Books: Groundbreakers by Chantal Lyons

‘Groundbreakers: The return of Britain’s wild boar’ provides a balanced and timely exploration of the issues surrounding the recent return of wild boar to parts of England and Scotland, by a naturalist and science communicator with direct experience of studying and living alongside them. Lyons writes from a personal viewpoint with a light touch and engaging style. Interesting facts are interwoven with tales of her travels to meet both the boar and a diverse range of people to look at all sides of this complex story.

We start with a brief history of wild boar in Britain, from their heyday shortly after the end of the last ice-age when they coexisted with lynx, wolves and bears, to their absence since the late Middle Ages due to loss of woodland habitat and hunting pressure. Their extensive interbreeding with pigs, who were domesticated from wild boar in the Middle East and China, and our current understanding of their genetic ‘purity’ is also explained. Wild boar returned to Britain in the 1980s as farmed animals but some soon escaped, likely as a result of both accidental and intentional releases by farmers and hunters. Over the last 30 years, wild populations are known to have existed in Kent and East Sussex, Dorset, Devon, the Forest of Dean and at a few different locations in Scotland.

The author focusses on her experiences with the Forest of Dean wild boar, describing what she has learned about their social and reproductive behaviours, sensory abilities and feeding habits (including an unexpected fondness for bluebells). She details how boar-specific activities such as rooting and wallowing can positively influence the woodland ecosystem. Wild boar droppings are loved by dung beetles and are known to contain the spores of mycorrhizal fungi; one of her own research projects looked at whether soil mites might be distributed in the same way. Boar are also very efficient distributors of seed via their shaggy coats and hooves, and appear to be much more resistant to ticks than deer. We become caught up with Lyons’ desire for encounters with the elusive boar in her local woods, and her thrill on getting glimpses of sounders – groups of adult females with their stripy ‘humbug’ offspring – before they turn tail and run.

A significant part of the book explores the diverse reactions of Forest of Dean residents to living alongside wild boar, the topic of the author’s original student dissertation. Negative reactions range from annoyance at having to modify activities such as dog walking and horse riding, and concern about damage to grass verges, recreational spaces and woodland flora, to worry about car accidents and real fear of themselves or their dogs being injured by the boar. Lyons considers the role of sensationalised media coverage and our dissociation over many generations from the risks of wild animals in the public’s reaction to wild boar, as well as our willingness (or otherwise) to change our behaviour to accommodate a more diverse natural world.

The impact of human activities on these highly intelligent animals is also addressed, from tree felling operations to poaching and culling, including not just the means of death but possible emotional effects on remaining boar who have lost family members from their tight social groups. In Galloway in southwest Scotland, the author experiences the reality of hunting wild boar for their meat. The population here is at low enough density to not be raising much public interest, but is still at risk from Scotland’s natural environment agency – NatureScot considers them to be feral pigs, a non-native invasive species. The potential effect of the arrival of African swine fever, which has devastated pig farms around the world, on pressures to cull wild boar is also brought to our attention.

To learn more about how wild boar can benefit large-scale nature restoration, Lyons visits the Highlands Rewilding project at Bunloit Estate near Loch Ness, where the boar are helping to open the seedbank and reduce bracken, enabling other species to take hold. She also goes to meet the wild boar (and a not-so-wild boar called Gerard) at Derek Gow’s rewilded farm in Devon, one of the few places where they co-exist with beavers. Later in the book, we are taken to other rewilding projects, including Knepp Wildland, where the ecological role of wild boar is being fulfilled by Tamworth pigs. The decision to use pigs is mainly determined by the legislative barriers that make introducing wild boar prohibitively costly, just one of several regulatory issues that currently limit the full potential of rewilding projects.

The intelligence of wild boar enables them to adapt very quickly to different situations, for example learning to overcome their natural fear of people if an easy meal is on offer. This has developed into a particular problem in cities such as Rome and Barcelona, where wild boar roam the streets in search of fast food. The author spends time with a Barcelona vet who is involved with controlling their numbers, a job that he does not enjoy having to do. Wild boar have been observed learning to use tools and developing group-specific cultural behaviours, while trail cameras in the Czech Republic captured an adult female spending half an hour rescuing two young boar from a baited trap. Their cognitive abilities should not be underestimated.

An interview with Kevin Stannard, the Forestry England manager for the Forest of Dean, provides a useful insight into the management approach being taken by the agency. The estimated number of wild boar has been falling in recent years towards a target of about four hundred, due to an increased focus on culling. The agency also has to manage the competing interests of local campaign groups, which run the gamut from wanting more control to being vehemently against it, and tensions have run high at times. Lyons makes an interesting comparison between attitudes to the perceived destructiveness of the Dean’s wild boar and its large deer population, which does not raise the same passions.

A trip to the Loire Valley explores how the French live with and control wild boar, which regularly damage farmland and golf courses. Some of the cost of hunting licences is used to compensate farmers for crop losses. Despite their long history of coexistence, an increasing number of boar and a reduction in the popularity of hunting is likely to mean that other strategies are needed in the future. By contrast, most of the wild boar populations in England are going the other way, with either none or very few individuals now left in Dorset, Devon, Kent and East Sussex. The Forest of Dean may be able to provide some lessons in how to maintain a small but sustainable population, but their survival here is certainly not guaranteed.

By placing the wild boar issue in the wider context of UK nature depletion and the complex interconnectedness of living systems, Lyons presents the bigger picture into which our lost boar could fit, if given the opportunity. Although the reintroduction of wild boar would not fix the many environmental imbalances that we have created, they would return a missing element of wildness. She makes a strong case for us re-learning how to live with these intriguing animals, including how to manage their numbers in the continued absence of our native large predators. We need to be bold enough to allow a future of greater ecological richness and resilience, to benefit both wildlife and people. Maybe wild boar can help us to rewild ourselves.