I was lying on my side in sweet-smelling leaf-litter. I was cold and tired. Repetition without variation, through lanes walked or views watched, seemed a way to encounter the most surprising creature of the Kent–Sussex borders. I was near Tenterden in Kentish Weald, one of the places in Britain where there is a population of free-roaming wild boar.
Depending on whom you talked to, they were from farms that had their electric fences breached or blown away in the great storm of 1987; or they came from a nucleus (including one very highly-sexed male) that had escaped from a nearby abattoir and made a bucolic life in the Greenwood. These stories of origin were accompanied with praise and blame in equal measure – but always with a grudging upswing of admiration for the animals. For every critique that referred to them as invaders – who threaten dogs or root through fields – there were others who cleaved again and again to the word ‘back’. This went from ‘it’s good they’re back’ and ‘I suppose it’s only natural that they’re back’, to ‘Now they’re back the woods will be different’. For this is the one species that perhaps occupies a unique niche – both an invader, and a returnee to be welcomed. For the final native wild boar was probably shot somewhere in England in the thirteenth century. Attempts at re-introduction for hunting by both James I and Charles I failed, for the boar was primarily seen as an agricultural pest; or else as one in a whole spectrum of exotic species whose return as part of the plumage of aristocratic display was resisted covertly by small farmers and peasants – through trapping and killing them.
But beyond Britain wild boar roam free in packs through the radiation-blasted ‘Red Forest’ that surrounds Chernobyl; and they saunter in the leafy suburbs of Berlin. This is a species, the ancestor of all domestic pigs, that has a native range stretching from North Africa to Japan – from Mongol warriors with their ‘razor-backed-pigs of war’ to depictions on fragile earthenware exhumed from graves as far apart as the Black Sea and Korea. In Britain the conflation of Richard III with his symbol, the boar rampant, seems counter-intuative – at least at first – with the hunchback adopting the animal of strength and power. But Richard’s veneration of the sheer determined power of the boar has to be set against its use in insulting him; Shakespeare undermined his attempt at majesty by denigrating his symbol: an ‘abortive, rooting hog’.
But now the boars have returned, and a map showing where they had been released or escaped to seemed to be laden with ink-blotches over the forested parts of lowland Britain: the New Forest, the Forest of Dean, the wooded valleys off Exmoor. But one of the largest populations was here, in amidst the mosaic of broadleaf woodland and well-heeled commuter villages of Kent. And simply by being here, they made these woods different. Dappled sun through the canopy, the far-off rumble of the A21 – all these elements could have been there from my childhood. But now there was a finely grained fear in my head as I walked into the stands of oak and hazel: a fear of an animal that stands three-foot at the shoulder and is broad and determined; an animal with bladed tusks whose lumbering gait can turn, in a flash, into a head-down charge. It was a feeling akin to the one I have had while walking in the forests of Poland or Slovakia, or even the woods of West Berlin – when I have thought, however implausibly, about wolves and bears. The human litter scattered in the leaf-litter seemed to mock exactly this, with its reminders of the mundane, of the fact that being scared on one’s home turf was new and strange.
I had spent three days watching for them on the edge of a small, damp wood, where a road curved sharply and fell away towards a stream, before I saw my first boar. A rustle in the bracken; then, almost immediately, a snout and some wiry black hair. He trotted across at a deliberate, unconcerned pace. He had small eyes set in mud-caked fur, and stood with poised intelligence; clever but concerned, blunt nose twitching. He was, as the falconer/poet Helen Macdonald once wrote, ‘nothing like a pig … They are impressive not only in their boarishness, but in their resolute refusal of modern stories about animals.’ She was both right and wrong. My boar was tremendously, heart-thumpingly other, but – for me at least – he seemed to drag and weave stories in his snuffling wake as he left.
The difficulty of focusing on a moving boar is nothing compared to trying to photograph their young. I returned to my wood, sitting tucked back against a tree to give nearly a full semi-circle of vision. The young striped ‘boarlets’ ran past, lost at play, making repeated frets and runs, incursions and circles around the narrow path that snaked down off the road to the left and towards the stream hidden in stands of hazel. The boarlets squeaked mildly and had defined lateral stripes, black-brown on a a light-russet- coat, which made them oddly toy-like. The tusks of the adult boar most definitely were not toy-like; I wanted to say they glinted, but their blurred power was that of a tool, a spade. The tusks are for entrenching, for earth-moving, for looting bulbs under the trees and tearing strips in fields. I waited at my corner of the wood and watched them pass again. They did not make as much noise as I had imagined. Their gait was dainty, their bellies high off the ground, their steps precise and decisive. Their mode was that of ownership or belonging; they fitted into some deep story that I did not previously know I knew. There was no blundering or stumbling as they moved towards the open field and the setting sun coming through the crops – but they knew how to slip into cover, and how to wait, camouflaged, until humans or cars had passed. Then, ignoring me, they trotted back into their dark ancestral woods. They were back, and they never knew this landscape as ever having been complete without them.
Image © Nancy Nehring