Scores of wild boar are being culled each year by private landowners and the government’s Forestry Commission despite an almost total lack of reliable information about the size of the population and how many are being killed, according to conservationists.
They say that an ad hoc and uncontrolled cull is taking place that is not based on scientific estimates. Even the size of the cull itself is uncertain because landowners are not obliged to report how many animals they have killed.
Wild boar became extinct in the UK in the 17th century but returned to the wild in the late 1990s when three free-living populations of boar were established following escapes from farms. There are now thought to be between 500 and 1,000 wild animals in the country. But this estimate is highly uncertain because wild boar populations are notoriously difficult to measure. In the Forest of Dean, home to the biggest population, the estimates range from 200-350 animals and they have been culled since 2007.
The animals are not popular with landowners. Wild boars can seriously damage farmland by rooting through the soil. They can also carry diseases such as tuberculosis and can be dangerous to people when injured or guarding piglets. Confrontations with dogs have become increasingly common, as have traffic accidents.
Government policy allows local authorities and individuals to decide whether or not to cull the animals. A local consultation in the Forest of Dean led to the beginning of a cull to try to keep the population at 90 animals. Since January more than 100 animals have been culled in the forest by its rangers and there is no record of how many animals have been killed by private landowners in neighbouring areas.
But the difficulty in estimating wild boar numbers and the uncertainty of total cull figures has led conservationists to warn that without more scientific research the cull may not be effective and that there could be a danger of boars being overculled in certain areas.
“We are managing an animal and nobody knows how many animals there are in the first place, so should you be culling 10 animals? Or 100 animals or 500? They have no idea, so unfortunately the cull is not based on sound scientific fact,” said Martin Goulding, wild boar scientist and author. “Do you want to shoot male animals or the females? What age group do you want to shoot? These are questions that responsible animal management needs to answer … but all these questions need time and research and that all costs money,” he said.
Kevin Stannard of the Forestry Commission admitted that the estimates of wild boar numbers were uncertain and agreed on the need for more research. “The fundamental thing we do need and that everyone agrees on is we do need to know exactly how many wild boar there are. For the Forestry Commission it’s certainly a research priority but with all the other things going on, funding made available for research is not as evenly available as we would like,” he said.
The Forestry Commission’s research department is currently working with the Food and Environment Research Agency to try to develop accurate methods of measuring wild boar numbers, but the results will not be ready for another three years.
“An understanding of current numbers and reproduction rate enables prediction of population change … along with an evaluation of impacts and whether they are acceptable or not will allows managers to decide on whether a cull is needed and how many need to be culled,” said Brenda Mayle from the Forest Research department.
Estimating numbers is complicated further by not knowing how many wild boars are being killed by private landowners. “We have no idea, no handle on those numbers at all because obviously there is no requirement for land owners to declare what they are doing,” said Ian Harvey, the chief ranger in the Forest of Dean.
The largest populations of wild boar can be found in Devon, Kent and in the Forest of Dean and Ross-on-Wye area. The animals are able to give birth to four to six piglets a year and have no natural predators left in the UK after the extinction of wolves and lynx. Philip Stephen, a conservationscientist from the University of Durham, said: ” I think we’re stuck with boar and that, in moderation, that’s probably no bad thing. But they need to be managed and the options for population management are limited: cull or reduce reproduction.”
The Forestry Commission say that culling is necessary to prevent a “population explosion” and that wild boar can cause substantial damage to farmland and woodland if they are not properly controlled.
“The introduction of these animals back into Britain is seen by many conservationists and wildlife lovers as a great opportunity to restore a healthy natural balance back into our degraded woodlands,” said David Slater, wildlife photographer and Forest of Dean resident. “We don’t want to see them suffer or become extinct again,” he said.