French hunters go on warpath to stem invasion of wild boars

Population surge leads to estimated 20,000 car accidents a year and huge crop damage

It is a national icon, immortalised on the heraldic crests of the aristocracy, the favourite dish of Asterix and Obelix, and the target of tens of thousands of hunters in the hills and forests of la France profonde for more than a thousand years. But now French boars have a problem: there are too many of them.

Experts at the French National Office of Hunting and Wildlife say the population of wild boars is for the first time above a million - despite a record 500,000 killed by hunters last year. 'It's an invasion,' said Morel Marleux, of the French Small Game Association. 'We need a war on boars.'

The population surge has led to an estimated 20,000 car accidents a year involving the animals and hundreds of millions of pounds of damage to crops and property as boars leave their traditional habitat of woods and forests to head into fields. 'At first they went just in search of worms or larvae, but now they are increasingly partial to wheat, barley, potatoes and, above all, sweetcorn,' reported Le Figaro last week. The boars are even heading further afield. The arrival of one on the Mediterranean island of Port-Cros, off Provence, made national news. Efforts are being made to catch it as it eats it way through huge quantities of rare plants.

Hunters are aware of the problem, not least because they have to provide funds to compensate the farmers. 'The bill each year is now around €22m or €23m (£16m), but will probably go up again as crop prices are rising now,' said Benoît Guibert, director of the National Federation of Hunters. According to Michel Thomas, head of the Hunters' Association of the Meuse region, the problem is the fault of the hunters themselves, as in the past 10 years they have stopped 'exterminating' boars and built up herds in their areas to ensure reliable game. 'Once we shot at everything. Now hunters carefully leave the females alone,' he said. 'We have to go back to being more ruthless. But no one wants to sacrifice their own local boar population.'

This weekend the National Hunting Fair is held in the French kings' old hunting forest of Rambouillet, an hour's drive south-west of Paris. Yesterday the woods echoed to the sound of shotguns. As ancestor of the domesticated pig, the boar has been the chief game animal in France for centuries. They can grow to 5ft long and more than 200lb and can attack if threatened, so there is an element, albeit slight, of danger to every hunt.

Hunting wild boar is a rite of passage for many rural working-class Frenchmen. But sadly, says Thomas, French boars aren't what they used to be. 'I wouldn't say they have been tamed but, with all the new efforts made by hunters to take care of boars and to keep them in the local vicinity, they are much less wild,' he said.

Dozens of stands at the fair offer hunting in Africa - for prices well beyond the budget of most hunting fans. 'That's the dream,' said Jean-Claude Drouot, a Breton grocer, as he looked at a picture of a safari client with a dead leopard. 'But I haven't got the cash. I'll have to stick with the pigs. There are lots of them, after all.'


Jason Burke in Rambouillet

The GuardianTramp

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