As today is a Sunday, one of the first sounds I heard this morning was the intermittent cacophony of hounds. Each weekend throughout the autumn and winter, many of the men in the commune gather to take part in that most typical sport of this area – hunting. The full season finished at the end of February, so rabbits and most game birds are now left in peace. But for the wild boar, although the season has ended, there is never real peace because of the many loopholes which allow the killing of animals which threaten crops etc.
There are lots of boar in this area. Once you know what to look for, you can see signs of them everywhere: the two-toed footprints, the droppings (often containing cherry and plum stones in season), and the holes and turned soil where they have been digging.
Despite their abundance, we’ve only actually seen a boar once, in the first year we owned this house, when one came trotting down the hill at the bottom of our garden. As soon as we told our then neighbour, her young teenage son went sprinting off in chase with his rifle.
That first Christmas, we were given a big bowl of boar meat to cook – I think there was rather a glut from successful hunting. And this is the point, I guess. People here hunt for food. I think it has a similar social significance to hunting in rural England, but no-one would mistake it for a class linked activity. And there’s none of that absurd ritual or fancy clothing. The men gather, often at the village hall near our house, and chat and smoke before setting off for the hunt. They then seem to spend hours standing with guns spaced around the perimeter of an area through which the dogs are encouraged to chase. The whole thing doesn’t look like much fun! The dogs seem to enjoy it – not surprisingly, as hunting dogs seem to lead a very poor life between hunts; they are never allowed inside the house and are often kept in small, bare runs with little stimulation.
Nearly half a million boar are killed each year in France. Amazingly, rather than decreasing in modern times, the total has increased five fold over the last 20 years. This département has one of the largest boar populations, and around 15 000 are killed annually. Despite this apparent carnage, the survival of boar in the wild appears not to be threatened, and numbers remain high.
Perhaps not surprisingly, as with other hunted animals, a significant mythology has developed around the boar. I noticed in England, where small groups of escaped boar have become established in the wild (the original boar having been hunted into extinction in the 17th century), there are occasional TV and radio stories about the risk of being attacked by a savage wild boar. The best information I can find is clear that boar really don’t present much of a risk:
Wild boar are large and potentially dangerous animals. However, people have been hunting wild boar for thousands of years thus wild boar are afraid of us. If you come across a group of wild boar in the woods they will always flee from you. Although their eyesight is poor, wild boar hear and scent very well. They will know you are in the woods long before you know they are there, and they will make themselves scarce.
The only real danger would be to step on a wild boar sleeping away the daytime hours, which will then wake up and may feel threatened. I have actually done this several times when radio-tracking wild boar in areas of tall vegetation. Fortunately the woken animal has run off every time, but it certainly gets the heart racing.
This running-away-from-people rule does not apply to wild boar that have recently escaped from captivity. Often these relatively tame animals associate people with food and may come up to you thinking you are going to feed them. After being shot at a few times, the boar get the message that life is not all a bed of warm straw and a bucket of pig nuts, and the survivors gradually become nocturnal and as secretive as free-born populations. These tame animals pose no threat to you, but may take a dislike to your dog if they perceive it to be a threat.
Dr Martin Goulding, www.britishwildboar.org
So, what should we make of this story which made the headlines of the local paper last week? It suggests that a man from the next village was saved from serious injury by a ferocious boar through the brave intervention of his faithful dog. Although the dog was clearly injured by the boar, I must say I was unconvinced! It seems that M Lassère was on all fours, searching though the vegetation for wild asparagus, when the boar suddenly charged him. I can imagine the boar being surprised and getting into conflict with the dog. Perhaps the fact that the boar ran away is the key to this drama . . . . .
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It’s not going to change my behaviour. I’d back away from a wild boar, and I’m sure it would be doing the same thing in the opposite direction, only faster. There are many sorts of harmless and potentially dangerous animals in the countryside round here, and they’re all scared of humans. For me, it’s a privilege to be able to share the space with them, and occasionally to be able to catch a glimpse of an animal neighbour.