Wild boar are a demanding and potentially dangerous quarry. Practice and research are a prerequisite before heading out on a hunt, says Oliver Rampley
The preparation and fieldcraft involved in pursuing wild boar will be quite new to the majority of British hunters. Follow Oliver Rampley’s advice before booking your flight to head out on a hunt.
For more on sport abroad, foreign foxhounds still hunting live quarry around the world are more like our own hounds than we think. English blood is much sought by international packs, read foreign foxhounds: the English hound abroad.
HUNTING WILD BOAR
Are you contemplating a trip to mainline Europe to hunt wild boar? The preparation and fieldcraft involved in pursuing this quarry will be new to the majority of British hunters, therefore it is advisable (and responsible) to familiarise yourself with the species before booking your flights.
Variously referred to as cinghiale, sanglier or wildschwein, the nominate sub-species of native European suid (wild pig) is Sus scrofa scrofa, the Central European wild boar. Found in Spain, France, the Benelux countries, Italy, Germany, Poland, Croatia and the Czech Republic, this is the species most likely to be on a quarry list. Carpathian boar (Sus scrofa attila), found in Romania, Hungary, Ukraine and across the Balkans and Caucasus, are the second major sub-species; other noteworthy sub-species include Maremman boar, found in the eponymous region of Tuscany, and Mediterranean boar, found in Andalusia in Spain, Sardinia and Corsica. However, artificial introduction of the Central Europe species to genetically smaller boar by hunters has made separation difficult.
Boar favour deciduous and mixed woodland, often with a mix of fields, meadows, marshes or moorland nearby. In the Carpathians, wild boar can occupy alpine zones in excess of 2,500 metres. Generally, wild boar are active at night and most easily located by sight at dawn or dusk. It is not unusual to observe them awake at rest or feeding within a confined range during daylight, and diurnal activity is often dictated by the extent of human activity.
Wild boar live in hierarchical groups known as “sounders” and exhibit pronounced social behaviour. These groups comprise: frischlingen (male or female piglets up to 12 months); überlaüfer (male or female boars of 12-24 months); bache (sow over 36 months); leitbache (matriarch of a small sounder over 36 months); and keiler (mature, solitary male).
A wild boar sounder is female-dominated and comprised of one or more sows and young; it can range anywhere from a few boar to more than 30. A small sounder is normally led by a leitbache and may contain other barren sows. Large sounders may be led by a core of two or three fertile females. Once male überlaüfer mature at 18-24 months, they leave the sounder as keiler and live solitarily other than during the rut.
For selective hunting purposes, the primary differentiation is between keiler and bachen. As a guide, a mature male is generally 20% larger and 30% heavier than a female and appears to have a wider and deeper chest. Keiler have a shorter snout and visible canines (or “tusks”). During autumn and winter, an obvious differentiator is a mane (or “razorback”). In the context of a pressure hunt, keiler will often pass after a sounder or group of überlaüfer, waiting until the last moment to flush from the beating line.
On average, a Central European keiler will weigh 75kg-100kg, be 75cm-90cm at the shoulder and 140cm-160cm from snout to tail. A large Central European keiler will exceed 200kg and a large Carpathian keiler 250kg and be more than 110cm at the shoulder. At these sizes, either strain will be immune from wolf predation. Before confronting rivals during the rut – when they bite each other, often targeting the genitalia – keiler develop 2cm-4cm of subcutaneous tissue over the shoulder plate.
The animals can breed prolifically. European wild boar reproduce from late October to March with a focus on November to January. Farrowing occurs from March and peaks in April. A sow can have two or more litters annually, usually of six to eight frischlingen but it can be up to 12. A sow has eight teats so large litters do not normally all survive. Gestation averages 110 to 120 days and females reach sexual maturity within 12 months. Life expectancy in the wild is four to six years.
Wild boar have a highly developed sense of smell, acute hearing but comparatively poor eyesight. It has been scientifically conjectured that a wild boar is unable to discern a human at 15 metres. However, it is a regular occurrence during a pressure hunt to see a lightly fleeting boar catch scent at well over 150yd, root itself to the spot and “stare” in that direction before changing track. It is also noteworthy that, like deer, boar have dichromatic vision (two pigment cone cells to perceive colour in daylight), so while they can differentiate colour their vision has significantly less chromatic richness than ours. High-visibility signal orange or “blaze” safety colours (a legal requirement on many European hunts) will appear grey to boar.
Wild boar have hooves like deer although the respective tracks are not difficult to separate in the field. Boar have four toes: the middle two are large and the two dew claws are much smaller but normally visible in footprints. An adult boar footprint will be about 7cm long and 5cm wide, while deer prints are more elongated and narrower. Boar scat is similar to summer scat of deer but about 7cm thick and 10cm long. Along with prints and scat, there is often a strong and distinctive smell where a sounder has slept or wallowed. Boar wallow to remove biting insects and socialise, and the large depressions in the mud that result are unmistakable. The definitive indicators of boar activity are roughly ploughed areas, some larger than a tennis court, where a sounder has turned topsoil while rooting. A boar’s snout is so strong it can turn frozen earth.
Wild boar are omnivores. They will root for bulbs, acorns, chestnuts, beechnuts, mushrooms and berries, and raid cultivated crops such as maize, oats, turnips, potatoes and vines. They eat insects, snails, worms and trapped mice and small reptiles, as well as rabbit kittens, hatchlings of ground-dwelling birds and fawns. What is less known is that boar will kill domestic lambs, and a Belgian friend once witnessed an überlaüfer ambush and eat an unsuspecting mallard.
HOW DANGEROUS ARE WILD BOAR?
It is my view that wild boar are not generally dangerous unless you encounter them when they are in a heightened state during the breeding season. Reports of unprovoked wild boar attacks in Tuscany, for example, are rare in relation to the density of the boar population (four times the national average based on the 2015 regional government figure of 220,000), the intensity of rural activity and the boar’s mythic reputation in the media. Having spent hours observing their behaviour, I believe their disposition towards humans is not aggressive. They normally exhibit one of two characteristic responses to human activity when not being hunted: hypersensitivity (fleeing immediately and evasively upon sensing humans); or disinterest, as long as human activity is not invasive. The periods in the breeding cycle when boar should be considered dangerous are when the keiler rut or the bachen have a new litter. Keiler rut from November to January and confrontations with humans can occur on paths through woodland or in agricultural areas; a keiler may charge a human or a dog if it is in a hyper-aggressive state. Bachen will also charge if their litter is approached.
When hunted, wild boar are potentially very dangerous. If cornered, harassed by dogs or shielding a litter, any boar may charge in defence and attempt to bite. Keiler in particular have powerful canines capable of inflicting serious trauma (commonly to the thigh). The greatest risk when stalking or shooting driven boar without the safety of a stand or hide is that a boar collides with a hunter and a loaded firearm. This may be unlikely on highly systemised Teutonic hunts, where one is surrounded by firebreaks and boar have open ground or forest floor to run across (as is the set-up in many fenced hunting “reserves”), but it is not the case when hunts occur in the thicketed, confined areas where boar tend to reside. In my experience, this is how and when most incidents occur.
As stated, wild boar have relatively poor eyesight plus a top speed of 25 to 32 miles per hour. When bolting from dogs or gun report, sounders can disband their defensive closed circle randomly and it is in these moments contact may inadvertently happen.
If the intention is to join a driven hunt or pressure hunt (one in which game is gently pushed to enable more accurate and selective shooting), hunters must prepare with significant hours of practice at a range. This is for the safety of the keepers, beaters and dogs that create these scenarios, as well as helping to ensure that any shot is ethically viable. Shooting a fast-running target with a rifle requires split-second risk appraisal. Is it male or female? Where are the running dogs? Where are the beaters? Where is the back stop? Where are my peg neighbours? To ensure the quarry runs into the bullet, the rifle will be swung much like a shotgun. Envisage an adult boar measuring 150cm in length fleeing at 25 miles per hour at 80 metres through a tree line. In order to deliver a fatal shot with a .30-06 bullet travelling at 800 metres per second, the swing might need to be 50% of the body length. These are not the default skills applied to deer management in the UK and hunters should prioritise putting rounds down range at simulated moving targets before joining a driven day.
On any hunt where wild boar are potential quarry, some recommended calibres would be .30-06, 9.3×62 or 8×57 JRS. The requirement is a large bullet that can potentially incapacitate an oncoming keiler with one shot. A sensible weight is 185gr, although some friends prefer a more defensive 230gr if close encounters are probable. For stalking in confined areas, a short, 16½-inch barrel will be an advantage and this should be fitted with a telescopic sight of standard magnification that offers high light transmission in crepuscular conditions or under canopy. The scope could be substituted for a red point sight, such as an Aimpoint. A straight-pull rifle is a better choice for those not adept at rapid use of a Mauser-style bolt action. When following up injured boar, some professional hunters switch to a shotgun with slug. Tracking an injured keiler in a confined area with dogs alongside other shooters is extremely dangerous, and a slug offers less chance of ricochet and maximum impact and energy dispersal, should a charge begin.
Oliver Rampley is founder of Altana Europe and sits on the advisory board of the Pol Roger Wild Boar Trophy. Based in Florence, Altana Europe offers access to two- to five-day experiences based around fly-fishing, birdwatching or conservation management.