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Content Updated: 8th November 2015

SEASONAL UPDATE: November 2015

Autumnal beech leaves

Autumn is in full swing in the UK with Scotland and northern England seeing some very wet and windy weather at the end of last month as Atlantic depressions whipped up powerful storms. Here in the south of the UK things have been generally more settled, although the end of October saw more in the way of cloud and rain. Nonetheless, there were quite a few clear nights last month and this led to some chilly mornings which got the deer rut started. I had the pleasure of making a few trips out into the New Forest last month to watch rutting red, fallow and sika deer. As we move into November, the final month of meteorological autumn, it’s is a great time to get out and about to experience our wildlife’s preparation for the winter ahead. The long range forecasts suggest that we have more low pressure systems on their way as the month progresses, with the north and west of the country experiencing the strongest winds and heaviest rain. Hopefully, wherever you are in the country, you’ll get some suitable weather to encourage you outside to experience my favourite season.

As usual, the Wildlife Trusts are running a host of wildlife-themed events across the country this month, as are the RSPB. Surfers Against Sewage also launch their Autumn Beach Clean Series this month, while if looking at wildlife from the comfort of a centrally-heated building is more your thing, there is still time to catch the British Wildlife Photographer of the Year Exhibition Tour as it rolls around the UK. If you’re planning to get out and about on your local patch, let’s take a quick look at what you might expect to find this month.

Sika deer in New ForestMammals: The deer rut will start to die down as we move through November, with sika deer (right) tending to be the last to finish. Nonetheless, early November still offers some great opportunities to watch this natural spectacle. For the best, easy-access views of the rut I recommend visiting a deer park or estate. Richmond and Bushy Parks are good spots for both red and fallow deer in London, while Petworth Park in West Sussex offers great views of fallow. Other places worth a visit this month include Ashton Court in Bristol, Woburn Park in Bedfordshire, Bradgate Park in Leicestershire and Gosford Forest Park in County Armagh are a few good spots, but check out the list on the British Deer Society’s website for a more comprehensive list.

Fox society is very active this month as tensions start rising within the family group and many cubs will start dispersing, looking for their own territory. The fox breeding season runs from around December until February, but you might start to hear more calling from this month onwards. Badgers, by contrast, are starting to venture out less as the nights get colder. Many of our smaller mammals are also busy either stocking their larders for the winter (bank voles, wood mice and squirrels, for example) or eating as much as they can to put on weight to see them through the cold months during which they’ll hibernate (bats, dormice and hedgehogs fall into this category). With that in mind, some hedgehogs will be looking for suitable hibernation spots and are attracted to large piles of leaves and branches that make ideal hibernacula. Unfortunately, such piles of garden debris are often set alight during this month so please make an extra effort to check bonfires for hibernating hedgehogs before lighting them.  November is also a busy month for wildlife rescue centres as they are swamped with small hedgehogs, born late in the year, too small to survive hibernation. If you come across a small hedgehog, or any hedgehog out during the day, check out the Caring for Hedgehogs article on this site for advice and contact numbers. Badgers are also starting to wind down, but not in the same way as our hibernators. Indeed, badgers don’t hibernate, but they are generally much less active during the winter, preferring to spend the coldest months underground, where their cubs will be born early next year.

Many people stay away from the coastline at this time of year owing to the wild weather that tends to blow in, but some are drawn to the power of storms as they make landfall. Not only do our coasts offer some dramatic landscapes during November, but they’re also a great place for mammal spotting. Whales and dolphins are drawn into shore following fish shoals, while seal pups are born or are taking to the water for the first time during November.

Birds: Now that the mass immigration of overwintering birds is well and truly underway, many birders are heading to estuaries to observe the flocks of sanderling, knot, dunlin, and sandpipers working the mudflats just ahead of the tide. Where birds gather in number, of course, predators can also be found, and birds of prey including peregrines and harriers are drawn by these waders. In nearby fields you can usually find swans and geese feeding; somewhere in the region of 50,000 barnacle geese fly in from as far away as Russia to spend the winter in our comparatively mild climes.  Waders and geese aren’t the only birds that form impressive flocks at this time of year and Britain’s starling population is swollen by immigrants from Europe, leading to murmurations of a million birds or more, wheeling and diving as a single entity in the skies at sunset. Brighton Pier, Aberystwyth Pier, the Somerset Levels, Huddersfield station and the Forth Bridge in Edinburgh are particularly good places to see these spectacular flocks. Birds are starting to flock together, and increasingly large aggregations of thrushes and finches can be seen in our countryside and woodland too. As autumn moves into winter, the thrushes will be joined by more fieldfares and redwings, while mixed finch flocks will contain goldfinches, chaffinches and bramblings. Rooks and jackdaws are also forming large groups now, and rooks will being pairing up as we approach Christmas.

Some birds will also move south within the UK and it is during November that hen harriers usually appear back on the New Forest, many having travelled south from their breeding grounds in the uplands of northern England, north Wales and Scotland. During autumn our resident birds are joined by individuals from the continent who overwinter in Britain and Ireland. Short-eared owls also move further south during winter and are frequently seen around our coasts as autumn moves to winter. Indeed, now is quite a good time for owl-spotting; as leaves are stripped from the trees by the autumn storms, these birds can be easier to spot. Tawny owls in particular are easier to track down at this time of year because they are also re-establishing territories and pair-bonds, which entails quite a bit of calling. Going out at dusk to your local park or woodland will often allow you to locate the tawny’s daytime roost, from which it often calls before moving off to hunt. If you can relocate that site during the day, you stand a reasonable chance of a view of the owl itself. Another predatory bird that migrates to spend the winter here in the New Forest is the great grey shrike, which usually arrives in the south-east of the country during November from its breeding grounds in Scandinavia. Many of our summer visitors will have left now, but you may be lucky and get a view of a straggling osprey passing through southern England on its way to its wintering ground in South Africa.

Reptiles, amphibians and fish: There’s not much happening in the world of herps this month, particularly as we start getting frosty weather and snow. We do still have a few frogs in our garden pond at the moment – some will remain in ponds all winter, hibernating at the bottom, while most amphibians will spend the winter under logs and leaf litter until things warm up next spring. That said, our climate does appear to be changing and there were reports of frogspawn in December last year, so who knows. Most snakes and lizards will be in hibernation by now, although unusually mild sunny weather may tempt them back out to bask. Some lizards, particularly the introduced wall lizards found along the south coast, can be found out and about during the winter, but most sensibly stay undercover. If you do see any amphibians (frogs, toads or newts) or reptiles (snakes or lizards) during the winter, the Amphibian and Reptile Groups of the UK (ARG UK) want to hear from you – you can submit your records online using this form.

Deadman's Fingers fungusNot all cold-blooded animals are hunkering down for the winter, however. November represents the peak of the salmon run, as Atlantic salmon work their way up our rivers to their spawning grounds. The fish hatched out high in these freshwater rivers where they spent up to eight years before migrating to the sea in which they have spent the past four or five years. Having reached breeding age, they have been congregating in estuaries for several weeks now. Autumn rains swell the rivers and provide sufficiently high water levels for the salmon to make their way back to their birthing ground. During this journey the fish do not feed; they remain completely focused on their journey, and hurl themselves against walls of water, up waterfalls and over dykes. Those that make it to their shallow spawning grounds pair up and, after a short, jostling courtship, the female releases her eggs and the male fertilises them by releasing a cloud of sperm into the water. Both die shortly thereafter and their bodies return to the river in which they were conceived. There are various locations where you can watch the salmon run – check out this BBC blog for some recommendations.

Invertebrates: There are a few butterflies still on the wing, visiting ivy and windfall fruits, including red admirals, peacocks and commas. Ladybirds will start gathering en masse under bark, in window frames and sheds/garages to spend the winter in torpor, while most beetles will be retreating underground or under logs. Many will also overwinter in long grass, and leaving an area of your lawn overgrown can be immensely valuable to hibernating invertebrates. If you can create a log pile, even better. Some moths and beetles will overwinter as pupae and winter gardeners occasionally uncover these brown chrysalises while working through flowerbeds – if you do dig one up, just rebury it where you found it. There are also a few spiders around, but these will gradually start retiring as the weather cools, although some in houses and sheds/garages may continue to make their presence known for a few weeks yet. In our parks and woodlands most spiders will either die before the cold sets in, or overwinter in the leaf litter. Slugs and snails, particularly the giant leopard slug, may also be found out and about during November, particularly if the weather remains mild and damp.

Plants and fungi: Late autumn/early winter is a good time to look for mosses, lichens, wall ferns and spleenworts, as well as fungi, with the bright but deadly red-capped fly agaric, the other-worldly looking devil’s fingers, the delicate purple amethyst deceiver and the innocuous brown deadman’s fingers fungus (left) all around at this time.

This month’s featured species is something fairly specialist, by which I mean there are only a few parts of the UK in which it can be found in the wild. Nonetheless, this formerly native species is now making something of a comeback in the British countryside. October and November are the peak of the breeding season, so this makes November a good month to go boar spotting.

Pick of the Month for November – Wild boar (Sus scrofa)

Forest of Dean wild boarVery few of us have seen a wild boar; fewer still have seen one outside of a zoo or farm. This wild swine, the ancestor of the domestic pigs we are familiar with today, is an impressive-looking beast. Females can weigh in at up to 95 kg (210 lbs. or 15 stone), while adult males may tip the scales at 150 kg (330 lbs. or 23 stone), standing up to 90 cm (3 ft.) at the shoulder. Measuring up to 150 cm (almost 5 ft.) in length, wild boar have a large muscular head and shoulders and a back that slopes down to a rump bearing a straight tail with long tassels of hair at the end. The powerful snout is long and narrow, ending in a flexible cartilage disc and, from the age of two years, male wild boar undergo extensive growth of their upper and lower canine teeth. These canines begin to protrude from under the lip and are referred to as tusks; continual growth throughout the animal’s life means they may reach 6 cm (almost 2.5 in.) in length and give the animal a formidable appearance. The dual-layered coat consists of long dark brown guard hairs, with pale tips, covering a thick woolly underfur pale brown in colour that gives the boar an overall dark and brindled appearance. Coat colour ranges from white (leucistic) to fawn to very dark brown (almost black). These imposing swine were once common in Britain’s woodland and highly prized for their meat – their fearsome reputation made them a sought-after ‘beast of chase’. Since the turn of the 14th century, the British public had some seven centuries to get used to the boars’ absence from our woodlands. In recent years, however, wild boar have begun to re-establish themselves in our countryside, sparking debate about whether there is still a place for them in modern Britain.

A brief history of British boar
In his 1999 opus on the history of mammals in Britain, the late Derek Yalden noted that the earliest fossil evidence of boar in Britain takes the form of remains found in Norfolk that date to the Cromerian interglacial in the Lower Pleistocene (600,000-45,000 BP). We don’t know how important wild boar were to Palaeolithic hunters in Britain, but their remains turn up quite frequently in the remains of Mesolithic settlements and, along with Red deer, wild boar appear to have been a common game species. The introduction of the domestic pig to Britain during the Neolithic muddied the waters of the wild boar’s archaeological record somewhat, because remains of the two are very difficult to distinguish. Nonetheless, a very large ankle bone and canine discovered at Mount Pleasant in Dorset suggests that large wild boar were present in Neolithic Britain, but were either rare or rarely hunted. Historical accounts suggest that, at the start of the Neolithic (some 6,000 years ago), there may have been in excess of a million boar roaming the vast tracks of oak, ash, lime and hazel woodlands in the British Isles.

In his 2003 book on the wild boar in Britain, Martin Goulding describes how, by about 1200 BC, large areas of woodland had been cleared to make way for agricultural land and livestock, including domestic pigs that needed to be herded into protective enclosures every night to prevent them mating with wild boar and the boars attacking the male pigs. This conflict – in conjunction with the boars’ habit of raiding crops of barley, oats, rye and wheat and even their deep association with Celtic folklore, in which they were frequently presented as evil or malevolent – Goulding explains, meant the writing was on the wall for Britain’s boar. Indeed, the arrival of the Normans in 1066 saw the end of Harold II, Britain’s last Anglo-Saxon king, and most of Britain’s remaining Celtic culture. Goulding points out, however, that Britain’s boar were granted a stay of execution with the establishment of royal hunting preserves by William I (aka William the Conqueror). These preserves took the form of large tracts of land that were set aside for the sport of royalty; one of the best-known examples is the New Forest in Hampshire, designated as a royal forest in 1079. Contrary to the ‘forest laws’ operated by the Anglo-Saxons, which shared the forests among the people, these new royal forests were the strict hunting grounds of the monarchy and anyone caught taking game, wood, berries or anything else was considered a poacher and the punishments could be brutal -  from fines to maiming and, in extreme cases, death. The so-called ‘feudal forest laws’ that the Norman monarchy had imposed became more and more unpopular among the British people and as lands were commandeered and taxation increased, this eventually translated into financial losses for the barons and noblemen, and a revolt began that resulted in the signing of the Magna Carta at Runnymede in Surrey in 1215. The Magna Carta curbed the excessive political powers of the monarchy and the feudal forest laws were abolished, which put venison back on the menu for many British people. It is worth pointing out here that although venison is generally a term reserved for deer meat today, historically it meant the meat from any ‘beast of chase’, including wild boar.

Wild boar sowShortly after the signing of the Magna Carta, historical texts suggest that boar numbers began running low. Goulding points out that one Christmas, Henry III apparently ordered 200 boar from the Forest of Dean in Hertfordshire and another 100 from Pickering Forest in Yorkshire. Fast-forward to the early 1300s, however, and a request for boar from the Forest of Dean by Henry’s grandson Edward II could not be filled, leading some historians to suggest that wild boar were extinct by this time. Nonetheless, there are subsequent stories up to the 1500s telling of brave battles between man and boar. One story in particular tells of an Oxford University student choking a wild boar to death with one of Aristotle’s writings on a Christmas Day during the 14th century. Oliver Rackham, in his 1997 book, argues that wild boar were rare during the Middle Ages and became extinct during the 13th century. Subsequent records of them being hunted, eaten and having books shoved down their throats in Oxfordshire woodlands pertain, Rackham believes, to reintroduction attempts; the dozen or so boar Henry ordered killed for a friend in the Forest of Dean in 1260 were the last free-living wild swine in England.

In his chapter on the history of wild boar in Britain in Terry O’Connor and Naomi Sykes’ 2010 book Extinctions and Invasions, University of Sheffield archaeologist Umberto Albarella suggests:

It is likely that the wild boar disappeared from Britain as a consequence of a combination of habitat depletion (mainly woodland), over-hunting and eventually inter-breeding of the final relict populations with free ranging domestic pigs.”

Albarella notes that precisely how long Britain remained boar-free remains contentious owing to various reintroduction attempts. He also illustrates that there was some confusion among people even at the time, recounting an interesting discussion between a French and English herald that took place during the late 1600s. The French herald teases the English for not having any fierce animals in their countryside – such as the wolf, lynx, or wild boar – that require bravery to hunt. The English herald replies that, although lacking wolf and lynx, they do indeed have wild boar. So, perhaps wild boar were at large in the British countryside during 17th century. By the 18th century, however, boar (introduced or native) could no longer be found in the country and Albarella comments that the meat had disappeared from British tables by this time. It was in the late 20th century that efforts to farm boar resumed in earnest and Martin Goulding provides a comprehensive summary of this in his book, Wild Boar in Britain, from which much of the following is summarised.

Wild boar have been farmed in Britain for several decades but early attempts were on a comparatively small scale, although there were sporadic reports of animals escaping during the 1970s. Goulding explains that the first major ‘boar farm’ began in Cambridgeshire in 1981 using surplus animals from London Zoo that were descendants of stock imported from France. Throughout the 1980s farmers sought to increase the carcass weight of their herd and imported stock from Germany and Sweden. Unfortunately, the British government doesn’t differentiate between wild boar and domestic pig stock, so there is no official register of breeders or stock origin/mixing. Nonetheless, Goulding suggests that the popularity of boar farming grew from about three licensed breeders with a total of 38 animals between them in 1988 to some 40 breeders with 400 sows that produced about 1,500 animals per year for slaughter in 1994. In a report published in 2000, the Department for the Environment, Farming and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) stated that there were 4,554 wild boar farmed in Britain. Goulding colourfully describes boar as “the Houdinis of captive livestock”, pointing out that their strong narrow snout and large head supported by powerful shoulders are ideal tools for undermining and levering up stock fencing. Long legs make them speedy and they jump more akin to deer than swine. As such, at least 60 animals escaped from six different farms in six different counties between 1983 and 1994. The great storm of 1987 blew down a section of perimeter fencing at a boar farm in Tenterden, Kent and several boar were rumoured to have immediately upped sticks and left.

Various sightings of wild boar and complaints of damage caused by their foraging (rooting) were reported to authorities in Kent during the late 80s and early 90s; these were often, rather curiously, put down to badgers. In 1994, however, a hunter in Beckley, East Sussex (just across the Kent border) shot two boar on his land, and damage to a maize crop in Aldington (south-west Kent) two years later was attributed to boar and led to several being shot in adjacent woodland. Now there was little doubt that wild boar were ‘at large’ in parts of the British countryside and DEFRA (at the time called MAFF) employed Martin Goulding, fresh back from the Outer Hebrides where he had been studying the impact of rat predation on seabird colonies, to look for evidence of wild boar on the Kent/East Sussex border in 1996. A few months later Goulding had confirmed their existence in many of the wooded areas in his study site and found field signs of their presence over an area of some 68 square miles (176 sq-km). He found further signs of boar in Dorset, a population believed to have been founded by animals escaped from a farm near Bridport. In October 1998, Martin Goulding and Graham Smith reported to DEFRA confirming the presence of two free-living populations of wild boar in Britain: one on the Kent/East Sussex border and another in Dorset. Six years later, in 2004, the Kent/East Sussex population was estimated to be about 200 animals, with 30 or so in Dorset, and there was confirmation of a third population, containing “a significant number” of boar, in Hertfordshire. Since then numbers appear to have fluctuated significantly. In the Forest of Dean, for example, the Forestry Commission operate an annual cull in a bid to maintain a stable boar population of about 400 individuals. In 2012 the cull was suspended because numbers dropped low and there were concerns the species may become extinct in the forest, but the following spring 535 animals were counted and this had increased to 819 last spring in spite of a resumption of culling. A thermal imaging survey completed in spring this year recorded 1,018 individuals. There currently no recent official estimates for the number of boar in Britain, but some sources suggest there may be as many as 4,000 animals.

In terms of distribution, to date, populations have been identified in just over 40 locations across England, Wales and Scotland, including Hampshire, Gwent, Cheshire, Yorkshire, Tayside, south Devon and the Brecon Beacons. In a paper to the journal Wildlife Biology in Practice last year, however, Charles Wilson argued that there are only four sustainable populations: the oldest one in the Weald area of Kent/East Sussex, the largest in the Forest of Dean and two with an unknown number of animals in south Devon and the Brecon Beacons.

Being boar-ing
Wild boar in Forest of DeanWild boar are primarily nocturnal, commencing activity about an hour before sunset and returning to rest sites before sunrise, and there is an increasing tendency for night-time activity in areas where they are hunted. Indeed, in a recent paper to the European Journal of Wildlife Management, Nick van Doormaal at Wageningen University and colleagues report that, in the south western part of Tochigi Prefecture in central Japan, wild boar avoided humans and human settlements by becoming progressively more nocturnal as hunting pressure increased.  They were significantly more active outside of the hunting season than during it and they were more active with increasing distance from settlements. Similar studies elsewhere have shown that boar will try to reduce the distance between their resting and feeding sites in disturbed environments (i.e. those in which they are actively hunted) and, if resting sites are scarce, they may shift their home range entirely. In the UK, Goulding found that these animals spend most of their time resting in dense cover and – following a short period of grooming and/or wallowing upon waking – feed actively for between four and eight hours per night, often interspersed with short bouts of rest. Tracking studies in Europe have found boar to be active 40-65% of the time, during which they walk at an average speed of about half a mile per hour (one kmph), increasing to almost four mph (six kmph) at a trot; boar in full flight have been clocked at 25 mph (40 kmph). Wild boar are active during all weathers, although Goulding found them to be more nervous on windy days and most at ease on the darkest nights. They can swim well (reports of them crossing rivers and swimming off coastlines are relatively common), and can jump obstacles up to 120 cm (4 ft.) in height from a standing start. Their vision is generally considered to be poor, although it is shifted to the blue end of the spectrum which makes them fairly good at spotting movement in poor light conditions. Their hearing is acute, with a much higher range than we possess at 42-40,500 Hz, and so is their sense of smell. One study, published in 2003, found that the olfactory bulb is more active in humid than in dry air, which ties in well with observations that boar are more active as the relative humidity increases. Smell is important both for finding food and for spotting and assessing potential threats.

The area over which the animals range varies according to habitat type, which in turn affects the distribution of their food, and season. Males move more during the rut while searching for receptive females, while females move over much smaller areas during the fortnight or so after their piglets are born in the spring. In general terms, females tend to have smaller ranges than males, ranging up to about three and seven square miles (8 and 18 sq-km) respectively. Wild boar generally move no more than about half a mile (almost a km) per night, although nightly excursions of 10 miles (16 km) have been documented. While feeding, the animals leave some distinctive field signs that allow damage to be separated from that of other ‘rooting’ species, such as badgers. In his book, Wild Boar in Britain, Martin Goulding describes how rooting is generally characterised by a few small patches of highly disturbed (rooted) soil and small mats of overturned turf at the edge of the rooted area. The absence of scratch marks that would be left by badger claws and the presence of hoof prints should also confirm boar or pigs as the culprits. (It should be mentioned that it is impossible to separate the rooting damage made by domestic pigs from that of wild boar.) These rooted patches may overlap such that, over a couple of nights, an entire lawn may be dug up. Boar will also wallow in mud, particularly during hot weather, as their lack of sweat glands makes cooling off difficult, and this behaviour is often followed by rubbing on nearby trees to remove parasites and moulting hair – favoured trees can have sections of their bark rubbed off. Smaller trees may have notches taken out of their bark by the tusks of sexually active boars – pheromones in the boar’s saliva leave a scent to act as a territorial marker during the rut.

Wild boar have an interesting social structure, being neither particularly gregarious nor entirely solitary; they lie somewhere in between. Goulding divides individuals into one of three social group types. The first is adult females, which tend to live in small social groups, consisting of a dominant sow and a handful of other mature females along with their most recent piglets and some survivors from previous litters – called sounders – that vary from about six to thirty individuals. The second group type is the lone adult males; ordinarily solitary, and particularly so during the breeding season, they will only tolerate the presence of other males at good feeding sites outside the rut. The final group type is the young adults of mixed sex. Young males are often driven from a sounder by mature boars during the rut and these displaced animals form loose-knit bachelor groups that move around and feed together, sometimes incorporating young females. The composition of groups changes as females leave to give birth, new females arrive from elsewhere, and existing females depart, sometimes returning at a later date. Different groups of boar may share the same resting and wallowing sites, but Goulding notes that they retain their social identity (i.e. individuals don’t intermix). Groups are generally more protective of feeding sites, however, and when other animals arrive, much pushing, biting, grunting and loud squealing ensues. Evenly-matched animals, particularly males, may engage in fights that look fearsome but seldom end in any serious injury. During his observations of boar in Kent, Goulding observed that a loud bark is their alarm call; issued at perceived or actual danger it elicits an immediate response from all members of the group who retreat into cover, often creeping back a few minutes later. A double-bark is apparently more concerning to the group and they generally do not reappear that night.

Wild boar pigletPigging out
Wild boar are omnivores. Invariably the bulk of the diet – 90% according to some analyses – is made up of plant material and small invertebrates. Boar root for bulbs, tubers, shoots, young roots, broad-leaved grasses and a variety of fruits, including acorns, chestnuts and beech mast. The bulbs of bluebells are also rooted for, particularly during the spring and summer. Rooting involves turning over typically small patches of leaf litter, vegetation and top soil; patches may overlap to form a mosaic and each patch is 5-15 cm (2-6 in.) deep.) In agricultural landscapes, potatoes, grain, sugar beet and other crops may be taken. In Italy’s Maremma Natural Park, Giovanna Massei and her colleagues found that energy-rich foods such as acorns and olives were actively sought, while pine seeds were also readily eaten even when quantities were low. Acorns and olives accounted for most of the diet when they were abundant, but graminoids (grasses and sedges) and juniper berries supplemented the diet when the former were scarce, particularly during summer. In fact, graminoids were staple throughout the year and at times accounted for up to 98% of the diet. Other fruit was also taken, including blackberries, wild apples, and figs. Massei and her co-workers suggest that, although acorns are high in carbohydrates and fats that are essential for reproduction and maintenance of good physical condition, they contain little usable protein and the boar must get this by taking foods like graminoids that are richer in protein. Dietary studies from elsewhere in Europe lend support to this theory, having revealed that boar may be highly selective in their foraging - germinating seeds and saplings of oak and beech selected in late winter/early spring, with a special interest shown in the roots of these species, which are a good source of protein.

Goulding, in his 2003 book, notes that small mammals (e.g. mice and voles), nestlings, small birds, eggs and carrion are taken as the opportunity arises. Massi and her colleagues found the remains of birds, small rodents, porcupines and lizards in wild boar scat, as well as a variety of invertebrates (mainly beetle larvae, caterpillars, molluscs and worms) the latter featuring most frequently between May and July. How important carrion is in the diet of wild boar isn’t known, but it has been suggested that they may scavenge the kills made by predators and thus benefit from the presence of wolves and lynx. This may be of particular importance in northern parts of their range as snow depths in excess of 20 cm (8 in.) can prevent rooting, and bad winters in Poland can decimate local populations. There is also an interesting account of a group of boar driving a lynx away from its kill.

Lean, mean, piglet-producing machines
Female boar become sexually mature at around 18 months old and many will conceive during their second year. Male boar, by contrast, don’t reach sexual maturity until about two years old and many won’t mate until the age of five. Wild boar have a well-defined rutting period that runs during late autumn and early winter, peaking during November. It is the shortening of the days that triggers a surge in testosterone in the males, triggering them to be entirely intolerant of other males, while nutritional status also is an important determinant of whether females come into oestrus. The males will chase females, champing their mouth as they do so to generate a pheromone-laden saliva that appears to encourage the sow into estrus. As with deer, the rut is the sole focus of the males and they may not eat for the duration, resulting in a loss in body weight of some 25%. A sexually mature male will join the sounder and try to drive off any males loitering in the group. Fights between evenly-matched animals can be intense, but males lay down additional fat under the skin of their neck and shoulders (reabsorbed after the rut) to help reduce injury. Once all the receptive females in the sounder have been mated, the male will leave in search of other females.

Females give birth (a process called farrowing) during the spring, after a roughly four-month gestation. In his Wild Boar in Britain, Martin Goulding describes how a sow builds her specially-constructed nest: she’ll leave the main social group and dig a shallow scrape in the ground which she lines with twigs and grass. A mound of vegetation from the surrounding area (e.g. bracken, reeds, and twigs) is piled on top of the nest to a height of about a metre before the sow pushes her way inside to give birth to 4-6 piglets under the shelter. The nests are exceptionally well camouflaged and females are very protective mothers, so Goulding advises against searching for farrowing nests. Piglets are born with a light brown coat and yellow longitudinal stripes (some authors refer to newborn piglets as ‘humbugs’ because of this coat pattern) that is replaced by a uniform reddish-brown coat by the time the piglets are weaned at around 12-16 weeks. This ‘red phase’ coat (similar to that of a red squirrel) is replaced in the second year. The piglets will leave the nest with the sow after about two weeks, but Goulding notes that they don’t join the social group until they’re 4-5 weeks old, at which point the mother associates closely with other sows who have given birth at the same time, allowing cross-suckling. Indeed, females in the sounder synchronise farrowing such that all litters are born at the same time. The result is that the piglets of several sows may form crèches in which they play fight, with the sows taking turns keeping an eye on them. In captivity boar can produce upwards of ten piglets in a single litter, but groups of ten or more piglets in wild animals appear more likely to be mixed litters.

Generally a sow will produce a single litter in any given year, but in very good mast years the young can be weaned by April, allowing the female to come back into season to be mated again. A second litter is likely, however, to leave the sow undernourished come winter. Furthermore, the female is unlikely to be in sufficient condition to breed the following spring. Hence, wild boar numbers tend to fluctuate wildly according to food availability. Indeed, in their study on the diet of wild boar in Italy’s Maremma Natural Park, Giovanna Massei and her colleagues found that breeding success was closely linked to food availability. They observed heavier sows, a greater percentage of breeding sows and a larger average litter size in years when acorn and olive crops were good than in years when they were poor. An abundance of olives and acorns during the autumn of 1991 meant that, in spring of 1992, about 90% of sows were found to be lactating, producing an average litter size of four piglets. Acorns and olives were harder to find that autumn, however, and in the spring of 1993 only 20% of sows lactated and the average litter size halved.

Suckling wild boarThe sex ratio is broadly 1:1, although a fascinating study led by Sabrina Servanty at the Universite´ Lyon in France found marked changes in the sex ratio of wild boar associated with litter size. Servanty and her team studied 254 litters from wild boar harvested in Chateauvillain-Arc-en-Barrois forest in eastern France and found a greater proportion of males in litters of six piglets or fewer, while females predominated in larger litters. This makes sense when considered in the context of the results from Maremma National Park. When times are tough, litter sizes are small and there’s a tendency to produce males, which are more likely to disperse and not hang around using up already scarce resources. When times are good, more females are produced; females are more likely to remain and increase the group size.

Once they’ve joined the main sounder the piglets generally give the adults a wide berth or risk being flicked out of the way, the adults launching them into the air in the process. Goulding writes: “I have seen piglets tossed away several feet into the air, by the flick of a sow’s snout under their bellies, if they encroach too closely to her while she is feeding. They appear unharmed despite frequently landing on their backs and righting themselves with a flurry of leg movements.” Males with large tusks can sometimes unintentionally kill piglets, lacerating their bellies when flicking them. Piglets are also susceptible to heavy frosts early in the year and springtime snow. Assuming they make it to adulthood, wild boar can live for nearly 30 years in captivity, although six probably represents the average lifespan of wild animals.

Changing the landscape in a changing landscape
The reappearance of wild boar in the British countryside after an absence of some 700 years has prompted concerns about whether they are a welcome addition to our fauna. Many conservationists point out that boar were once native to Britain and played an important role in the ecology of our woodlands. Opponents of the boar note, however, that our countryside has changed a lot in the last seven centuries, stabilising in the absence of these animals and, as such, wild boar no longer have a place in it. Indeed, in a 1986 review of species introductions published in the journal Mammal Review, Derek Yalden wrote:

British habitats have developed and stabilized in its absence for over 300 years. Its reappearance could be highly disruptive. Unlike the time when the Boar was a widespread and common species here, many forests are now subject to intense management or recreational pressures; many have additional deer or feral mammals present. Few are large enough to withstand the impact on tree regeneration of Boar populations as well as these other animals. There is also the problem, as with some other potential reintroductions, that if the project is successful, as intended, the population might expand and trespass on neighbouring habitats where it will be unwelcome.”

The cost of rooting to agriculture has yet to be formally assessed, but the highly seasonal nature has led some to suggest that targeted supplemental feeding of the boars can help reduce the impact. Looking at 58 reports of grassland rooting damage by wild boar in Dorset between spring 1997 and autumn 2002, DEFRA wildlife biologist Charles Wilson found that three-quarters occurred between January and March and, overall, most damage happened in fields adjacent to woodland. Feeding and targeted culling during these key times are considered beneficial in reducing the impact. Concerns have also been raised about their habit of eating carrion and ingesting soil while rooting can leave them with heavy parasite burdens that could be transmitted to people or livestock.

Wild boar piglets rootingData from Sweden, where boar have been accidentally reintroduced, suggest that their rooting activity has increased species diversity in some habitats, but the picture is far from clear. Certainly the disturbance caused by rooting boar favours some species over others and their active rooting for the rhizomes of bracken during the winter might be beneficial in controlling this and other forest weeds. Conversely, a study on the impact of wild boar rooting on the soil chemistry and sapling growth in an area of heathland and forest in Veluwe in the Netherlands between January 1991 and May 1995 concluded that “…regular rooting negatively affects the deciduous regeneration potential…”. It seems the boars’ activities had no effect on soil chemistry (i.e. pH, organic matter content, nitrogen content) and did nothing to mix the soil horizons or promote germination of any of the tree species in the forest – indeed, it had a negative impact on the germination of oak and beech. Concern has also been raised recently about the decline of bluebells in British woodlands and whether boar might expedite this; some areas have lost half their blooms in the past 25 years. A team of biologists at the University of Sussex, led by Natasha Sims, investigated the impact of wild boar rooting on the ecology of bluebells in Bixley and Beckley Woods in England. They found that immediate effects were that rooting significantly reduced the percentage cover (90% down) and density (60% down) of plants, and also adversely affected the number of flowering stems. Cessation of rooting brought about by excluding the boar enabled substantial recovery within two years assisted, they conjecture, by a positive effect of rooting on germination. The biologists explain:

Recovery may have been assisted by the positive effect that rooting had on germination. The greater germination success in seeds from rooted open plots compared to un-rooted protected ones strongly suggests a positive influence of disturbance, perhaps through exposure of dormant seeds in the soil or suppressive effects on competing species. Indeed, this result may indicate that bluebells are adapted to rooting as a consequence of a long prior history of co-occurrence with boar.”

So, the boar appear to have a significant impact on bluebell cover, but the plants are able to recover rapidly if the rooting pressure is managed. The impact of long-term and persistent rooting on bluebells has yet to be investigated.

Finally, concerns have been raised over the potential for boar to attack people and pets, as well as be involved in road traffic collisions. Generally, most observers are quick to note that wild boar are secretive and seldom seen. Goulding, in his 2003 book wrote that “Contrary to their fierce reputation, wild boar will avoid human contact whenever possible”, but reports of people being charged by the animals have made the headlines. Similarly, road collisions are invariably a potential problem, particularly during the autumn when the nights draw in and the males are rutting and thus moving more. The greatest risk exists where roads transect woodland. To the best of my knowledge, no formal stats exist for how many wild boar are killed on the roads in Britain. Elsewhere in Europe it appears to be a growing problem and in Sweden the number of reported wild boar-vehicle accidents has increased rapidly, from 755 in 2003, to 4,198 in 2012. Interestingly, however, Henrik Thurfjell, at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, and colleagues studied the behaviour of wild boar around roads in southern Sweden between 2004 and 2007 and their results, suggest that wild boar appear to make behavioural adjustments that reduce the risk of close vehicle encounters – the females they tracked were significantly less likely to cross roads when traffic volumes were high.

Given the changing nature of our landscape, it is valid to ask whether boar have a place in it any longer. At the same time, are these fears legitimate or do they actually represent British people having become more ‘zoophobic’ after centuries of living without species that many see as large and dangerous in our landscape? There is little doubt that boar have established themselves in parts of Britain now and some form of management is going to be required if we are to coexist with these animals. This management can already be seen in progress, with wild boar meat appearing in the windows of many game dealers in the UK. Indeed, there is an argument to be made for British people eating more game (including wild boar and deer) as the spoils of correct management of wild populations. Wild boar have a higher percentage of red-to-white muscle fibres than domestic pigs, which gives their meat a dark red appearance and a subtle gamey flavour, while being low in cholesterol and fat.

Wild boar piglet in Forest of Dean

Whatever you’re up to this month, take care and I hope to see you back here in December. As always, I love hearing from readers; any queries or comments regarding the information on the site can be sent in using the addresses on the Contact page (Note: Some website questions are answered on the FAQ, while many animal-related questions are covered in the Q/A). Photos can be e-mailed to a dedicated e-mail address - please keep them coming and don't forget to check out my Photos Needed page. I'm also interested in hearing any reports of unusual behaviour in any of the animals featured on this site, or interactions between humans and wildlife. Thanks as always for your continued patience and support. A special thanks this month to Wendy Cooper and Kevin Robson for donating some of their superb wild boar photos, taken in the Forest of Dean, to accompany this month's feature.


WildlifeonlineOkay, for those of you that are new to the site, let's take it from the top!

What is Wildlife Online?
Essentially, WLOL is an educational website about British wildlife. The site contains profiles of various British animal species, with new articles in preparation all the time. The site also has articles looking at wildlife-related subjects, including hunting and animal emotions. This site is purely a hobby of mine; it does not generate any money or contain any advertising and, for the time being at least, I am happy for it to stay that way.

What does Wildlife Online aim to achieve?
The ultimate goal of the website is to be useful. My intention has always been to provide un-biased, accurate information that’s accessible to anyone with an Internet connection. Increasingly people are coming into contact with their local wildlife and whether such interactions are positive or negative, they generally inspire a desire to learn more about the species. Moreover, there are still a great many misconceptions surrounding our wildlife (fox behaviour springs immediately to mind) and these are brought up time and time again during discussions in the media. Each article aims to provide a reasonably comprehensive overview of the species in question by drawing on information from the media, books, TV programmes and the scientific literature. I feel that this combination of sources, along with my own observations and those of my friends/colleagues/readers provides a unique online resource of British wildlife information. My hope is that the information provided here will go some way to changing people's perceptions of the creatures with which they share their parks and gardens.

Why create a website when there are books and TV programmes about your subjects?
Books can be a fantastic resource and I can't imagine being without my library. Not all libraries are, however, equally well stocked, and not everyone has the funds to splash out on what are often very expensive wildlife books (especially those written by scientists). More importantly, much of the scientific research never makes it out of the journals into books and TV shows. Similarly, many of the early books -- which contain some of the pioneering work on the species -- are now long out of print and can be difficult or expensive to track down. Books have the 'luxury' of being able to devote their entire contents to a particular species, covering all aspects of its life history. Television, by contrast, is a much more limited and variable medium: the programme editor(s) has to create a show that is likely to hold the viewers' attention and appeal to a very wide audience. The result is that, although some reach this compromise very well, many documentaries focus heavily on the 'wow factor' (multitudinous slow motion shots of Great whites leaping out of the water in pursuit of seals, for example) and this often comes at the inevitable expense of the information about the animal. Finally, both books and TV programmes go out of date quite quickly; new research is being conducted all the time. Consequently, a website is an ideal and dynamic intermediate - it offers the opportunity to provide a decent amount of information about the subject that can be updated at the metaphorical drop-of-a-hat as any new research is published.

Why include so much information?
I honestly believe that if a job is worth doing, it's worth doing well. There are hundreds of websites with brief species profiles and if that's all WLOL offered there would be little point to it. I understand and appreciate that some people find being confronted with large volumes of text very daunting while others are of the 'too long; didn't read' mind-set and will thus be turned off by the amount of text facing them. I have tried to remedy this as far as possible via two avenues: there is a Speed Read section with a brief profile of each species featured in a main article; and each article has been 'virtually split', with the aid of hyperlinks, into sections that allow people to easily jump to the information they're looking for. Ultimately, I want to provide as much information as is feasible in order to provide the reader with the clearest appraisal of each species or topic; I hope that most readers approve of this approach.

Why haven't you included a complete bibliography?
My intention with WLOL is to provide the information in an accessible format, which means that anyone should be able to read an article and understand the information in it. Consequently, I didn't want to format it as a scientific paper because the current format allows for a much more informal approach and writing style which, I hope, will appeal to a wider audience. Most people should find enough information in the article (I typically provide the name or one or more of the authors and the journal and year) to track down the original scientific paper. When I take information from books, I always give the name of the author(s) and the full title of the book for easy reference. I am also happy to provide full details of any of the references upon request.

Are you really qualified to do this?
I'm certainly not an expert on any of the subjects presented on this site. The articles stem from my varied interests in natural history and biological sciences. In terms of qualifications, I trained as a scientist (studying natural sciences at degree and postgraduate level) and all I really do is interpret information, blend it with associated research and personal observation, and present it in what I hope is an accessible format. Unless specifically stated, I do not claim any of the information on this site to be my own research. I have built relationships with some of the many diligent researchers who have produced the data that I use, and I am happy either to recommend an expert or provide my own opinions on a subject.

As a final note, I want to make a quick reference to the quality of the material on the site. The great French philosopher and mathematician, Rene Descartes, once said: "If you would be a real seeker of truth, you first must be willing to doubt as far as possible all things." This is very sage advice, especially when it comes to believing what you read on the Internet. Most Internet sites (indeed, some books and TV shows too), including this one, have no form of peer-review (i.e. nobody with experience of the topic checks the site for accuracy); consequently pretty much anyone can have their own little corner of cyberspace and information can make it onto websites that is either misguided, or downright false! When creating material for this site I take every care to ensure that the information I present is accurate. Invariably errors will creep in; typos are almost inevitable (although each article goes through several levels of proof reading before it appears online) and research is always underway on the species featured here, so the data can go out of date almost overnight. Each page has regular (ish!) reviews, however, during which I update the information, adding details of new findings and taking out that which is now thought highly unlikely. You can see most of the books I have used in the preparation of this site on the Recommended Reading page and I have provided links to some of the most interesting sites I came across during my research – these can be found under the appropriate sub-heading on the Links page.

Anyway, I digress.... I hope you enjoy looking around the site and I hope equally that you get something worthwhile out of it. Any comments, suggestions or (constructive) criticisms are welcome via e-mail - appropriate addresses can be found on the Contact page.


DISCLAIMER: All the photographs and artwork on this site are either my own work or have been donated by readers. All images remain property of their authors and, if you wish to reproduce any of the pictures, consent must be granted by the appropriate person - requests can be directed via myself or see FAQ. For more details on the content of this site, please see the full WLOL Disclaimer.

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