Background, population and management of boar in the Forest of Dean

Updated 15th September 2021

Wild boar were once common in England, but were hunted to extinction at least 300-years ago.  In recent years small populations of feral wild boar have become established again in the wild as a result of both accidental and deliberate releases from wild boar farms.

The Forest of Dean boar population is the largest in England, the original population established in woodlands near Ross-on-Wye after escaping from a wild boar farm in the area during the 1990s.  In 2004 a group of around 60 farm reared animals were dumped in an illegal release near the village of Staunton on the western edge of the Forest, above the Wye Valley.  By 2009 the two populations had merged and a breeding population was thriving.

 

Status of Feral Wild Boar

As a farmed animal, wild boar are subject to the Dangerous Wild Animals Act, 1976.  That Act contains provisions for local authorities to licence the keeping of wild boar and specify conditions in the licence to ensure that animals are confined in a way that prevents their escape.

The Wildlife & Countryside Act, 1981 regulates the release of non-native species in the wild.  Part 1, Section 14 of that Act makes it an offence to release or allow to escape into the wild, any animal that is not ordinarily resident in, and is not a regular visitor to Great Britain in a wild state, or is otherwise included in Part 1, Schedule 9 of the Act.  For clarity, wild boar were added to Schedule 9 in 2010.

However, once wild boar have escaped, or otherwise have been released in contravention of these two Acts the question of their status arises.  In 2008, DEFRA published the document ‘Feral Wild Boar in England: An Action Plan’.  That document sets out the Government’s position on feral wild boar.  The term ‘feral’ is used to clearly differentiate between captive wild boar, and those which have gone ‘feral’, living wild in the countryside.  The 2008 Action Plan states that free roaming wild boar are feral wild animals, and do not belong to anyone.  Responsibility for controlling feral wild animals rests with individual land owners and land managers, however, the Action Plan stops short of requiring land owners to control feral wild boar, instead the document leaves decision making to individual land owners and local communities. 

 

Population Dynamics in the Forest of Dean

As feral wild boar in the Forest of Dean originate from farm bred wild boar, they differ from their truly native cousins in other parts of Europe.  The two outcomes of this domestic breeding is that the animals are less nervous of people, and they are more productive.  Average litter sizes in the Dean are between 6 and 10 piglets, nearly twice that of their continental cousins.  With few natural predators, plenty of food and shelter early survival rates for the piglets is thought to be high.  Research also shows that some of the Dean’s wild boar reach sexual maturity in their first year. 

The population of feral wild boar on land that Forestry England manage in the Forest of Dean has been tracked using an annual ‘distance sampling / thermal imaging survey’ since 2013.  This technique was developed by Forest Research for use on tracking deer populations in woods and forests.  Forest Research evolved the methodology to track the boar, and the methodology has been assessed in other European contexts as well. Over time it is proving to be a reliable indicator of whether the population is going up, staying stable or going down.

 

Management of Feral Wild Boar in the Dean

Management of feral wild boar in the Dean has long been a vexed and contentious issue.  Prior to the publication of the DEFRA Action Plan in 2008, the legal status of boar in the wild was unclear.  The Forestry Commission (now Forestry England) only commenced culling feral wild boar after the DEFRA Action Plan was published.

Until the distance sampling / thermal imaging survey commenced in 2013 the only estimate of the population quoted was an ‘agreed’ estimate derived from the observations of the Forestry Commission’s wildlife rangers.

The 2008 Action Plan set out that feral wild boar management was a matter for individual landowners and local communities.  As a public body, the Forestry Commission thus sought the views of the local community, and accordingly the Forest of Dean District Council established a Scrutiny Group to look into the matter, with the eventual recommendation that the population of feral wild boar be held at around the level that existed at the time, which was estimated at 90 animals, and that view was endorsed by HM Verderers of the Forest of Dean.

In the early days there was little agreement between those with differing views regarding the estimated population, proposed cull levels and ideal population target.  The population target was changed in 2013 to 400 animals.

The following table charts the change in various figures since 2008.

YearEstimate PopulationTarget PopulationCull Achieved
2008/09100-1509038
2009/101509062
2010/11200-25090122
2011/12300-35090150
2012/13450-500400100
2013/14535400135
2014/15819400361
2015/161018400543
2016/171562400492
2017/181204400477
2018/191635400450
2019/2011724001002
2020/21No survey undertaken due to COVID400TBC
2021/22937400Ongoing

The cull figures quoted cover all feral wild boar carcasses handled by Forestry England staff, including those directly shot and those carcasses recovered from the Forest as a result of death through road traffic accidents or other causes. 

The aim to stop the upward growth in the population of Feral Wild Boar in the Forest of Dean.  Once that short-term target has been achieved, our population management will hold the population and then start bringing numbers down towards the target figure of 400.

Carcasses derived from animals shot by the Forestry England rangers are inspected, and tested, those passed fit for human consumption are sold to game dealers

 

Who can legally control feral wild boar in the Forest of Dean?

Feral wild boar in the nations Forest (land managed by the Forestry England) may only be shot by the professional, authorised wildlife rangers employed by Forestry England.  The shooting of feral wild boar on Forestry England managed land is regulated by internal guidance, regular skills testing and safety audits so that there is absolutely no risk to members of the public accessing the Forest.

Where the land owner / land manager holds the shooting rights, holds the appropriate firearm and firearms licence, and has the competence to shoot safely – then it is perfectly legal for that private land owner / land manager to shoot boar on their land. 

The Deer Initiative best practice guides for wild boar  are recommended reading.

 

How can I protect my land from Feral Wild Boar?

A common complaint from land owners, including private homeowners, to the Forestry England is that feral wild boar are getting from the Forest onto their land.  Any land owner may choose to protect their land from feral wild boar by maintaining and strengthening their boundaries, the Deer Initiative have a best practice guide for fencing standards to stop feral wild boar. 

All property owners are responsible for the maintenance of their boundaries and that they in a boar proof condition.

 

Why do we need to control feral wild boar in the Forest of Dean?

With no natural predators, high levels of reproduction and ideal habitat for food and shelter the current population growth may continue until the population density reaches a level whereby the population starts to self-regulate through limited food resources.

The aim of the Forestry England’s management of feral wild boar is to step into the absent role of the natural predator. Stop the population growth and bring the population down towards the target level. Once the target population has been reached this will be maintained through population management control.

Ecologically, boar at low densities are good for the natural environment. The rooting and wallowing behaviours break-up static eco-systems and allow an increased range of plant species and insect fauna to grow.  However, as the density of boar rises the negative issues of boar, such as continually disturbing the same area of ground so that all is left is bare mud and eating insects and other plant material can be damaging to specific species in the long run.  There is a requirement for balance.

 

Useful links

Deer Initiative’s best practice guide ‘Wild Boar Legislation’ www.wild-boar.org.uk

University of Worcester ‘The Social Aspects of Wild Boar in the Forest of Dean’

Distance sampling / thermal image survey reportsfrom Forest Research.