Arrested Development

The wild boar cull should be halted, and we should stop confusing conservation with gardening.

By George Monbiot. Published on the Guardian’s wesbite, 16th September 2011

Is the United Kingdom the most zoophobic nation in Europe? Do we, in other words, have an unusually intense fear of wild animals?

We’ve certainly been less successful than other nations at protecting large mammals. Norway and Finland, for example, have lost none of their large, post-glacial land mammal species. But, until recently, our native species numbered just two: roe deer and red deer. As David Hetherington of the Cairngorms Wildcat Project pointed out at a meeting in London Zoo last year, the UK is “the largest country in Europe and almost the whole world” which no longer possesses any of its big carnivores. Other countries as densely populated and industrialised as ours have managed to hang on to theirs.

There are several reasons for this failure. Early and extensive deforestation wiped out much of the habitat large mammals require. England was colonised by a ruling class – the Normans – which was fanatical about hunting. Once an island loses its mammals, they can’t recolonise naturally. But another factor is the peculiar and fearful determination of the people who own large tracts of land to kill anything they can’t control.

The tendency was illustrated again this week by the news that grouse estates in Scotland appear to have been poisoning golden eagles, peregrines, red kites, buzzards and even a white-tailed eagle. The leniency with which these estates are treated, in terms of both investigation and prosecution, suggests that there is still one law for the rich and one for the poor. Occasionally a gamekeeper gets nabbed, but the owners of the estates, who either commission, endorse or turn a blind eye to what their staff are doing, never have their collars felt.

But one small, accidental reversal of this destructive legacy is taking place, and we should celebrate and cherish it. Wild boar, after escaping from farms or collections, are slowly spreading across the south of England, reasserting themselves in places from which they’ve been absent for hundreds of years.

I was prompted to write this article by an item I heard on the BBC’s Farming Today programme at the beginning of the week. It was an interview with Ralph Harmer, who works for the Forestry Commission, about whether or not the returning boar are damaging our woodlands. I was struck by what the item did not say. Not once did the programme mention that this is a native species. The boar was discussed as if it were an exotic invasive animal, such as the mink or the grey squirrel.

Nor did the programme explore the possibility that, far from damaging native woodland, the boar might enhance it: not just because it is itself a missing member of that ecosystem, but also because it creates habitats for other species. The absence of “damage” by wild boar could in fact be highly damaging.

In fact the very notion of damage to native ecosystems by a native species at numbers well below carrying capacity is nonsensical. What a forester and a BBC presenter call damage a biologist calls dynamic ecological processes. Farming Today’s framing of the issue illustrates another British peculiarity: the desire to halt natural succession and keep ecosystems in a state of arrested development.

Heather moorland, a degraded habitat whose recovery conservationists are determined to prevent, is a good example. So is the sheep-cropped turf of many nature reserves. So is coppiced woodland. We manage them furiously, clearing trees and shrubs or preventing trees from growing to their full height, for fear of what they might become if we let go. As a friend of mine asks sarcastically, “how did Nature cope before we came along?” Conservation of this kind has nothing to do with protecting the natural environment. It’s a manifestation of another national obsession: gardening.

Anyway, Dr Harmer said he didn’t know whether the boar were damaging or not.

“Within woodlands we can’t say whether they are good or bad, we don’t have any information.”

You what? The species has been extensively studied all over Europe, where it is widely recognised as performing a number of critical ecological functions*. You can see the results for yourself in places like the Bialowieza forest in eastern Poland, where the flora of the woodland floor is fantastically diverse. In our woods a single species – bracken, male fern, bramble, wild garlic, bluebell or dog’s mercury – often dominates. But the rooting and wallowing of Bialowieza’s large population of boar prevents a monoculture from developing. To be in that forest in May, where dozens of species jostle in an explosion of colour, is to understand how much we’re missing here.

*See for example J. Welander, 2000. Spatial and Temporal Dynamics of a Disturbance Regime: Wild boar (Sus scrofa L.) rooting and its effects on plant species diversity. PhD Thesis, Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences.

But you don’t have to travel that far. The wild boar experiment in Guisachan in Scotland found that boar are highly effective at controlling bracken (they root out the rhizomes and eat them), which otherwise crowds out other species. One result is that there’s a better growth of tree seedlings than in plots without boar. Their absence could be the determining factor which prevents regeneration of woodland in former pastures.

Their impact on crops is another matter, and in this case the word damage is appropriate, though the government reports that at current population levels it’s very slight. It says that even “if the population spreads and increases substantially” the damage is “likely to be small in comparison to agricultural damage from more common wildlife such as rabbits” (which are not a native species).

If boar numbers keep climbing, however, then – many years hence – there is the prospect of a real problem. Because we have eliminated their natural predators, they could greatly exceed the population level at which they would naturally occur, with consequences both for farming and for natural ecosystems. So some means will have to be found of limiting their numbers. But, as Camila Ruz showed at the beginning of this month, both the Forestry Commission and private landowners are culling boar without proper controls or any sense of the impact this might have on their population.

This is a direct result of government policy. The environment department has washed its hands of the issue, maintaining that:

“primary responsibility for feral wild boar management lies with local communities and individual landowners.”

Leaving it to the landowners is a cop-out. The boar belong to everyone and no one, and we should be allowed to make a collective decision about what happens to them. The tiny fraction of the nation’s people who own the big tracts of land, most of whom did nothing to earn them, have enough privileges already, and they have grossly abused them in their treatment of other wildlife. Many of them appear to have learnt their ecology from the Brothers Grimm. Why should these people be allowed to make decisions about British wildlife to which the rest of us are not party?

I believe there should be a moratorium on all culling until some robust population studies have been conducted. Then, once we’ve found out how many boar, from which age classes and at which times of year, should be culled to allow a gentle expansion but not an explosion, permits to shoot them should be sold, and the money used to compensate farmers whose crops the boar have damaged. Other hunting should be banned. This is how they do it in France.

I recognise that this is controversial: some people will strongly object to the shooting of these magnificent animals. There is an alternative means of restricting their numbers: reintroducing another missing species, the wolf. That’s the controversy sorted out then …