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Feral Wild Boar in the Forest of Dean

Wild boar

Wild boar were once common in England, but were hunted to extinction at least 300-years ago.  In recent years small populations of feral wild boar have become established again in the wild as a result of both accidental and deliberate releases from wild boar farms.

The Forest of Dean boar population is the largest in England, and is continuing to grow.  The original population established in woodlands near Ross-on-Wye after escaping from a wild boar farm in the area during the 1990s.  In 2004 a group of around 60 farm reared animals 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.

 

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 that animals are confined in a way that prevents their escape.

The Wildlife & Countryside Act, 1981 regulates the release of non-native species in the wild.  Part 1, Section 14 of that Act makes it an offence to release or allow to escape into the wild, any animal that is not ordinarily resident in, and is not a regular visitor to 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 wild boar have escaped, or otherwise have been released in contravention of these two Acts 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 on feral wild boar.  The term ‘feral’ is used to clearly differentiate between captive wild boar, and those which have gone ‘feral’, living wild in the countryside.  The 2008 Action Plan states that free roaming wild boar are feral wild animals,  and as such do not belong to anyone.  Responsibility for controlling feral wild animals rests with individual land owners and land managers, however, the Action Plan stops short of requiring land owners to control feral wild boar, instead the document leaves decision making to individual land owners and local communities. 

Further discussion of legislation relating to feral wild boar can be found on the Deer Initiative’s best practice guide ‘Wild Boar Legislation’ www.wild-boar.org.uk

 

 Behaviour of Feral Wild Boar

Are feral wild boar dangerous?  This is one of the most frequently asked questions in the Forest of Dean, and a hard one to answer.  Feral wild boar grow to be very large strong animals, and can move surprisingly fast for their size.  They will also readily move to defend their young when they feel threatened, so they should be treated with caution and respect.

Wild boar have relatively poor eyesight, but a keen sense of smell.  The animals are thus more likely to sense or hear movement of people or dogs moving towards them – and react by moving towards the intruders to see who or what is approaching.  This can be interpreted as aggressive behaviour.

When a family group (known as a sounder) is disturbed by walkers, the tendency is for one of the larger sows to move and position themselves between the walkers and the young piglets (or hoglets), often with much snorting.  The other sows in the group will then lead the piglets to safety in deeper vegetation.  Once the family have moved off, the defending sow will usually suddenly turn and go to rejoin the group out of sight.  The defending sow may, however, be provoked into a mock charge at the intruding walkers.  This may happen if the walkers have continued towards the sow, either to get a better look or simply because they have not noticed the animal. 

Whilst there have been reports of people being chased by the boar, it remains unclear as to whether these are mock charges or a more deliberate attempt by the boar to move people out of a particular area, possibly to protect a sow that is just about to, or has just given birth.  The sows can give birth at any time of the year, although there is a peak of births in the spring and early summer.  Around birthing or farrowing times the sows will search out a suitable ‘farrowing nest’  in thick cover, and close to reliable food sources.  The usually mobile sounder group will then become ‘stationary’ for a week or more, and that can be associated with higher levels of stress, which can manifest itself in greater levels of aggression and extreme rooting damage.

Male boar tend to be seen alone, and can grow to a significant size.  The older male boar are less likely to run or move away from people, often simply standing and watching as you pass by. 

 

Advice to Dog Walkers

Dogs have been attacked, seriously injured and killed by feral wild boar in the Forest of Dean.  The circumstance of each attack varies, and there does not seem to be any common threads in the reports received.  The presumption is that dogs have been attacked when they have got too close to the boar and / or their young.  However, there have also been dogs attacked when their owners are adamant that they were either on a lead or close at heel.

We strongly advise that dog owners walking in the Forest of Dean keep their dog under control and within sight.  If you know your dog is unlikely to respond to your commands in the woodland environment, then please keep your dog on a lead.

When boar are seen, we recommend that you call your dog to heel and put it on a lead.  If the boar are in front of you, we recommend that you turn and retreat and find a different path – or stand still until the boar have moved off.

 

Please do not feed the boar

The Forest of Dean is ideal habitat for feral wild boar and there is no shortage of natural food for them, they do not need to be fed.  Feeding the boar in the villages, at picnic areas or around camping and caravanning sites encourages the animals to return regularly to seek out food and become nuisances to other people.  Please do not feed the boar!

 

 Population Dynamics in the Forest of Dean

The feral wild boar in the Forest of Dean originate from farm bred wild boar, and as such differ from their truly native cousins in other parts of Europe.  The two outcomes of this domestic breeding is that the animals are less nervous of people, and they are more productive.  Average litter sizes in the Dean are between 6 and 10 piglets, nearly twice that of their continental cousins.  With few natural predators, plenty of food and shelter early survival rates for the piglets is thought to be high.  Research evidence also shows that some of the Dean’s wild boar are reaching sexual maturity in their first year.  All of these factors contribute to the substantial annual population growth that has been recorded in the Forest in recent years.

The population of feral wild boar on the public forest estate in the Forest of Dean has been tracked using an annual ‘distance sampling / thermal imaging survey’ since 2013.  This technique was developed by Forest Research for use on tracking deer populations in woods and forests.  Forest Research evolved the methodology to track the boar, and the methodology has been assessed in other European contexts as well.  Whilst the ‘headline’ population derived from the distance sampling survey is the most often quoted below, the difficulties of counting wild animals in open country mean that the figure can only ever be an estimate, and not a definitive number.  However, the trend over time is a very reliable indicator of whether the population is going up, staying stable or going down.

The information captured from the distance sampling survey, coupled with information taken from culled animals informs the evolving population model which is being developed by the Forestry Commission.  This work is discussed in more detail in the distance sampling / thermal image survey reports available through the link  http://www.forestry.gov.uk/fr/wildboar

 

Management of Feral Wild Boar in the Dean

Management of feral wild boar in the Dean has long been a vexed and contentious issue.  Prior to the publication of the DEFRA Action Plan in 2008, the legal status of boar in the wild was unclear.  The Forestry Commission only commenced culling feral wild boar after the DEFRA Action Plan was published.

Until the distance sampling / thermal imaging survey commenced in 2013 the only estimate of the population quoted by the Forestry Commission was an ‘agreed’ estimate derived from the observations of the Forestry Commission’s wildlife rangers.

The 2008 Action Plan set out that feral wild boar management was a matter for individual landowners and local communities.  As a public body, the Forestry Commission thus sought the views of the local community, and accordingly the Forest of Dean District Council established a Scrutiny Group to look into the matter, with the eventual recommendation that the population of feral wild boar be held at around the level that existed at the time, which was estimated at 90 animals, and that view was endorsed by HM Verderers of the Forest of Dean.

In the early days there was little agreement between those with differing views regarding the estimated population, proposed cull levels and ideal population target.  The population target was changed in 2013 from 90 to 400 animals.

The following table charts the change in various figures since 2008.

 Year Estimate Population   Target Population Cull Achieved 
 2008/9  100 - 150  90  38
 2009/10  150   90  62
 2010/11  200 - 250  90  122
 2011/12  300 - 350  90  150
 2012/13  450 - 500  400  100
 2013/14  535  400  135
 2014/15   819  400  361 
 2015/16  1018  400  543
 2016/17  1562  400  492
 2017/18  1204  400 ongoing

 

The cull figures quoted cover all feral wild boar carcasses handled by Forestry Commission staff, including those directly culled and those carcasses recovered from the Forest as a result of death through road traffic accidents or other causes.  Carcasses derived from animals shot by the Forestry Commission team are inspected, and those passed fit for human consumption are sold to game dealers.

The short-term aim of the Forestry Commission’s culling of feral wild boar is to stop the upward growth in the population on the public forest estate.  Once that short-term target has been achieved the cull will look to hold the population and then start bringing it back down towards the target figure.  To support the cull the Forestry Commission initially increased the team of wildlife rangers from 3 to 4, and then in the last year to 6.

 

Who can legally control feral wild boar in the Forest of Dean?

Feral wild boar on the public forest estate (land managed by the Forestry Commission) 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 regulated by internal guidance, regular skills testing and safety audits so that there is absolutely no risk to members of the public accessing the Forest.

Significant areas of privately owned and managed land lie in and around the Forest, and this is now as likely to harbour feral wild boar as the wider woodland.  Where the land owner / land manager holds the shooting rights, holds the appropriate firearm and firearms licence, and has the competence to shoot safely – then it is perfectly legal for that private land owner / land manager to shoot boar on their land.  The Deer Initiative best practice guides for wild boar (see www.wild-boar.org.uk ) are recommended reading.

Any land owner may choose to protect their land from feral wild boar by maintaining / strengthening their boundaries, and again the Deer Initiative maintain a best practice guide for fencing standards to stop feral wild boar. 

A common complaint from land owners, including private homeowners, to the Forestry Commission is that feral wild boar are getting from the Forest onto their land.  However,  all property owners need to note that maintenance of their boundaries in a boar proof condition is their responsibility. 

 

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 has led to a steady increase in significant impacts upon the resident community, as well as visitors to the Forest.

The most obvious sign of feral wild boar is the rooting of amenity grasslands.  Large areas of grassland, grass verges, parks, sports pitches and church-yards can be rooted up in a few hours.  The wild boar have hugely powerful snouts and are able to dig up and turnover grasslands amazingly quickly as they search out food.  Road side verges and areas of open grasslands in the villages are easy targets, and very visible signals of the presence of boar and cannot be fenced. 

Wider social impacts of boar have been reported as people, often the older and more vulnerable in the community, being afraid to go out at dusk or at night due to the presence of boar, exacerbating existing issues around social isolation.  In some cases the repeated howling of dogs in response to the presence of boar through the night, night after night has been reported.

Public safety continues to be raised as a concern by many local people and their representatives.  The number of road traffic accidents involving boar overtook those involving deer in 2013, and the numbers continue to rise.  People have reported being chased by boar, and attacks on dogs are not uncommon.  Horse riders also report that some horses are disturbed by the presence of boar, and have escaped from their paddocks, or thrown their riders after being spooked whilst riding in the Forest.

The social impacts of feral wild boar were captured in a research report commissioned from the University of Worcester ‘The Social Aspects of Wild Boar in the Forest of Dean’

Ecologically, boar at low densities are probably good for the natural environment as the rooting and wallowing behaviours break-up static eco-systems and allow an increased range of plant species and insect fauna to grow.  However, as the density of boar rises the negative issues of boar, such as continually disturbing the same area of ground so that all is left is bare mud, and eating insects and other plant material could be damaging to specific species in the long run.  There are several important butterfly sites in the Forest that have been repeatedly rooted over at the same time butterfly counts in those same areas have seen declining numbers – but proving cause and effect is not easy.

With no natural predators, high levels of reproduction and ideal habitat for food and shelter the current population growth may continue until the population density in the core reaches a level whereby the population starts to self-regulate through limited food resources.  It is speculated that this may start to occur when the boar population of the public forest estate in the Dean starts to approach 10,000 animals.  As the density of animals in the core of the Forest goes up, the population pressure also pushes the boar out into an ever widening ring of surrounding land.

The aim of the Forestry Commission’s management of feral wild boar is, in the short term, to stop the annual population growth; and then start to bring the population back down towards the target level.

 

Last updated: 15th November 2017

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