Unofficially released wild boar have been changing the physical and political landscape of the Forest of Dean for over 10 years. Changing local attitudes and policy developments during this time may have pointers for official reintroductions and rewilding projects.
A momentum shift to the wild?
Debates on rewilding and reintroductions have reached national politics, with both a recent parliamentary POSTNOTE[i] and a Commons Select Committee’s post-EU Referendum Inquiry[ii] probing at the potential openings and benefits of wilder futures. These developments can be seen alongside consideration of official reintroductions of native species such as beavers and the reinforcement of pine martens, and flagship schemes on rewilding such as Knepp Estate, Carrifran, and Ennerdale.
The term rewilding has been increasingly adopted by new and old restoration projects, with differing objectives carried out at different scales. Such flexibility, or plasticity[iii], of definition is undesirable for some[iv], whilst others are able to embrace and accept this.[v] For supporters, its evocative imaginings highlight the staid, blinkered ideals of traditional modes of conservation. For others, embracing fluid processes and the unknown, creates concern.[vi] Though some rewilding advocates are intentionally provocative and polemic, most British discussions on rewilding have suggested a continuum of practice that complements rather than radically challenges conservation.[vii]
Unofficial nature – acknowledging the reality
Discussion on reintroducing species often ignores those that are already present but not formally recognised and carry value-laden labels such as feral, non-native, or hybrid. These creatures contribute to a wilder, messier nature outside of protected areas, but are neglected due to political sensitivity or conservation orthodoxy. As previous commentators have suggested[viii], it seems support for ‘free nature’ often only extends to ‘good nature’ or, perhaps, official nature. Unofficial natures, as seen in the case of the feral wild boar discussed below, can be marginalised and ignored. This leads to a lack of funding for research and education and lack of resources for management strategies.
Some rewilding proposals are based on ecology that is territorialised and governed by a particular spatial understanding of nature vs non-nature. As with the compositionalist[ix] conservation from which it seeks to differ, it is still frequently talked about in terms such as sites, reserves or designated to spaces defined as wildland.
It is easy to understand why rewilding needs to be implemented cautiously according to different objectives, potential management problems, and scale. The benefit of the trial beaver site at Knapdale has shown this, particularly in light of the numbers of beavers killed outside of the controlled study zone.[x] However, such language can still suggest a spatial fixing of wild-ness, rather than one that emphasises process, movement and change through landscapes. Rewilding is mostly promoted where it is actively carried out by humans in pre-designated spaces. However, the unofficial rewilding beyond these confines is equally real.
These concerns tap into broader questions about what and where nature is, and who determines these. As with other contributors to ECOS[xi], I agree there can still be a tendency to consider broader stakeholder experiences and understandings of wild as an afterthought. Whilst relentless theoretical debates over definition and implementation may become frustrating for advocates, they seem critical if provocative future visions are to succeed.
Wild-ness is understood differently by different people and organisations. It is presumably not just for experts to define. It could be seen as a contrast to domestic life; as a place with no human influence; or in contrast to being tame. If organisations and projects are slow to acknowledge these differing interpretations, then management becomes problematic. Where decisions appear top-down and closed, rather than bottom-up and transparent, conflict between different human stakeholders is more likely. Such issues are highlighted in the case of wild boar.
Boar in the ecosystem
Free-living wild boar in parts of Britain are rarely framed as rewilding, presumably due to their classification as feral. This label is informed by doubts over their purity and unofficial origins, but perhaps also to avoid defining them as an officially native species, something that would require different management and legislation. Whether or not you contest their rightful presence, wild boar can help us think through the current, often hypothetical, discussions about reintroducing other keystone species. Wild boar are very much here, and reclaiming the landscape in places such as the Forest of Dean.
Environmental historians have identified wild boar’s extirpation during the 13th century[xii], with sporadic reintroductions into game reserves in intervening years.[xiii] Whilst making definite conclusions based on old records is somewhat dubious, generally the British countryside was without free-ranging wild boar for 800 odd years, until the 1980s or 90s. This return to the British countryside coincided with an alternative rewilding, that of our palette, as a number of farmers turned their attention to exotic meats[xiv], a change in husbandry trends that led to escapes and illegal releases.[xv]
In the case of the Forest of Dean, two incidents are seen as spawning the current population of wild boar. Firstly, a number were recorded as escaping from a farm near Ross-on-Wye in the late 1990s, though this population was controlled to an extent by private landowners. A second group, estimated at around 60 individuals by the Forestry Commission, were deliberately released near Staunton in 2004.[xvi] Due to the unusual nature of the event and uncertainty over how to respond, these boar were able to move to central areas of the forest and consolidate their population.
The Forestry Commission stresses that its annual boar census is an estimation, and suggests numbers have increased from 100-150 in 2008 (incidentally the publication year of the Defra Feral Wild Boar in England Action Plan) to 1562 in 2016.[xvii] Such a trend reflects increasing populations throughout Europe.[xviii]
Boar and people – the changing dynamics
Wild boar, frequently labelled as ecological engineers[xix] and ‘excellent’ for rewilding[xx], are highly mobile. Their behaviour is driven by a complex number of social and ecological factors, such as food availability and preference, shelter, climate, and human activity. Whilst many individual boar are wary of human presence, others are not, as seen in recent media stories in the UK, and reports from elsewhere in Europe.[xxi] Indeed, some argue that domestic pigs evolved from wild boar that, in effect, domesticated themselves, by taking advantage of the easy food sources offered in and around human settlement.[xxii] As with other keystone species, such as wolves, they are opportunists, so even in locations where wild-land may provide sanctum, human (including with dogs) and nonhuman paths are likely to cross, potentially with undesirable consequences.
The social and political debates around wild boar in the Forest of Dean have been heating up. Frequent points of discussion are tied to visual and amenity impacts of rooting, perceived risk of injury to people and dogs, and debates over responsibility for management issues. Recent newsworthy events include the digging of sports fields[xxiii] and more dramatically, rooting in graveyards.[xxiv]
My PhD research includes understanding attitudes to boar in the Dean. Some interviewees, both representatives of official bodies and members of the public, have argued these events are part of an annual regime as wild boar behaviour changes through the seasons, as they follow their noses in search of invertebrates to replace acorns and beech mast. “It is the same every year. You wait, come the spring when it has all grown over, winter digging is forgotten”, I have frequently been told. However, for many interviewees, now it is different. The growing population, the rapid rate of growth, and behavioural changes have each been blamed for problems of co-existence. “It has never been this bad, never”, a local resident told me, echoing the views of many others. Whatever the ecological drivers and the truth in such beliefs, increasing tension amongst people is being stirred up by changing perceptions of wild boar.
There is a widening discord between different stakeholders, whether they identify themselves as pro-boar, anti-boar, or in the spectrum of positions between. As the majority of the forest landscape is owned by the Crown and managed by the Forestry Commission, people frequently look to the FC for leadership. The FC carries out management and monitoring, yet these practices are highly contested. For local wildlife enthusiasts, wild boar monitoring is seen as unscientific and wildly inaccurate, whilst many members of the public cling to the census figures as gospel. Similarly, the boar’s culling is seen by some residents as either not vigorous enough, or by others as unethical and unnecessary. The Forestry Commission has to consider its actions amidst these polarised positions.
Responsibilities – everyone’s and no one’s
Relevant legislation is based on spatialised policies and the status of wild animals as res nullius – belonging to no-one. As the Defra Action Plan states “primary responsibility for feral wild boar lies with local communities and individual landowners”.[xxv] Thus, for the FC, legislation means the impacts of wild boar when outside of its managed land are not its concern, rather “it is down to individual land owners to maintain their boundaries to stop the boar entering if they wish to do so”.[xxvi] By law, this is correct, but there is public frustration that the Forestry Commission and other public bodies won’t take responsibility and overcome such absolute bordering of duty. These sentiments are highlighted by a councillor who recently stated, “It is high time the council, the cabinet, the forestry and indeed Defra were brought to book”.[xxvii] Ultimately, distrust and poor engagement in and between communities and authorities has lead to miscommunication, conflicting knowledges of boar, and a narrowing scope through which solutions can be found.
Ways forward for boar management in the Dean
The Forestry Commission Management Strategy 2011-2016 has just ended, potentially leaving scope for a new approach influenced by recent experiences. Additionally, the Defra action plan was written in 2008 and scoped in 2005-6. During these 10 years, the situation has changed markedly. In updating this strategy, key questions include whether or not to change its regionalised and laissez faire governance, and reconsidering the ecological research, methods and support structures for wildlife management involving the boar
There is a need to increase both expert and public knowledge of boar. Whilst debates swirl around, it seems the actual animals at the centre are continually misunderstood and misrepresented. They are not seen as individuals, with differing behavioural traits, but merely as a population. Currently, management is based purely on the census, as well as arbitrary population targets. Little consideration is given to the movement ecology that might bring humans and boar together. Researching such issues is time-consuming and costly, but perhaps could be achieved through improved collaboration between people who feel they know boar, whether professional or not. This might include the Forestry Commission, local trackers and stalkers, photographers, ecologists, walkers and dog walkers, and anybody who has experience of wild boar, particularly in the Forest of Dean. In addition, there may be lessons from the use of community ‘lookers’ who monitor the wandering of wild stock used in conservation grazing projects.
Some central issues in this and other reintroduction debates relate to power, control and the nature of place. Who is deciding what animals go where? Who is controlling these animals, based on what evidence and philosophies? And how do people relate to the environment where they live? Land should be seen as a weaving of people and animals, histories and memories. It is full of meanings and attachments. Wild boar appear to have destabilised some of the shared understandings of the Forest. Their presence has created exciting new narratives and new outlooks for some people, but for others a world of concern and frustration. It is not about right or wrong, but it is about mediating solutions. For those who get frustrated by opposition to reintroductions and want to just carry them out, this tale shows the need for caution, particularly when dealing with large mammals.
Engagement, empowerment and mutual understanding
The case of the Dean wild boar shows that without greater transparency in decisions, broader partnership work, and effective community engagement, many people feel disenfranchised. Possible solutions such as changing hunting and culling practice, education programmes, community contact points, and boar sterilisation, have been put forward. However, such calls for action seemingly fall on deaf ears, further entrenching people’s views and divisions.
Understanding the relationships between those who make decisions and give advice, and the values of those who accept or reject it, is vital. This relies on effective streams of communication and engagement. The wider lessons for wildlife management and rewilding include the critical need to explore different people’s views and values, and their actions, when living with
[i] POST (Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology). (2016). Rewilding and Ecosystem Services. Postnote 537. Available from http://researchbriefings.parliament.uk/ResearchBriefing/Summary/POST-PN-0537#fullreport
[iii] Jørgensen, D. (2015). Rethinking rewilding. Geoforum, 65, 482-488.
[iv] Carver, S. (2016). Rewilding… conservation and conflict. ECOS, 37, 2.
[v] Lorimer, J., Sandom, C., Jepson, P., Doughty, C., Barua, M., & Kirby, K. J. (2015). Rewilding: Science, practice, and politics. Annual Review of Environment and Resources, 40, 39-62.
[vi] Nogués-Bravo, D., Simberloff, D., Rahbek, C., & Sanders, N. J. (2016). Rewilding is the new Pandora’s box in conservation. Current Biology, 26(3), R87-R91.
[vii] Sandom, C (2016). Rewilding- implications for nature conservation. Ecos, 37, 2.
[viii] Rotherham, I. (2014). The Call of the Wild. ECOS, 35, 1.
[ix] Jepson, P. (2016). A rewilding agenda for Europe: creating a network of experimental reserves. Ecography, 39(2).
[xi] Saunders, G. (2016). The wildness delusion- A defence of shared-willed land. ECOS. 37, 2 Taylor, P. (2013). The road to Salamanca- Little heart at the 2013 World Wilderness Congress. Ecos. 34, 3/4
[xii] Rackham, O. (1986). The history of the countryside. London: JM Dent.
[xiii] Yalden, D. (1999). The History of British Mammals. Academic Press Inc.
[xiv] Booth, W.D (1995). Wild boar farming in the United Kingdom. Ibex. 3.
[xv] Wilson, C. J. (2013). The establishment and distribution of feral wild boar (Sus scrofa L.) in England. Wildlife Biology in Practice, 10, 1-6.
[xvi] Stannard, K. (2010). Feral Wild Boar: Management Plan: Forest of Dean. Forestry Commission
[xviii] Massei, G., Kindberg, J., Licoppe, A., Gačić, D., Šprem, N., Kamler, J., … & Cellina, S. (2015). Wild boar populations up, numbers of hunters down? A review of trends and implications for Europe. Pest management science, 71(4), 492-500.
[xix] Sandom, C. J., Hughes, J., & Macdonald, D. W. (2013). Rewilding the Scottish Highlands: do wild boar, Sus scrofa, use a suitable foraging strategy to be effective ecosystem engineers?. Restoration Ecology, 21(3), 336-343.
[xxi] Massei, G, Roy, S, & Bunting, R. (2011). Too many hogs? A review of methods to mitigate impact by wild boar and feral hogs. Human-Wildlife Interactions, 5(1), 79-99.
[xxii] Essig, M. (2015). Lesser beasts: A snout-to-tail history of the humble pig. Basic Books.
[xxv] Defra (2008). Feral Wild Boar in England: An action plan. Defra.
PhD researcher at Cardiff University exploring the issues of living with and governing wild boar.