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Where the wild things were

Reintroducing wolves, boar and other lost wildlife to Britain is about enriching human lives as well as preserving nature.

By Helen Macdonald

When I encountered a live boar for the first time – a captive male kept by a gamekeeper in a Rutland wood – this razor-tusked, red-eyed, dense-haired beast felt to me as if it had stepped straight out of an ancient myth or a medieval romance. Because boar were hunted to extinction here centuries ago, the only stories I knew about them were old ones. But these intuitions fell away as the boar trotted towards me, leaving something else in their place, a sentient creature entirely itself. When, after long and fruitless searching, Chantal Lyons encountered a British wild boar she, too, experienced that wrench into wordless awe. Her sow had a grey face, “as if she’d plunged it into a long-cold fire”, and when their eyes met, Lyons “forgot all the things I’d been told about her. She simply was herself.”

The epistemological and visceral shock of encountering boar is repeatedly and beautifully evoked in Lyons’ Groundbreakers. But both this and Derek Gow’s Hunt for the Shadow Wolf are concerned not only with the animals themselves, but how they fit in to our world and the stories we tell about them. Both are also pilgrimages, of a kind, Lyons and Gow questing to get closer to once-native species considered to be mysterious, dangerous and ungovernable. 

The notion of reintroducing wolves to the impoverished landscapes of the British and Irish Isles has been raised, though it seems, at present, unlikely. As Gow states, wolves are not easy to live with. But through a combination of accidental escapes and purposeful releases, wild boar have already returned, with their stronghold in the Forest of Dean in Gloucestershire. Initially tame – some could be fed by hand – these boar have become far wilder over the years as their numbers have been reduced by culling (a highly contested activity, with pro- and anti-boar groups in the forest battling to support or sabotage the cull). 

Lyons travelled to the Forest of Dean for an academic study of people’s attitudes to the boar, describing their return as the “biggest unintentional field experiment in Britain’s nascent rewilding history”. Rewilding has two meanings: George Monbiot’s Feral (2013) defines it as reintroducing lost species and stepping back from the urge to control nature so as to allow ecosystems to evolve on their own terms, but also as a means to enhance human lives by fostering a more deeply connected relationship with the natural world.

Lyons’ growing fascination with the Forest of Dean’s boar ultimately led her to move there, where she becomes a marvellous hybrid of social researcher, field naturalist and solo pilgrim in the woods, her encounters with boar provoking both personal and ecological insights. Such is her commitment to the cause that she even researches whether mites can survive passing through boar digestive systems (they can, and her studies show a commendable lack of squeamishness). 

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Lyons’ quest later takes her to parts of Europe where people and boar have long co-existed, sometimes uneasily. She hunts boar with a stalker; watches as white fat is stripped from a shot sow, eats a steak from the local boar population (the meat is tougher than expected) and speculates, movingly, on the effects of boar culls on the social lives of sounders (family groups made up of adult females and their young). Groundbreakers is rich with scientific and social understanding, sharp evocations of natural places and a great deal of self-knowledge. In its focus, depth, clarity and range of enquiry, it is one of the most notable works of recent nature writing. 

Gow and Lyon are fascinated by the traces boar and wolves have left behind. For Lyons, the signs are physical; the scrape of tusks on trunks, the hollows of water-filled boar wallows. Gow’s are more antiquarian in nature. A farmer turned conservationist renowned for his work with water voles and beavers, he is often called a maverick because he operates outside the realms of academic science. In his new book he tells the story of the wolves that once lived in these isles, and according to Gow may have survived here for longer than we’ve assumed, perhaps even until the 1800s in Ireland. His purpose is to gather “what we knew of them before all that remains turns to dust”, and in wresting fact from fiction, provide an account of the wolf’s last days in Britain that might furnish data for future wolf reintroductions.

The “shadow” of his title is what humans have made of wolves, the accretions of meaning and myth that surround them. As attentive to local legends and personal anecdotes as it is to more traditional sources, and illustrated with his own idiosyncratic line drawings, Gow’s book resists the generic conventions of modern nature writing; rambunctious and vivid, at times it feels as uncontrollably wild as its subject. In it, Gow searches for the last wolves and lost wolves in local legends, visits the defensive architecture of ancient herders, pulls wolves from historical annals, maps, scientific papers, sporting magazines, ecclesiastical art, and place names “that recalled the wolves once being where I sought for any fragrance of them that remained”. 

There are accounts of his experiences working with captive wolves (some quite terrifying), bloody evocations of ancient wolf deaths, and a quest to find an iron wolf on the hinge of a door in Abbey Dore in Herefordshire, and another to identify canid remains found in a rocky chamber in Yorkshire. Turning its pages feels less like reading a monograph and more like listening to a very gifted storyteller. Gow speaks his mind: he doesn’t shy from pointing out that sheep and deer have overgrazed and “flayed” our uplands, or that the hatred of wolves is a political phenomenon, noting that Danish far-right groups call for the banishment of both burqas and wolves.

Gow’s wolves flicker between myth and reality. He finds records of wolves that were likely never wolves at all – dubious stuffed heads in Victorian photographs, a pair of wolves captured in Essex in 1862 that were probably jackals or coyotes. He explains that while most older antiquarians accepted that any large canid skull found in a remote location was a wolf, DNA analysis has shown that many were simply dogs. But the question of what a wolf or a boar might be is complicated because they have shared human landscapes for so long that they have repeatedly bred with their domesticated cousins. The black wolves of North America owe their colour to ancient hybridisation with dogs, and Lyons encounters boarlets patterned with spots, rather than stripes – genetic traits derived from pigs. She points out that wherever boar appear in the UK they are branded feral, not native: wild pigs, not wild boar.  

Boar are renowned ecosystem engineers, rooting up soil, opening up seed banks, shaping the workings of the forest. Does it matter that these boar are part pig, if their foraging and wallowing can still heal what Lyons calls “the wrecked canvas of our countryside”? While the nativity of species is an important consideration in traditional restoration ecology, many of the current exponents of rewilding view species in terms of their function, rather than their environmental history. “Is a healthy ecosystem necessarily composed of native species?” George Monbiot asks in Feral

Lyons found that many locals in the Forest of Dean were delighted by their boar, but others were deeply unhappy. Boar excavations encroached on gardens and village lawns, despoiled local beauty spots and played havoc in bluebell woods. What’s more, their propensity to spook horses and dogs and their ability to make familiar paths and places feel newly perilous made some locals highly resentful and fearful of their presence. Even if reports of boar aggression and attacks tend to be exaggerated, boar scare people. Some simply don’t go out into the forest any more. And in a ghostly echo of Brexit, their sense of grievance and disempowerment is focused upon an authority perceived as imposing conditions upon them. Forestry England, which manages the Forest of Dean, had nothing to do with the boar’s appearance, but the agency is seen as culpable in their continued existence.

In a wider sense, rewilding has been dragged into the culture wars, where it’s portrayed less as a means of healing ecological damage or as a resistance to the idea of controlling nature, and more as a means to control people. The Daily Mail sees weeds growing on Brighton’s streets as a consequence of the council’s “woke rewilding plan”; Julie Burchill has called rewilding environmentalists “new feudalists”. Rewilding and species reintroduction programmes worldwide have been flashpoints for wider grievances. “Ministers urged not to play culture wars over species reintroductions in England” ran one Guardian headline this winter, and in America Republican politicians attack wolf reintroductions as the work of radical environmentalists acting against the interests of rural residents.

Lyons muses that over the past century, our ability to understand the ways of wild things has diminished in concert with biodiversity loss. She agrees with Monbiot that the UK has a national zoophobia, a peculiar fear of nature, and that we should work against it. We suffer ecological boredom: we need lives that are richer in adventure and surprise. The question at the heart of both of these books is this: what might it take for us to choose willingly to live among creatures that have such complex and consequential presence?

Wild boar, Lyon suggests, represent a step “away from our failing status quo and towards more life. By sharing our spaces and filling our senses, they invite us to re-root ourselves alongside them.” Since meeting that Rutland boar, I’ve walked in European forests that have both wolves and boar. I’ve stepped over muddy wolfprints and navigated the deep scars of boar foraging patches. And though I saw no boar or wolves, their presence was palpable, heightening my engagement with my surroundings, making me strain to listen harder, see better. These woods felt different to those at home: far richer, darker and wilder with these creatures in them. I assumed that what spurred this altered relationship with the world was fear – not necessarily of death or injury, but the kind of fear that is a hair’s breadth from excitement. Woods with boar are places where you might feel “the joy”, Lyons writes, “of not being in control, of finding yourself somewhere new where human laws don’t hold sway. Of not knowing what will happen, and instead of rejecting this, revelling in it.”

Groundbreakers: The Return of Britain’s Wild Boar
Chantal Lyons
Bloomsbury 288pp, £20

Hunt for the Shadow Wolf: The Lost History of Wolves in Britain and the Myths and Stories That Surround Them
Derek Gow
Chelsea Green Publishing, 256pp, £20

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[See also: Winter Reflection: Fellowship of the flock]

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This article appears in the 06 Mar 2024 issue of the New Statesman, Bust Britain