin the group. The defending sow may well also be provoked into a mock charge at the intruding people, particularly if that group continue to approach for a better look, or simply because they have not noticed the boar. There have also been reports of people being chased by the boar, which may or may not have been mock charges – but no specific reports of people being injured by the boar as a result of such charges. Equally there are occasions when people have been ‘allowed’ to get very close to family groups with apparently no reaction by the sows present.
Male boar can grow to a significant size, and are less likely to run from people, simply standing and watching as you pass-by. The highest number of reports of attacks by feral wild boar in the Forest of Dean relate to attacks on dogs. The suggestion is that feral wild boar defending their young will attack dogs that get to close and ignore the sows warnings. A smaller number of reports relate incidents where dogs have been attacked with no warning. It is possible that those attacks have been triggered by the boar previously being attacked by a dog and reacting accordingly.
The Forestry Commission advise visitors to the Forest of Dean to be aware of the presence of feral wild boar. If you see boar, stop, call your dog to heel and be prepared to retreat if the boar does not move off. It is unwise to approach a boar, especially if it has set itself in a defensive posture accompanied by snorts and foot shuffling as this is suggestive the animal may be readying itself to charge. We also strongly advise you to keep your dog under control – which means if you know it is unlikely to respond to your commands when walking in the woods, please keep it on a lead.
Feral wild boar are highly intelligent animals and readily learn new behaviours. The boar do not keep to tight territories, and instead roam over large areas to constantly search out food. They may stay in a particular area for a few days or even a week or so when they find a plentiful food supply, before moving on again. Please do not feed the boar! Feral wild boar can become a nuisance at the Forest’s many picnic sites and cafes as they find a ready source of food. Initially the food may have been given to them by picnickers, but as the behaviour is learnt and the boar become bolder there have been instances of boar helping themselves to visitors picnics and lunches. The same applies in the Forest villages. Feeding of the boar in the communities encourages boar into the built up areas where they then cause a nuisance.
Wild boar can reach sexual maturity within their first year, and can breed all year round. When ready to give birth (or farrow) the sow will find a sheltered and secluded location to construct a farrowing nest. Other sows in the group may stay in the area with a heightened level of vigilance and defensive posturing whilst the group is unable to move far. The group will tend to stay in the same location for several weeks after a litter has been born, and local walkers may become accustomed to seeing the boar in the same place for a protracted period. However, when the piglets are ready to move on the group will suddenly leave the area and move on. Litter sizes in the Forest of Dean tend to be large, between 6 and 10 – this is believed to be a mix of the farmed origin of the boar, and the plentiful supply of food.
In producing the document ‘Feral Wild Boar in England: An Action Plan’ DEFRA commissioned risk assessments that included a review of public safety across Europe where significant numbers and densities of boar exist in the wild. That assessment concluded ‘given their wide spread distribution and substantial populations throughout much of their range the risk of injury and attack is very small’. Within the Forest of Dean, the experience of the Forestry Commission supports the conclusion of the risk assessment. Risks to public safety would appear to be most likely through injuries resulting from road traffic accidents related to feral wild boar; and to less direct impacts such as horses bolting or otherwise reacting to the presence of boar and throwing their riders, or dog walkers being injured whilst ‘rescuing’ their dog from a boar attack. The Forestry Commission commissioned research in 2014/2015 on the social impacts of feral wild boar in the Forest of Dean - see below for section entitled Research Paper on Social Impacts and also see link to Pdf on right hand column.
Management of Feral Wild Boar in the Forest of Dean
The document ‘Feral wild boar in England: An action plan’ published by DEFRA in 2008 set out the view of Government that it was down to local communities and individual land owners to decide on the local policy for managing feral wild boar populations.
Following a period of consultation, the Forest of Dean District Council, on behalf of the wider community, recommended to HM Verderers of the Forest of Dean that the population of feral wild boar in the Dean should be maintained, but restricted to no more than existed at that time – which was estimated at 90 animals. HM Verderer’s subsequently advised the Forestry Commission that this was the level of feral wild boar that they would find acceptable in the Forest of Dean. This led to an initial target population of 90 animals being set for the public forest estate within the Dean.
In response to the growing population of feral wild boar, and agreement of a target population for the Forest, the Forestry Commission commenced a cull of the wild boar in the financial year April 2008 to March 2009, and 38 animals were removed in that year.
In the period 2009/10 a further 62 animals were culled. In late spring 2010 the population was estimated by Forestry Commission staff as being between 200 and 250 animals. A cull target of 150 animals was set to bring the population back down towards the target of 90. However, in the period April 2010 to March 2011 only 122 animals were culled, 28 short of the target.
In March 2011 the population was estimated to have grown to between 300 and 350 animals. The cull target was left at 150 animals, even though logic dictated that the cull should have risen to 250. With a more focused effort the target of 150 animals was achieved by October 2011.
During this period the controversy over the Forestry Commission’s cull of feral wild boar had grown with much acrimonious debate. In response to issues raised in that debate, the Commission introduced a voluntary closed season during the spring and early summer to reduce the risk of shooting sows with dependent young at heel.
The original target population of 90 animals was heavily criticised as being an arbitrary figure that did not take account of the health and vigour of the herd – with a view that with such a small population there would be an increased risk of disease and ill-health due to limited genetic variation (although it is equally debated that 90 is an ample pool to avoid those issues). A strongly held view by opponents to the cull was also that a target population of 90, amidst culls of significantly higher numbers of animals runs the risks of exterminating the population entirely. It has also proved impossible to reach broad agreement on the actual population size. It is well known that estimating the size of wild populations over large areas is simply not possible to any precise level of accuracy. What scientists can do is use a variety of sampling / survey methods to give an indication of whether a population is increasing or decreasing. From work commissioned by DEFRA (unpublished) we know that the overall range (or total area) occupied by the Forest of Dean feral wild boar has expanded every year since studies began in 2008; and that same research points to the density of boar in the core area having also increased each year. In early 2013 Forest Research undertook a comprehensive thermal imaging survey for feral wild boar on the public forest estate. The results of that survey give a benchmark for subsequent identical surveys to be compared with – and that benchmark is a population of 535 animals. Up to this point the Forestry Commission’s population estimate has been based on the combined expertise of the Wildlife Ranger team who are out in the woods monitoring and managing the wildlife on a daily basis.
In early summer 2012 HM Verderers chaired a meeting between representatives of the UK Wild Boar Trust and the Forestry Commission to seek agreement on the size of the population, the target population and thus the cull level for the subsequent culling period. No agreement was reached on any of those numbers. Subsequently the Forestry Commission set a cull of 100 animals on the basis that ‘to do nothing was not an option’. The Forestry Commission also recommended the target population be lifted from 90 to 400 animals at that time. The cull of 100 animals was achieved in January 2013. A similar meeting was arranged for early summer 2013, and whilst the Forestry Commission argued for a cull of 250 animals, the meeting agreed a cull of 135. The 135 cull figure was derived from the output of the thermal imaging survey work, minus the new target population of 400. The cull was be completed in February 2014.
Between February and March 2014 the thermal imaging survey was repeated. That survey estimated a population of 819 wild boar indicating a further growth of around 300 animals in one year.
Subsequently the autumn/winter 2014/2015 cull removed 361 boar from the population on Forestry Commission land in the Forest of Dean. This cull closed on 31st March 2015. The cull figures quoted are a combination of animals shot by Forestry Commission staff and carcasses from road traffic accidents that are handled by the Forestry Commission.
The Thermal Imaging Survey between February and April 2015 gave an updated estimated population figure of 1018, despite the cull of 361 animals.
This estimated figure from the 2015 survey gave a new proposed cull figure for the 2015/2016 cull of 575 animals. The 2015/2016 cull total reached 543 animals removed from the population, including those shot and carcasses from road traffic accidents handled by Forestry Commission staff.
During the Thermal Imaging Survey carried out between March and April 2016 a total of 155 sounders were detected, in contrast to 76 in 2015. The mean group size, of 3.4 boar per sounder, was close to the mean number of 3.3 recorded in 2015. The estimated number of boar was 1562 in comparison, the 2015 estimate was 1018.
The central part of the forest (42.6 Km2) has been included in all previous surveys and in this area estimates of boar numbers increased by 48%.
The purpose of the culling has been to reduce the growth in the feral wild boar population and thus to limit the impacts of boar on those who live in, work in or visit the Forest.
Who can legally control feral wild boar in the Forest of Dean?
Feral wild boar on the public forest estate within the Forest of Dean may only be shot by the professional, authorised wildlife rangers employed by the Forestry Commission. The shooting of feral wild boar on Forestry Commission land is supported by internal guidance and regular skills testing and safety audits.
Significant areas of privately owned and managed land that lies in and around the Forest is also used by the feral wild boar. Where the land owner / land manager holds the shooting rights, holds the appropriate firearm and firearm licence, and has the competence to shoot safely – then it is perfectly legal for that owner or manager to shoot boar on their land. The Deer Initiative Best Practice Guides for ‘Wild Boar Management’ & ‘Shooting Wild Boar’ are recommended reading for private land owners and managers looking to control feral wild boar on their land. For those who are looking to sell the boar they shoot on, the Deer Initiative Best Practice Guide ‘Wild Boar Carcass Handling’ is also essential reading.
Where shooting is not a viable, or not the preferred method of control for feral wild boar then fencing boar out is the only practical means to control the animals. Feral wild boar are both strong and intelligent, and as such fencing specifications have to be robust to be effective. The Deer Initiative Best Practice Guide for ‘Wild Boar Fencing’ sets out recommended specifications for boar fencing that can be adopted by any land owner, including managers of sports pitches, caravan sites and private house-holders.
Why do we need to control feral wild boar in the Forest of Dean?
The growing population of feral wild boar in the Forest of Dean is leading to significant impacts on the resident community, as well as visitors to the Forest.
The most obvious damage, which peaks during the autumn is the rooting of amenity grasslands. Feral wild boar have hugely powerful snouts and are able to dig up and turn over grassland amazingly quickly to seek out food. Road side verges and areas of grasslands in the villages are easy targets. However, damage to play areas, sports pitches, caravan parks, gardens and golf courses has occurred, resulting in inconvenience and extra costs for local clubs and businesses. Fencing is a solution for some so that the boar can be fenced out in future, but equally many areas simply can not be fenced.
There are also wide ranging social impacts resulting from the growing boar population. Reports range from people being afraid to walk their dogs in the woods, to being disturbed by dogs barking at boar night after night and to instances where people have been apparently to nervous to leave their homes due to boar in their gardens, on their drives or on the road outside their homes.
Public safety continues to be raised as a real concern by local people and their elected councillors. The number of road traffic accidents involving feral wild boar in the Dean overtook those that involved deer for the first time in 2013. Many people have reported being chased by boar, just as several people report being thrown from their horses when boar have been close by.
At low densities, feral wild boar are likely to have a positive, beneficial impact on the ecology of the Forest. Small amounts of rooting break up stable eco-systems and habitats allowing a greater diversity of plants to thrive, and thus support a greater range of insects. However, repeated rooting of the same areas stops or slows re-colonisation so all that is left in some location is bare mud. Equally, we know that several sites for rare or locally important butterfly colonies have been rooted by the boar and that is a potential cause for decline in butterfly numbers – although proving cause and effect is not that simple.
What is the Forestry Commission’s Management Policy for feral wild boar in the Forest of Dean?
We have established a target population of 400 animals. Our plan is to bring the number of boar down to 400, and then maintain the population at that level through a continuing programme of culling from summer through to the following spring each year.
Whilst we would want to review this from time to time, it is our view that reducing the population down to this level would reduce the population to a level whereby the negative impacts of having boar living in the Forest are balanced by the positive aspects.
Over time we aim to be able to track the population changes through such tools as the thermal imaging survey; and the levels of nuisance within the forest communities and make decisions on cull levels from an objective assessment of the two.
Research Paper on the Social Impact of Feral Wild Boar in the Forest of Dean (see link on right column)
The research requirement of this project was to independently and objectively investigate, analyse and evaluate data on three principal areas: impacts of boar on public safety, impacts of boar on resident communities (in terms of disruption/damage to amenity areas, private lands, etc.) and the economic impacts of the presence of boar. Data was requested on facts (of incidents/events) and feelings, e.g. on the perceived levels of risk. The paper was completed in November 2015.
It is worth stating that this project was not gathering views on the manner by which the Forestry Commission (or others) are conducting management, nor debating whether to manage or not to manage the wild boar.