Populations of wild boar are now entrenched in parts of Britain, raising unease about their impact on the woodland environment. Dr John Jackson reports.

The wild boar (Sus scrofa) is native to much of Eurasia and North Africa, and has been introduced to the Americas and Oceania, making it one of the widest-ranging mammals in the world. With its vast distribution, high numbers, prolific reproduction and adaptability to a diversity of habitats, it has become an invasive species in parts of its introduced range.

Once found over much of Britain, this member of our native fauna disappeared by the Middle Ages, probably hunted to extinction as a pest in agriculture – and also good eating – coinciding with loss of its woodland sanctuaries that disappeared under the plough.


Animals brought from mainland Europe were released for hunting pursuits in the first part of the 17th century but did not take root in the wild.

In our times, however, small populations of feral wild boar have become established again as a result of both accidental and deliberate releases from farms.

The Great Storm of 1987 saw animals escape when toppling trees brought down fences, so today free-ranging groups exist on the Kent/East Sussex border. Feral boar roam too in Devon, Dorset, Monmouthshire and south-west Scotland. A map from the Mammal Society in 2018 shows the latest confirmed distribution of resident herds (other outliers are suspected, though).

These nocturnal animals do not stand still to be counted and true numbers are often underestimated, but a national consensus is around the 2,000 to 3,000 mark.

But the Forest of Dean is the undisputed wild boar capital of the UK. It harbours the largest population in England, and was continuing to grow until recently.

Forestry Journal: Boar rotavated this frosty sports field overnight in the Dean (courtesy of The Forester).Boar rotavated this frosty sports field overnight in the Dean (courtesy of The Forester).


This ancient forest, occupying 204 square miles in north-western Gloucestershire, has changed many times over the centuries. In medieval times it was a royal hunting preserve, and then a source of timber for the navy’s Tudor warships. By Victorian times, it was a major site of industry, with coal mining and tramways punctuating the landscape. In 1939, the woodland area became the first site in England to be designated as a National Forest.

Much of the forest is public land under the stewardship of Forest England, with enclaves of private property. The woodland is dominated by broadleaves. It is a growing magnet for tourism, mirroring the trend in most public estate holdings.

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Boar roamed these woodlands until the Middle Ages and were hunted for sport and the pot. They then became extinct.

Fast-forward a few centuries to the turn of this millennium. In 1999, boar escaped – or were released – from a farm just to the north. In 2004, a group of 60 farm-raised animals was dumped on the western boundary.

By 2009, the two populations had merged and a breeding population was thriving through the Dean.


The Dean is beset with the gamut of challenges facing other modern, multi-purpose lowland forests in public ownership. An astute balancing act is called for to cater to all interests.

It is a classic scenario for wildlife: people, conflicts and solutions, and a trial site for reintroducing Eurasian beavers and pine martens.

Wild boar looks like it is back to stay there, and with a certain vengeance. The local public has a love/hate relationship with this forerunner of modern pigs, dubbed by the media as the Boar or Turf Wars.

The Dean is popular with day visitors and dog owners. Some humans walk the woods in fear and trepidation for themselves and their canine companions in case they are attacked by a savage wild boar. Reports of frenzied, unprovoked charges by irate killer boars have hit the local news headlines.

Although these ancestral swine are sizeable, they show a remarkable turn of speed, and will stand their ground when cornered or with young. Proven attacks are rare but not unheard of.

Forestry England proffer sagely words of wisdom for walkers, horse riders and dog owners while stressing these wild creatures do not belong to them.

Some visitors actually attempt to feed these wild animals or snap selfies. But it is the rooting habits of this animal which raise the hackles of the locals.

Wild boar are omnivores consuming most foodstuffs. Rooting around with their long and powerful snouts, they dig for roots and bulbs and are partial to earthworms, beetles, green plant material, carrion, nuts and berries too.

Much of the rub between man and beast arises over amenity grassland which the boar churns over in search of tasty buried morsels – often overnight under the cover of darkness. A large group may arrive unannounced and uninvited and be gone by dawn leaving behind a trail of destruction. Grass verges, cricket pitches, golf courses, graveyards and allotments are all fair game, and public places such as village greens and roadside verges cannot always be fenced off to protect them either. Some rogue individuals now specialise in raiding roadside rubbish bins and prowling picnic areas.

Sus scrofa can and do get swine fever, a disease that sends shivers down the spine of domestic pig breeders. Like most animals, they are prone to a host of other diseases and parasites too. Amongst those is Trichinella, which can be passed to humans in undercooked meat.

Road traffic accidents add to the woes. Boar are low-slung, bulky, solid, short-sighted and largely nocturnal. Colliding with an adult male weighing up to 100 kg has been compared to running into a brick wall at speed.

Forestry Journal: Distribution of wild boar in Britain (courtesy of the Mammal Society).Distribution of wild boar in Britain (courtesy of the Mammal Society).


As the porcine population grew, so did the cases of damage to property locally. While pointing out the animals were not legally theirs, in the interest of neighbourly harmony, the Forestry Commission drew up and made public a management plan to monitor the boar stocks and upped the cull, aiming at reducing numbers and defusing the complaints.

Interestingly, some people objected to the cull and tried to sabotage it.

Forest Research carry out annual censuses of the Dean stock of ungulates using night-vision techniques. That data is in the public domain. They estimate a population of about 1,000 boar, give or take a couple of hundred. Culling the wild boar by drafting in extra qualified marksmen has now intensified, with a target figure of 400 annually to reduce the population and its marauding. Once inspected, the carcasses are sold on to local game dealers.


While several of the feral populations elsewhere are now part of the local wildlife and doing quite nicely of their own account, there are calls to bring them back elsewhere, where they died out centuries ago. One example is in Scotland, where Trees for Life is hoping to free boar back into the Highlands.

A common line of reasoning is that this animal is a native, so should be welcomed back, though the social and environmental scenario nowadays has changed radically since the wild boar last rooted around here.


Once unregulated, authorisation to keep wild boar in captivity now falls to local authorities. Yet nobody seems quite sure how many licensed wild boar farms there are.

Keeping any livestock enclosed is never foolproof. Trees fall on fence lines, animal liberation supporters free ‘wild’ animals and farmers facing bankruptcy have turned wild boar loose. There will inevitably be more escapees from other farms across the land, although not all will form viable feral groups.

But once they are out on their own, feral boars become Res nullius – they belong to no one.


Sus scrofa are not protected under our Wildlife and Countryside Act and can be hunted all year.

In continental Europe, wild boar are prized and hunted as hallowed quarry. Famed for their ferocity, the heads are mounted as trophies.

So is there a case for bringing back the boar in remoter forests and possibly combining commercial trophy hunting with that already in operation for deer?

Hunters from abroad already pay considerable sums to shoot trophy deer here in Britain. Might this be an additional source of forestry income while keeping boar numbers in check?


The damage inflicted by wild boar on amenity areas is clear to see. But what about the possible effects on forests and woodlands they frequent now or in the future? 

Using traditional breeds of pigs like Tamworths as ‘ecosystem engineers’ is practised in conservation woodland management. They break down overgrown vegetation such as brambles, demolish bracken rhizomes and turn over the soil to allow plants buried deep in the seed banks to flourish again. So what if more roaming wild boar did it for you for free elsewhere – albeit in a rather haphazard or natural manner?

Worries about wild boar ravaging bluebell bulbs in iconic woodlands appear unfounded so far, although localised rooting activity and wallows can look a real muddy mess.

A survey by Forest Research on the activities of feral boar in 2010 on the Kent/East Sussex border concluded there was no short-term cause for concern for the future of bluebell woods with the current densities.

The jury is out on whether the activities of wild boar are a scourge or a blessing in disguise in our woodlands. And like most things in life, they may be good in small doses but harmful if taken to an extreme.

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