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  • 9 February 2007

Research gets to the root of wild boar behaviour


A wild boar and piglets, photographed by Tasha Sims in East Sussex

A wild boar and piglets, photographed by Tasha Sims in East Sussex

Hated by farmers, feared by the public, snared and shot by poachers - the boar, one of our biggest native mammals, has not had the best reception since returning to the wild in the UK after an absence of at least 300 years.

They're even blamed for vandalising areas where Britain's best-loved flower, the bluebell, grows, because they love eating the bulbs in their woodland habitat.

But it is precisely this activity that has led research student Tasha Sims, 37, to champion the much-maligned porkers and earn a doctorate in biology and environmental science. Tasha's scientific study of the wild boar population living on the Sussex and Kent borders has revealed that the digging, scraping and rooting they perform has big benefits for our fast disappearing woodland.

Tasha, from Brighton, studied the biggest population of wild boar in Britain - an estimated 200-400 beasts covering an approximate 30-mile radius of woodland, grassland, scrub and woodland rides on the East Sussex/Kent borders around Peasmarsh and Beckley - and analysed soil turned over by the animals while rooting for food on the woodland floor.

She found that while boar are demonised for damaging farm grazing land and digging up bluebells in their search for food, they have a more positive effect on woodland ecology.

Tasha says: "Rooting results in significant increases in plant species richness, plant mass and biodiversity by aiding decomposition of leaf matter and the turn-over of soil nutrients, which significantly alters the structure, dynamics and performance of the woodland community. The boar act as gardeners, keeping the forest in peak condition, helping to preserve the richness of our woodland. This activity can damage bluebell sites, but when rooting is suspended for a relatively short while, they recover quickly, particularly as the soil has been processed by the rooting activity.

"Proper fencing designed to keep boar out of farmland or bluebell areas, although expensive, would offer significant protection."

Tasha is also keen to dispel myths that have grown up around the wild boar. She says: "Wild boar are extremely shy and intelligent creatures. They are scavengers, not predators. They do not attack other animals unless cornered and threatened. They don't attack people's dogs, as has sometimes been reported. This is a sizable population, but the truth is that there isn't that much left of their preferred habitat of woodland anyway, and their spread is prevented by civilisation and motorways.

"My study shows that there is room for both man and boar to live side by side, if we are prepared to be a bit more accommodating. Since humans are responsible for the dramatic decline in woodland and the former extinction of wild boar in Britain, it seems appropriate that we embrace the re-establishment of this fascinating animal into Britain."

Tasha, who worked as a health and sports therapist as well as being a singer and songwriter in her own band before taking up biology studies at Sussex, is now considering a career that combines conservation, wildlife and the media. She says: "I love large mammal ecology and animals. I lived in the area where the boar are for 20 years. I was one of the first people who noticed their arrival, so this study has personal significance for me.

They really are amazing animals - they are totally fascinating, and you can see the great intelligence in them. It's wonderful to think that there is a big mammal like this living wild in this day and age."

The re-emergence of wild boar in East Sussex has been put down to several causes, including animals escaping from abattoirs or from commercial farms in Kent where they are reared for meat. But their return from extinction, having been hunted down the centuries, may be short-lived. Tasha says: "There is something about boar that brings out the hunter's instinct. Poaching and hunting is big business. In this country, poachers and hunters can make around £300 for a boar carcass. They will often use snares. Sometimes the animal can be snared and left in extreme pain for days before it is found and slaughtered."

Notes for editors

To find out more about the research and Tasha's story, please contact the University of Sussex Press officers Maggie Clune or Jacqui Bealing, tel: 01273 678209 or email press@sussex.ac.uk

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