Credit Andrew Zuckerman
A few years ago, I walked through an English forest with an old friend who told me there was something living in it that I had never seen before. Intrigued, I stood with him by a barbed-wire fence running across leaf litter dappled with sunlight. It was very quiet — just the sifting of a faint breeze through the trees and a robin singing from a holly bush. My friend whistled, called, then whistled again, and I felt a flicker of recognition as a dark shape flitted between trees about 60 or 70 yards away and then ran toward us. It was a wild boar. I’ve seen images of them all my life: razor-backed beasts on ancient vases, in illustrations in medieval manuscripts, slumped in front of men with rifles in old trophy photographs. And now here one was, called into the real world.
This creature was not what I expected. It had the forward-menacing shoulders of a baboon and the brute strength and black hide of a bear. But it was not really anything like a bear, and what surprised me most was that it seemed nothing like a pig (boars are the wild ancestors of most of our domestic swine). The beast trotted up to us, a miracle of muscle and bristle and heft. I turned to my friend, and he grinned.
For the first time in many centuries, free-roaming wild boars are living and thriving in British woods, descendants of animals bred for meat that escaped or were purposely released from captivity. Adaptable and resilient, wild boars are increasing across Continental Europe and in places far from their natural range, which spans Eurasia from Britain to Japan. From the first introduction of boars to New Hampshire in the 1890s, boarlike wild pigs have now been reported in at least 45 states in the United States. In Britain, their strongholds are Sussex, Kent and the Forest of Dean in Gloucestershire, an ancient hunting preserve that doubled as an alien planet in the latest ‘‘Star Wars’’ movie. Sixty farm-reared animals were secretly and illegally dumped there in 2004; in 2015, nighttime thermal-imaging surveys suggest that the population has grown to more than a thousand.
When I lived near the forest some years ago, I went looking for them. My motives were more than just natural-historical curiosity: Their presence made the woods feel to me like the near-mythical ‘‘wildwood’’ of ancient times. I never saw them, only signs that they were there: deep ruts and broken ground on woodland paths and grassy roadsides where they had rooted for food. Boars change woodland ecology. Their wallowing holes become ponds where dragonflies breed, their rough coats spread seeds and burrs and their rooting opens up vegetation on the forest floor and affects the diversity of woodland plant species.
Knowing that boars shared this environment with me charged the English countryside with a new and unusual possibility: danger. Boars, particularly farrowing sows protecting their young, can be aggressive, charging and attacking intruders. Since the boars’ return to the Forest of Dean, there have been reports of walkers being chased, dogs gored, horses becoming nervous on familiar paths. As I walked, I found myself paying a different quality of attention to my surroundings than I ever had before, listening apprehensively for the faintest sounds and scanning for signs of movement in the undergrowth. It made the forest not only a wilder place but in a sense far more normal. Conflict between humans and dangerous wildlife is commonplace in much of the world, from elephants trampling crops in India and Africa to alligators in Florida eating pet dogs. In Britain, where wolves, bears, lynxes and boars were long ago hunted to extinction, we have forgotten what this is like.
The boar I met up against the fence wasn’t a threat. It was a captive boar, safely behind wire, but all the same, it forced me to consider my own place in the world. Because Britain had no boars for centuries, nearly everything I know about them is made of older stories. I couldn’t help thinking of this boar as a semilegendary beast charging straight out of the medieval literature I read in my undergraduate years. This was the quarry hunted in ‘‘Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’’ and Thomas Malory’s ‘‘Le Morte d’Arthur,’’ a creature renowned for its formidable ferocity and power. In medieval romances, boars are seen as a challenge to masculinity and hunting them a test of endurance and bravery. What animals mean to us is made of everything we’ve ever heard and seen and read about them, and when we meet them, we expect them to conform to these remembered stories. But there is always a gap of surprise. Crows, for example, seem less like murderous vermin after you’ve seen a pair sliding playfully down a snowy roof. Living animals resist the meanings we give them.
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Humans have a long history of territorial anxieties about wild animals intruding on our spaces. In the 17th century, the English garden writer William Lawson advised on the tools you need to keep your property free of marauding beasts, including a ‘‘fayre and swift greyhound, a stone-bowe, gunne, and if neede require, an apple with a hooke for a Deere.’’ Concern about the danger posed by boars has led the Forestry Commission to try to reduce their population in the Forest of Dean: 361 were shot in 2014 and 2015, despite anti-hunting activists’ trying to get in the way of hunters to prevent the cull. The controversy over how to manage English wild-boar populations points to the contradictory ways that we understand animals. Wolves can be depredators of livestock or icons of pristine wilderness; spotted owls can be intrinsically important inhabitants of old-growth forests or nuisances that inhibit logging and livelihoods. These creatures become stand-ins for our own battles over social and economic resources.