Photo by Lucy Brzoska
At the end of summer, when the ground is dry and rock hard, and foraging opportunities diminish, wild boar often stray into Barcelona from the hills of Collserola. The peripheral areas of the city have grown accustomed to these visits.
Last September, however, the Guardia Urbana were summoned to deal with a boar family who had crossed the city’s busy ring road, and penetrated the central barri of Gràcia. The same family had been observed exploring Parc Güell a month earlier. The sight of policemen herding these woodland ungulates through the city streets brought home the fact that Barcelona might need a new strategy for living with its bristly wild neighbours.
At the heart of the boar conflict is the Collserola natural park’s unique situation: a green island at the centre of a densely-populated metropolitan area of three million people, with 150,000 of them living within the boundaries of the park itself, which has struggled with encroaching urbanisation. As humans invade the boars’ habitat, and vice versa, their lives are bound to overlap. Traffic accidents are one of the most serious hazards. Allotments are raided and trashed, rubbish bins are broken into, parks and golf courses ploughed up.
One estimate has the current boar population in Collserola as 900, although it’s difficult to provide an exact figure since they are essentially nocturnal animals and visibility is severely restricted in dense woodland. I asked Francesc Llimona, a biologist working in the park and author of several papers on the subject, if a saturation point had been reached—was Collserola now so full of boars that they were being forced out to make a living in the city?
“They can live in even denser populations than here,” he said. “The problem is the degree to which boars are losing their fear of humans.” This is aggravated by people who actively feed them, entranced by the sight of such powerful-looking mammals, whose heads can appear mounted as fierce hunting trophies, approaching peaceably for a slice of pizza or anything else that’s going. In no time at all, the boars begin to feel at home in an urban environment and become addicted to scavenging for junk food. It’s often a death sentence, as regular offenders will be captured and put down.
But the vast majority of boars prefer to keep their distance from us, and for them, Collserola is an ideal habitat. Large extensions of oak trees satiate their appetite for acorns; in a lean acorn year the boar population will dip. There are streams where they can bathe and coat themselves in mud, essential for keeping parasites at bay and spreading scents in the rutting season. Deep, bramble-filled gullies proliferate, ensuring safe hiding places from the two million visitors the park receives a year.
Boar populations are thriving not only in Spain but all across Europe. One cause is the decline in their natural predator, the wolf, though changes in land use are by far the main factor. In Collserola, the last wolf was shot at the end of the 19th century, when boars themselves were on the verge of extinction in Catalunya. But their numbers didn’t begin to rocket until agriculture and wood-exploitation dwindled in the Seventies.
Since the wolf is unlikely to be reintroduced any time soon,about 25 times a year hunting clubs from the metropolitan area are allowed to bring their dogs and rifles into Collserola to cull the boar population. A section of the park is cordoned off at a time to prevent accidents. A year ago, the Generalitat, whose minister for Agriculture and the Environment, Josep Maria Pelegrí, openly confesses his dislike of animals, proposed the boars could be shot by bow and arrow. The archers, using sophisticated high-tech equipment, would slip into the park at night to dispatch their prey.
The government probably didn’t expect the ensuing public outcry, motivated principally by fears that the boars would suffer a slow painful death. Many also found it abhorrent that hunters were being given authorisation to enjoy themselves in a natural park with what might be construed as expensive deadly toys. The idea was rapidly shelved. Instead, the more traditional sounds of horns, baying of hounds and gun shots will continue to be heard in Collserola from October to February, the established hunting season.
But it’s becoming increasingly clear that culling alone is not a solution to the conflicts. People have to be taught how to live cheek by jowl with wild animals. A system of fines has been suggested, to curb feeding and the dumping of rubbish in accessible places. Studies also stress the importance of buffer zones between woods and urban areas. Open habitats of shrub- and grassland appear to deter the boars from exploring further, with the added benefit of increasing species biodiversity.
Are boars dangerous? No one has ever reported being attacked by one in Collserola, but these large mammals deserve our respect. They come armed with tusks and are capable of tremendous acceleration over short distances. Generally, on detecting human presence, they will use this speed to move in the opposite direction. The main exception is a mother protecting her young, who might confront the perceived intruder and threaten to charge. In such a situation your best move is to slowly back off. If worried about unexpectedly stumbling across a boar, the ideal strategy is to keep up a noisy conversation while walking and, like the majority of Collserola’s visitors, you will never see so much as a single bristle.
The incursion of boar into the city is damaging for all concerned. I remember one night near Horta coming across a group of juveniles on a roundabout, ploughing the earth and scattering freshly planted shrubs. On being disturbed, they ran noisily up the steps of the nearby university campus. Removed from their natural habitat, they seemed reduced to a gang of hooligans on the rampage.
In stark contrast, one quiet autumnal afternoon, in the depths of Collserola, the silence was broken by something heavy approaching, and a large male boar galloped up the slope. While females and young travel in herds, the adult males lead a solitary life. Half-hidden behind some trees, I held my breath, and he showed no sign of having seen me. I could see his sloping back, with its short black mane, and the protruding tusks, a primeval sight, so often depicted in cave paintings. After snorting a couple of times, he slowly meandered away into the undergrowth.
Sometimes Collserola, with its hoards of mountain bikers, walkers and runners, seems about to be engulfed by the surrounding metropolis. The presence of wild boar is a saving grace, helping to protect the spirit of the place. I felt privileged to have had such an encounter, on the very doorstep of the city, only a metro-ride away.
WILD BOAR FACTS AND FIGURES
- The word ‘boar’ describes an adult male of certain pig species, including domestic pigs of which wild boar are the ancestors; in the case of the wild boar, ‘boar’ is applicable to all members of the species. So it is correct to say ‘female boar’ or ‘infant wild boar’.
- In the UK, they were hunted to extinction in the 17th century, but are now found in areas of the country once more after creatures escaped from farms where they were being bred for meat.
- Boar hair was often used to make toothbrushes until the invention of synthetic materials in the Thirties.
- They have an average weight of 50 kilogrammes, although some reach over 300 kilogrammes. On average, females are about a third smaller than males.
- Female boars are relatively sociable animals. They live in groups called sounders, consisting of breeding females and their young, and typically containing between six and 30 animals. Males, however, are solitary for much of the year, with the exception of the breeding season when they can be found in close proximity to the sounders.
- Boars are nocturnal, foraging from dusk until dawn but with resting periods during both night and day, sleeping for around 12 hours a day.
- They eat almost anything they come across—nuts, berries, flowers, roots, grasses, rubbish and insects. They will also often finish off the remains of dead animals, such as deer.
- Unlike their female counterparts, adult males develop tusks which grow continuously for use as weapons and tools. Males also have an extra hollow tusk on their top lip, which acts like a knife-sharpener, constantly sharpening their bottom tusks.
- The snout of the wild boar has a cartilaginous disk at the end, supported by a small bone called the prenasal, that allows the snout to be used as a bulldozer when foraging for food.
Lucy Brzoska runs nature tours and writes for the website www.iberianature.com