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The latest hunting row: how to control the wild boar?

Friday 03 March 2006

Our countryside commentator John Sheard ponders on possible government reaction should demand grow for the hunting of a dangerous old/new quarry, the wild boar

WITH concern, even panic, growing across Europe about the spread of avian flu, I spent several cold but gorgeously sunny days this week finishing the winter digging on my allotment and, just as vitally, checking the rabbit wire.

Any day now, the rabbit population will undergo its annual spring explosion and newly born kits can wriggle through a hole not much bigger than a 50p piece. Once inside the wire, they can cause absolute havoc in just a couple of days: three years ago, several of them dug into my asparagus bed and ate most of the shoots before they had even reached the surface!

However, what took my imagination most this week as I tried to push the bird flu to the back of my mind - there is nothing I can do to stop it spreading so why get the old knickers in a twist? - was a new dilemma which is facing our townie lords and masters in Westminster and Whitehall.

Killer at large
Photo Credit: Mammals Trust UK

For a new hunting row is growing in the countryside and at some time, the politicians will be forced to make another important decision on a subject about which they have so far demonstrated total ignorance: hunting as a form of land management.

For this time, the quarry can fight back. It can cause untold damage, spread disease, and - should the worst come to the worst - kill human beings. We are talking wild boar here, once the quarry of kings, but now an ever-growing menace in parts of the UK spreading from Devon to Scotland with the Midlands and northern counties thrown in.

The wild boar was wiped out in Britain some 300 years ago, along with its only natural predators wolves, bears and lynx. But it was reintroduced 20 years or so ago by breeders wishing to supply trendy restaurants. As per usual with a long list of imported species, some of them escaped.

This was the thought that came to mind as I checked my rabbit wire. Boar can dig deeper and faster than any rabbit, so they would be into my plot in minutes. They eat virtually anything and, like their domestic cousins, love nothing more than to grub up roots, so goodbye for ever asparagus, carrots, parsnips et al. In a single hour, two or three of these beasts could trash my simple allotment forever.

In some parts of the country, they are doing the same to whole fields of crops. What's more, they can become carriers of many fearsome animal diseases like foot and mouth, swine fever and TB. Even the words foot and mouth send a shiver down my spine five years after the last outbreak laid huge swathes of the Yorkshire Dales to waste.

But what would happen should a farmer come across wild boar destroying his crops? Well, the very last thing would be to raise his 12-bore. Shot gun pellets, even at close range, would have very little effect on the thick-skinned boar. The most likely result would be to enrage the tusked animal to the point of fury.

And a charging boar is one of the most dangerous animals on this planet. In medieval times, when they were hunted for sport, there was stories of them bringing down mounted hunters and killing both horse and man. And - turn away those of a nervous disposition - left undisturbed, they would eat that prey, both human or horse.

That, I admit, it not a likely event but imagine the headlines. Wild boar on the loose are an accident waiting to happen, which is why a group of scientists and conservationists this week urged the government to bring in new laws to allow boar hunting.

It would probably have to be done with dogs to track them down - but hunting with dogs is illegal. Any killing would have to be in the hands of skilled marksmen using high-powered rifles - but there are few of those about outside the deer stalkers of the Scottish Highlands, now that the Government has banned most shooting clubs.

A wild shot from such a weapon in the hands of an amateur could kill a human out walking a mile away, so setting up such a hunt would take a great deal of organisation, probably involving police cooperation. And that, in turn, would mean authorisation from the Home Office.

That august body of state, which says that first-time thieves and burglars should no longer be sent to prison, this week added that it wanted to extend such liberty to "lower" forms of violence, like punching or kicking an opponent in a drunken brawl. And how would politically correct townies react at the suggestion that furry, four-legged things should be murdered by nasty men with guns?

My guess, of course, is that the Home Office will do nothing about the wild boar menace. Until, God forbid, someone is killed and/or eaten. Then the media would force them into action under the policy known as "Shutting the stable door..." Have we been here somewhere before?

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