FROSTY’S RAMBLINGS Time to welcome old friends?
TODAY’s pub quiz question is what is the largest land mammal in Europe? Give yourself a point if you opted for European bison or European wood bison (Bison bonasus). Just half a point if you gave it one of its familiar names such as wisent or zubr.
This huge buffalo-like species can weigh up to three-quarters of a ton. It’s not the same species you see in cowboy movies.
This one is the American bison (Bison bison). These are more generally known as buffalo. In fact, buffalo and bison are two different types of animals.
The European bison was never native to Great Britain, but a very close relative of the now totally extinct forest bison worldwide (Bison schoetensacki). It once roamed the British countryside and some of us, myself included, would love to see it – or something very close to it – living in the wild here again.
Our bison was here about 6,000 years ago and bison fans like your writer believe that the surviving European bison are a suitable and close replacement for this extinct and much missed species.
There are several confirmed reintroduced breeding populations of wild boar in Britain. In England, they are established on the Kent/East Sussex border, in Dorset, in Devon and in the Forest of Dean in Gloucestershire.
Animals from the Forest of Dean migrated to Wales and settled in Monmouthshire.
The wild boar is the wild ancestor of the domestic pig. Boars have a stocky, powerful body with a double gray-brown coat of fur – the top layer of hard, bristly hair; the much softer underlay. Adult males have tusks protruding from the mouth.
Piglets are a lighter tan, with stripes on their coat for camouflage. These young boars are often known as pranksters. Their light brown and black stripes that they have on their backs make them look like old fashioned treats. The coat becomes darker and more uniform in color as humbugs grow.
Adult boars can be large animals. They can stand up to 80 cm (31 in) at the shoulder. They normally weigh between 60 and 100 kg, although males over 200 kg have been reported in some parts of the world. That’s a lot of delicious pork, ham, and bacon, making poaching common.
During the breeding season, male boars develop a thick layer of body tissue to protect themselves from injury during fights.
Boars are omnivores and eat a wide range of plant and animal matter. The majority of their diet consists of roots, bulbs, seeds, nuts and green plants. However, as opportunistic feeders, they eat much of what they encounter on the forest floor. These can be carrion, small mammals, bird eggs, earthworms and other invertebrates.
Most boars live in groups called sounders, made up of adult females and their young. Adult males are solitary and seek out females only during the mating season, which takes place in winter. Rival males will fight using their tusks to determine access to females.
A litter of up to 10 piglets is born in the spring. The males will stay with the sounder until the piglets are about a year old. The females will stay with the group or move to a new territory.
The current population of British wild boar comes from captive animals that have escaped or been released illegally. An estimated 2,600 animals now live in the wild in multiple breeding populations. Wild boars are common in continental Europe, with an estimated population of several million.
Normally these wild pigs shy away from people, but can be aggressive if they feel threatened, especially females with cubs. Dogs must be kept on a leash in the woods where the presence of wild boars is known.
The status of wild boar in Britain is complicated. A native species, it was originally hunted to extinction sometime during the Middle Ages. In the 1990s, wild boar sightings became relatively common.
The presence of the boar divides opinion. While some, like me, welcome the return of a once-extinct native species, others worry about agricultural damage and collisions with traffic.
It has been suggested that wild boar can have both a positive and negative impact on forest biodiversity, but the exact impact is currently unclear.
They have no natural predators in Britain, which means culling is carried out in some areas in an effort to control population growth.
I have already written about the reintroduction of the beaver. Where it has been reintroduced it has proven its value in adding biodiversity and preventing flooding in our small rivers and large streams.
In this year’s Chelsea Flower Show, the winning garden was based around a beaver dam as part of a rewilding project.
My final suggestion for the reintroduction of another long-extinct native species is the wolf. It may be the most controversial of all the reintroductions, but I think there are good arguments for bringing it back.
The wolf is a keystone species, the wolf, like the lynx, modifies the behavior of its prey species, in Brittany, mainly the deer. Today, our deer, without natural predators, are increasing in numbers and wreaking havoc in our native and commercially planted forests.
Wolves would control this destruction of forests which in turn would boost biodiversity and transform landscapes. The carcasses left after the wolf kills deer provide food opportunities for many creatures, adding to the abundance of scavenger wildlife.
Wolves need a home range of dozens of miles, with enough habitat and food to maintain a healthy pack. Studies have shown that wolves prefer to hunt wild prey.
They sometimes prey on livestock, often when traveling alone if the pack has been disturbed or if it is a young wolf looking for a mate to establish its own pack.
In mainland Europe, where wolves are present, the use of guard dogs and other protection can be effective. It might also be necessary to invent fair compensation systems for breeders.
Wolves were the last of Britain’s top predators to be hunted to extinction. They are believed to have died out in the 18th century, after centuries of persecution.
Wolves were hunted and persecuted across Europe and became extinct in most of Western Europe, clinging to places like Italy, Poland and Bulgaria.
Since the wolf hunting ban in Poland in the 1990s, the wolf population has recovered and spread westward. Wolves successfully established themselves in Germany and reached the Netherlands, Denmark and France.
Although there is sufficient habitat and wild prey for the establishment of wolves in parts of Scotland, Wales and England, there are currently no plans to reintroduce them. Any reintroduction should be carefully considered and have public support.
Countries in Europe that have established wolf education programs have been most successful in welcoming them back. It would take changes to the way livestock are managed (with compensation programs in place) to allow this key ecosystem engineer to return.
If you have ever seen a pack of wolves hunting in the forest, like I did in Canada, you will never forget this thrilling sight.
If your pub mistress omits the word “earth” from her question, earn a bonus point (and a good argument). The largest native British mammal is of course the blue whale. Now, what can we do to bring some more great whales back to our waters?