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Every now and then something pops out of the forest to remind us about wildness

Left Field: On wild boar and other beasts.

We were driving up the hill to the farm where we were staying when the wild boar crossed the lane in front of us. It was black night – the kind of darkness you only find in countries that aren’t this one, way out of town and inching your way home. The road, up to the village of Valletti, in Liguria, Italy, was twisty and so riddled with potholes that we leapt around in the tiny hire car as we bounced our way up the hill. The Fiat Panda, it turns out, is not made for off-roading.

Anyway, all this meant that we were going so slowly that when the boar emerged out of the trees to our right, we could stop before we hit it, which would definitely have hurt the Fiat Panda more than the boar, because it was vast, grey and lumbering, bearing tusks and entirely unperturbed by our presence. (In my memory I’ve exaggerated it, and the boar is roughly the same size as the car and could easily have nudged us off the road with its snout.)

There’s something unnervingly wonderful about these meetings with creatures in the wild – the animal encounter that John Burnside writes so beautifully about. But he’s used to such things and is a man at home in the depths of wilderness. I’m a Londoner, who knows that if I was forced to kill my own food I’d be a vegetarian within minutes. When I ran over a rabbit in Yorkshire not so long ago, I shook all the way home and was too pathetically and selfishly disturbed by the soft, squelching crunch of impact to go back and make sure the poor thing was dead. (You know that phrase about a rabbit in headlights? It’s true. I saw its eyes flash in horror as it turned towards the car and made a kamikaze dash for the wheels).

Still, the fear I feel when seeing an animal in the wild is only its own form of respect (I tell myself). With the boar, it was so obvious as to be almost embarrassing that we were the ones out of place. This was his forest, his patch, his night – we could only be there because of a man-made road and a man-made car, with headlights firing into the darkness. Not long ago, the mass of trees would have been his uncontested kingdom.

When we got back to the farm and told the owner about what we’d seen, he shrugged nonchalantly. “We hunt them,” he said. “Wild pork very good with polenta”. To him, someone who makes his living by the land, the beast was a walking meal.

Such is my ignorance, I didn’t know boar still existed in the wild until I met one. To me they were consigned to the fire-circled feasts that end Asterix books, a couple of Romans tied up in a tree looking on. But apparently rural Italy is thick with them. As is the US, where as many as six million “vicious feral pigs” are on the rampage in 47 states, as far north as New York and Pennsylvania according to that surprisingly boar-interested organ, the International Business Times.

They’re here too. Researchers think that boars became extinct in Britain in around the 13th century. Various aristocratic attempts to reintroduce them for hunting failed but they began to be farmed again in the Eighties. Then, in 1998, a government study confirmed the presence of two populations of wild boar in Britain. Now there are thought to be as many as 600 in the Forest of Dean in Gloucestershire alone.

Their return has caused upset. They’re hungry, boar, and dig up gardens and fields in the hunt for food (they’re mostly vegetarian, though occasionally are partial to insects, eggs and small mammals). “They make a hell of a mess on the verges,” one Gloucestershire council member complained. A picnic area in the Forest of Dean has had to be fenced off. For those that like their verges neat and picnic areas unfenced, the boars are a menace. A cull is planned – and such is the growing row about the poor old boar that the columnists are weighing in too. Alexander Chancellor lamented the gardens and bluebell woods wrecked by wild boar in the Spectator recently, while George Monbiot took the opposing side and wondered in the Guardian why we have such “an unusually intense fear of wild animals?”

The issue raises all the old questions of wildness. True wildness is where no human intervention makes its mark at all, where nature rules. But we’re too late for that already – Britain is a managed landscape and often it is managed to protect other species, to keep them from going extinct, as the boar did all those centuries ago. There are anxieties that the boar are damaging other ecosystems and crops. In Italy, the surge of wild boar has prompted the idea of whether wolves should be reintroduced to prey on the pigs. Wolves! I almost can’t imagine anything more exciting and yet you can hear the horror splashed across the Daily Mail already. “Wolf spotted eating old McDonald’s burgers out of a bin near innocent children’s nursery school” etc.

The problem with living in a country where nature has been tamed, such as Britain, is that we’re used to feeling in control of ourselves, of our land. When the snow comes, we panic (at least in the south); when there’s a drought, we rage, even though our snows and droughts are trivial compared to the rest of the world’s. As for wild animals – we don’t think we have any, and so when they show up, we’re horrified. This is a nation of ponies and guinea pigs, of flower shows and allotments, not free-roaming mammals chewing up our well-kept lawns.

If you, like me, instinctively love an underdog (an underboar?), then backing the boar feels right. What hope do 600 boars have in the face of a raft of government agencies, neighbourhood committees, outraged gardeners and those budding hunters who foresee a happy Saturday afternoon marching around the byways of Gloucester shooting at pigs? They’ll be curtailed and contained before we’ve had a chance to see them, in the thick of night, moving through a forest, searching for something to eat.
Ed Smith is away

Sophie Elmhirst is features editor of the New Statesman