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The accidental rewilding of Kent’s boars

PUBLISHED: 12:59 10 September 2018 | UPDATED: 12:59 10 September 2018

The thrill of the chase (photo: Gaetan James)

The thrill of the chase (photo: Gaetan James)

Archant

Following the Great Storm of 1987, one consequence was the inadvertant rewilding of Kent’s woodlands with wild boar, farmed at Tenterden, which escaped the pens they were kept in when fences were flattened by falling trunks. The descendants of these animals are now spread across the sea

The wild boar inside the enclosure seem a contented family unit. Four piglets alternate between nosing in the soil for roots and grubs – the foraging that will be their main way of feeding when fully grown – and turning to their mother to suckle, while dad dozes in the dirt just a few yards off.

“They’re called humbugs, for obvious reasons,” says Dr Angus Carpenter from Wildwood Trust at Herne Common.

He is referring to the small brown, cream and caramel-striped bodies moving around in the dappled sunlight, which do indeed look like the boiled sweets they get their name from.

Wild boar grubbing for food at the foot of a fallen forest tree (illustration: Gaetan James)Wild boar grubbing for food at the foot of a fallen forest tree (illustration: Gaetan James)

“The colouring is for camouflage against the forest floor when they’re young and vulnerable,” he says.

“It lasts about three months, so you’ve just managed to get here before that goes.”

I’m visiting Wildwood Trust to add to the research I’ve already carried out on these elusive animals. A while back I started writing a story set in a Kent village experiencing problems with a small local population of wild boar.

Wild boar swimming (illustration: Gaetan James)Wild boar swimming (illustration: Gaetan James)

This has since developed into an illustrated novella called The Season of the Boar, a collaborative fiction with the visual artist Gaetan James using digital papercut images like those that accompany this article.

I already knew that back in October 1987, a sounder of boar on a farm near Tenterden had escaped when the fences of their pens were flattened by trees that came down in the Great Storm.

Since then, the population has grown to around 250 animals – some estimates put the number closer to 400 – in the area along the Kent and Sussex border and also in other parts of the county.

A Red Kite silhouetted against the trees (illustration: Gaetan James)A Red Kite silhouetted against the trees (illustration: Gaetan James)

Reports of occasional sightings in the local press and even of one itinerant boar family causing chaos on the A21 near Tunbridge Wells, confirm that in recent years there have indeed been wild boar at large in Kent.

On the continent, the animals exist in huge numbers, with hundreds of thousands being shot every year by hunters in Germany alone. As with other large mammals that lived in Britain during the last Ice Age, when a land bridge linked our island to mainland Europe, boar had also once thrived in the British countryside and were a favourite quarry of kings.

Henry VIII liked to hunt them in Ashdown Forest, and their butchered meat was a staple of the feasts from which he grew so famously rotund.

The eyes have it: wild boar in the forest (illustration: Gaetan James)The eyes have it: wild boar in the forest (illustration: Gaetan James)

But like other large fauna that were once a familiar sight in Britain, such as wolves and bears and lynx, the animals were hunted to extinction.

For more than three centuries the British boar remained a historical curiosity – a distant folk memory of a wilder age.

Recent decades have seen successful reintroductions of once-significant animals, like the beaver and the red kite, which had also long since gone extinct in the UK. The boar is among these recent stories of rewilding although, as with the group from Tenterden, this has been entirely accidental.

Now well established, they also need careful management if they are not to fall foul of public opinion. Numbers in Kent have plateaued, and today the largest UK population is in the Forest of Dean, where the animals have been known to dig up gardens and have also attacked dogs.

“They’ll tend to avoid contact with humans, but sows will aggressively defend their young when they feel threatened,” Angus tells me.

In fact, wild boar are mostly nocturnal animals, so human–boar encounters make the news precisely because they are news. Even glimpses of boar in the Kent countryside are still very rare.

Ian Rickards, warden for the Ashford area for Kent Wildlife Trust, told me how in the past he had seen signs of boar activity in his part of the county, in particular the soil turned over which indicates the animals’ rooting habits. He had never seen any in the flesh nor had any of his colleagues in recent years.

Angus Carpenter, however, is confident the animals are still present in the county.

“We get people ringing up, asking if one of our boar has got out, which they haven’t. So we know they’re out there,” he says.

“They can be troublesome and, if a large group is restricted to a small section of a woodland, they can entirely strip the ground flora in no time at all. Bluebells, wood anemones – everything will be either eaten or disturbed.”

In fact, such a clearance – a type of gap dynamics, as ecologists call it – if limited to a certain size can encourage diversity, as new types of flora take root in the space opened up and new animal species move in to take advantage.

But not everyone is comfortable with this kind of disruption to the status quo, another reason for controlling growth in the numbers of animals like wild boar.

“It’s not only about active management of populations, but also about educating the public,” says Angus. “We’re very risk-averse in this country when it comes to reintroducing species.”

Being a creature that was unknown to my grandparents’ generation, the boar could indeed seem like a strange interloper in what appears to be a settled and even timeless ecology.

But like the other species at Wildwood Trust – from the bears to the lynx to the wolves – this ‘royal beast of the chase’ was once an integral part of the natural and cultural history of these islands and now seems set to be so again.

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