Britain prides itself on being a nation that loves animals, but our fascination with sensational stories of their potential danger suggests otherwise. According to naturalist Chantal Lyons, this fear of animals, or “national zoophobia,” is a result of our societal isolation and lack of exposure to wild nature. In September, a report commissioned by the government noted that nature in the UK is still in decline, despite efforts to protect it. Over the last fifty years, there has been a 19% decrease in the population of UK species, putting one in six at risk of extinction. The remaining wildness in the country is limited, confined, and no longer perceived as a threat.
The book “Groundbreakers” discusses the disruption of the established order caused by the introduction of a new species, the wild boar, with its large head and fast feet. The author, a naturalist and science communicator, explores the growth of unofficial wild boar populations in Britain since the 1980s, the first since they were hunted to extinction over 300 years ago. These animals are descendants of farmed boars that either escaped or were released deliberately, and they currently exist in a legal and cultural grey area without official recognition as a native wild species. There are approximately 2,600 wild boars living in the wild across south-east England to north-west Scotland, with a significant population in the ancient Forest of Dean in Gloucestershire. The author embarks on a journey to find these animals, also visiting larger and more untamed populations in France and Spain. In fact, in 2021, singer Shakira claimed that two boars stole her handbag in a Barcelona park. The book explores the impact of the wild boar’s return and its effects on the surrounding ecosystems.
In the past, it was not difficult to come across wild boar. Around 8,000 years ago, there were approximately one million of them in the dense forests that covered Britain. They were hunted by wolves, lynx, and brown bears. As time passed, they became a symbol of bravery and strength to the people living in Britain. The Sutton Hoo helmet, dating back to the Anglo-Saxon period, even features a gilded boar’s head decoration. Wild boar also became associated with feasting during midwinter celebrations like Yule and Christmas. However, their population began to decline in the early middle ages. In 1086, the Domesday Book reported that the woodlands and wood-pasture habitats that wild boar relied on only made up 15% of England’s land area. By the 13th century, the tradition of winter feasting on wild boar had disappeared. Even King Henry III served 200 of them at Christmas 1251. By the 17th century, wild boar had completely disappeared from Britain. They remained only as symbols in British culture, seen on pub signs, a papier-mache head paraded through London, and Queen Camilla’s coat of arms.
Lyons relies on a network of local nature enthusiasts, wildlife photographers, park rangers, and individuals who share her dislike for boars to aid her in tracking down evidence of these elusive creatures. Groundbreakers contains vivid descriptions of her own solitary encounters, filled with awe and curiosity, ranging from the deep grunts and snorts in the darkness to sightings of mother boars leading their striped offspring, known as “humbugs.” Supporters of boars highlight the various ways they contribute to our ecosystems, such as digging up earth to uncover nutritious acorns, tubers, bulbs, and insects which benefit wild plants, trees, birds, and other animals. Boars also play a role in the revival of shrubs in woodland areas and disrupt the domination of a single plant species, typically bracken in Britain, which often takes over depleted and poorly managed land.
The reasons in favor of “rewilding” may seem undeniable. However, Lyons’ unbiased and empathetic interviews also highlight its difficulties, such as the need for population control and hikers feeling endangered in the forest (despite sensationalized stories in the media, there have only been two reported cases of minor injuries caused by wild boar in the UK in the last 30 years). The increasing debate over how comfortable we are with this domesticated land returning to its wild state mirrors the discussions in mainland Europe about coexisting with much larger populations of wild boar and wolves. Groundbreakers is not just about wild boar, but also about 2020s Britain – uprooting careless assumptions along with pristine lawns, they “dare to challenge what we once believed with certainty: that every other creature on this island fears us.”