Based on years of observation, stemming from a lifelong fascination, Gerry Meredith provides some insight into the history, spread, behaviour, diet and damage caused by this beguiling creature.
Wild boar have a long and chequered history in the UK, having faced several extinctions followed by reintroduction along the way. Thankfully, or not, depending on your viewpoint, we have arrived at a time where wild boar are once again availing themselves of the delights of the British countryside.
I have been mesmerised by wild boar since I was a young boy. It all began after reading an article in one of my father’s shooting publications, in which the writer detailed a trip to mainland Europe for a driven hunt of wild boar. I was hooked by the story and have held an intrigue and respect for the creatures ever since.
Their re-emerging presence in the UK is riddled with local rumour and gossip. The mainstay of their re-wilding, shall we say, are the escapes from wild boar farms that have occurred over the last three decades or so – the first escapes are believed to be a result of storm damage from the 1987 storms in the South East. Whether these escapes were intentional or accidental is pure semantics now that wild boar appear to be gaining a firm foothold in the wild.
Where to find them
Their spread remains an ever evolving story, with more than a few unverified sightings; believe it or not the dear sweet muntjac is often misidentified as a wild boar, presumably because people tend see what they want to see.
What we do know is that they have established themselves with good numbers breeding in several regions. The south east of England probably holds the longest free-living wild boar population. Devon, Dorset and Somerset all have pockets of wild boar. Dumfries and Galloway has a respectable population living there. The Forest of Dean and surrounding areas has a good number and they have spread to the southern-most boundary of the Dean, the river Severn – a fairly substantial boundary. To the west they have crossed the river Wye and have taken up residence in Monmouthshire. Locally I hear tell of sightings in Worcestershire and Shropshire, but there is no hard evidence yet! What I can say about the spread of wild boar is that they have almost certainly had a helping hand along the way, as there is no other way of explaining the leaps in territory without an intermediate population.
Wild boar are the most beguiling of creatures and watching them is time incredibly well spent. It is always interesting to watch how they interact as a group, especially when feeding. It soon becomes obvious who the matriarch is; usually, but not always, the largest female. The hierarchy is then dictated pretty much by size; so, if you are a small boar, you need to learn to eat quickly, before someone else becomes interested in what you have! I have not yet discovered any regularity or pattern to their feeding habits even with the aid of a trail camera. They may feed in or around a particular spot for some weeks, but they will rarely turn up at a similar time on consecutive nights. Conversely, I have caught them three or four nights in a row at pretty much the same time on a feed site and then they have not returned for a fortnight or more. This feed site has some of their favourite foods and is not used for hunting, nor is it disturbed by human activity.
These behaviours of course just add to the intrigue and passion that I have for wild boar. There are no regular patterns that make hunting them predictable. It is only the ability to build a picture year-on-year of what and where they feed, along with subtle changes in their behaviour that gives me an edge when hunting wild boar, furthering my chance of success.
In quieter parts of forestry where there is no hunting pressure, some boar are still diurnal, active during the day, but on the whole where they are hunted they have become more-or-less nocturnal. Although in the summer months it is possible to spy them in wheat fields helping themselves to the crop – pigeons have nothing on wild boar when it comes to crop damage! Boar appear to be unaffected by weather conditions, I have successfully hunted them in almost every weather condition that the UK can throw at us. There are evenings with 40mph winds and driving rain, when I think that I won’t have a chance of seeing a wild boar let alone a chance to get close enough to hunt one, and yet the hunting gods choose to smile on me for making the effort and not wimping out. Other nights, when I leave the house with a full moon overhead and thoughts of the perfect weather and conditions for wild boar hunting, only to be taunted by their lack of interest in my predictions.
Boar tend to be a community animal often living in mixed family groups of females of all age ranges and younger males that have not reached sexual maturity, these groups are called sounders. There is very often a larger male involved with the group yet he tends to hang around out of sight on the periphery of the sounder. I guess this is to look after his interests, so to speak. At rutting time I have noticed the large males will hold a more dominant role in the sounder, looking after his females and mating as they come into oestrous. The dominant sows will be the first to come into heat and this will trigger the younger females to follow. Females can breed from roughly eight-months-old if they have attained the right body weight of 30kg or more. A female born in the early spring can easily achieve this weight at eight months. Females have the same gestation period as domestic pigs: 3 months, 3 weeks and 3 days. They can give birth as early as January and continue to do so through until May and possibly even later. The litters may vary in size from one to seven, but, from my own observation, on average only four per sow will make it through the first month.
Wild boar are well known for wallowing and then rubbing against trees. This is a very efficient way to rid themselves of parasites, although not all of them! Within a sounder there is also a lot of social grooming which seems to take care of any remaining ticks and the like. They are generally social animals doing everything together; moving from one place to another, feeding, resting… This of course serves a purpose; it is a survival plan. All those sets of eyes, ears and nostrils will always be more effective than one alone!
More often than not, young males ejected from the social sounder will go on to form their own ‘bachelor sounder’ until the time they have grown enough to venture away and find their own territory – roughly at age two. This solitary lifestyle for the large males is in stark contrast to the females’ lives in the safety of the collective. The survivor male will be exceptionally cunning and alert as he has no one to watch his back. I have witnessed this first hand, they will rarely leave any form of cover even under darkness and, when on open ground will move directly towards their next target patch of cover, making them an exceptionally hard animal to hunt. Without careful management of a target boar population you will never achieve large males, who can reach over 200kg, because without care and the right group of principled hunting colleagues they will be shot before attaining any real size or status.
Wild boar feed on a wide and varied diet often digging or rooting to find the titbits of choice. They are opportunistic by nature and will eat practically anything; I have a first-hand report from a trusted source, of wild boar eating from the stomach cavity of a not-long-deceased fallow deer – he had only gone to retrieve his vehicle! Food is mostly of vegetable origin and they will readily graze on grass, forest fruits and cereal crops as well as vegetable plots. They really do like to try a little bit of everything; I will from time to time examine the stomach contents of boar to find out what they are eating at various times of the year.
A nice wet autumn and winter gives them the opportunity to gorge on earthworms and grubs and I have discovered stomachs to contain nearly a kilo of these – now that is a lot of snuffling beneath the surface! They really do take advantage of the seasonal delights, other stomachs have revealed very little bar nuts and acorns, right through the winter if there is a good crop in the autumn. During spring, when the nut harvest is well and truly done, they turn their attention to the subterranean delights that our plants have to offer: roots, bulbs, rhizomes, and clover to name but a few. Summer leads them towards new delights and they turn their thoughts to cereals, maize and grass as the mood suits. Another favourite of theirs in the autumn and winter months is sugar beet, they really are destructive to this crop. And yet they do not touch the potato crop freely available to them; maybe they just haven’t acquired a taste for potatoes yet.
Unfortunately for our wild boar, in the course of their daily travels, territory marking and feeding they have the potential to cause severe damage to commercial crops, as well as domestic gardens and vegetable plots. When they feed in a standing crop such as wheat, they strip the heads from the plant. It is most amusing to hear them munching away in the dead of night, but they have a tendency to trample the crop as they go, let’s face it they’re not exactly dainty.
Aside from eating the crop they also leave a variety of well-trodden runs and, trust me, the farmers are not one bit amused! If you think pigeon damage is bad you really don’t want a sounder of wild boar feeding in your cereal crops. In a tall crop, like maize or oilseed rape, the damage may not be apparent until you come to harvest the field; wild boar may have been living in the crop undetected for a month or more. In maize the damage will be quite horrific as they snap the stalks to get to the tasty cobs of corn. They are also clever enough to realise that they cannot be seen in maize, so if you try and beat the field through to a team of guns I’m afraid the boar would runs rings around you whilst never leaving the maize.
Wild boar can also cause damage to forestry if they are rooting around or under the rootstock of planted young trees, or even when males are marking territory by cutting large grooves and slashes deep into trees with their exceptionally sharp teeth. One of the most common forms of boar damage, and the one that has the greatest visual impact, is when they choose to root in pasture. Over the course of a week or two a small sounder can cause untold damage and the turned over grassland becomes a nest for weed growth in the following years. Valuable pasture-land used for hay or silage can quickly be made valueless, as the once pristine sward starts to look like a moonscape – at its very worst it can look like someone has come in and randomly ploughed parts of your field. This all comes at some expense as you must then plough and re-sow your grassland for stock grazing and mowing, as well as the constant repairs to your fence lines.
There have been damaging encounters with livestock as well. I can only surmise as to the exact circumstances of the incident, but one of the farms I hunt on lost a cow to wild boar; the injury was to her udder and the slash from the boar had cut a milk vein. The cow bled to death in the night. Cows being what they are (overly inquisitive), they probably came in close and surrounded a wild boar and it, feeling threatened, lashed out defending itself leading to the untimely demise of said cow. I hasten to add that the cow was not eaten by the boar, it just happened to be in the way.
The boars’ repertoire is almost endless and knows few bounds in the search for daily food. This will be an ever-evolving story as they find new territory and new food sources to be exploited.