Interesting to see the start of a war of words being launched against wild boar in Scotland over the past few weeks. Dumfries and Galloway is home to a growing population of boar, and other colonies appear to have sprung up further North in Lochaber over the past few years. Rumblings and rumours overheard at the Scottish Game Fair suggest that after ten years of inactivity, SNH are now preparing to grasp the issue, reviewing options which include an attempt at wholesale eradication.
As part of this process, SNH publicity around the issue has begun to refer to wild boar as feral pigs. This may look like a synonym, but it represents a fascinating attempt to undermine the legitimacy of these animals. A key argument used against the boar is that they are genetically impure, having been crossed at some stage in their history with domestic (or “Iron Age”) pigs. This feels rather like an attempt to move the argument away from one of “re-wilding” into the realm of simple pest control.
“Feral” is a funny word in its ability to convey a sense of value. Feral dogs are dirty things, and in cats the word is easily interchangeable with “stray”. In Galloway, we have a strong population of wild-living goats, many of which can trace their heritage back for seven Centuries or more when they escaped from medieval farmsteads. This distant taint of human interference has left them with the “feral” epithet, and we’ve been slow to forget it because these goats have been something of an annoyance over the years, raiding crops, killing trees and interfering with sheep. After killing hundreds of them and wiping out entire and distinctive populations while planting the commercial woodlands after the War, the Foresters have recently rebranded many of these goats as “wild”, partly to attract tourists and perhaps to address past intolerance. An interesting tweak.
Depending on your viewpoint, you could accurately describe Galloway’s population of red kites as “feral”, since not only do they descend from human hands, but even after fifteen years in the wild, they still require feeding. But of course you wouldn’t describe kites as feral – because they’re beautiful and we’re very lucky to have them here. And so the meaning of the word becomes clearer still.
I’ve been stalking roe on wild boar-infested ground for the past five years, and it has been interesting to monitor the impact those beasts have been having on the hill. I’ve heard them many times and have even been close enough to smell them, but I’ve never actually seen them. I have friends who have occasionally shot them, but this seems a chancy business and I don’t have the patience for it. In fact, boar are in almost every thicket between Dumfries and Dalbeattie, but this is wild ground and the animals are famously shy and reclusive. Most local people have no idea they’re here, and many will flatly deny it. The future of these animals depends on how the authorities and experts present their case – in the absence of personal experience, the general public is going to have to take their word on the best course of action. By ditching “wild boar” in favour of “feral pig”, it’s clear that objectivity is already lost and we are being steered towards a set menu of options.
More on this to come, because I think it’s quite an important little case study which touches on re-wilding, wildlife management and the human politics of conservation.