I suspect it is no coincidence that the season for hunting wild boars (sangliers) begins at around about the same time as grapes begin to reach full maturity here in Provence. Certainly the hunters (chasseurs) have been out in full force for the past month or so and have been causing Oscar and I to cut short quite a few of our walks recently as the 4x4s and men in orange gilets with rifles and hip-flasks put the fear of God into us.
So, I’m beginning to try to understand a little more about these furry critters that cause so much of a stir around these parts. And not just the wild boars, but the chasseurs too, as they seem to have more rights anyone else to walk onto private property and shoot things.
The number of wild boars has exploded all over France in recent years, with current estimates at more than 2 million. Much like the problem with foxes in Britain, wild boars are now invading suburban gardens and towns (only last year a whole heard stunned shoppers in the centre of the city of Chambery).
Apart from the damage they wreak on gardens and farms (see photo of our lawn), they are also responsible for over 60 % of the approximately 40,000 car accidents involving wild animals each year.
So why have the boars become such a problem in recent years? The reasons seem to be varied and complex.
One factor is the increase in acreage dedicated to corn farming in France, encroaching on the boars natural habitats and forcing the animal to look elsewhere for food – hence it’s penchant for grapes and other crops.
In an attempt to stop the boars boars roaming into fields and vineyards, hunters have been encouraged to create feeding zones in woods and forests. But this has actually exacerbated the problem by artificially concentrating large populations, thereby creating perfect breeding grounds and leading to even larger packs of well-nourished animals. These zones have also apparently been responsible for accelerating the time it takes for them to reach adulthood (i.e. they can now breed younger).
Hunters are also restricted to which animals they can shoot, not being allowed to target older dominant females or females with baby boars.
Additional factors such as global warming, which has lead to milder springs (the time these beasties procreate) and a massive storm in 1999 which laid waste vast swathes of forests – making hunting in these prime boar areas impossible.
Interestingly, the hunters have been forced to reimburse farmers for crop damage, a bill that has much increased in recent years to a massive 50 million Euros (in 2011), but in spite of spending countless days in the woods, they don’t seem to be able to keep the population increase in check.
Sangliers cause a lot of damage to vineyards because they love eating ripe grapes. Only last week some twenty-five were caught in the act and eight shot in a vineyard close by, their bellies jam-packed with grapes. Why do the sangliers chose grapes when they are optimum ripeness? Well nature has devised a very efficient propagation method as boars (and deer) are highly sensitive to tannins, which are present in the astringent green form when the seeds are not ripe enough to propagate – a fact that I find fascinating.
So our typical townies’ view of finding boars majestic, cute furry piggies has taken a bit of a battering after seeing the damage they wreak in vineyards and gardens. I confronted a large one in our garden the other week and it calmly watched me as I approached (completely unperturbed) yelling at the top of my voice, before it seemed to shrug its powerful shoulders and trot off into the darkness.
I won’t be putting the fluorescent jacket on just yet, but I feel certainly more respect for the hunters engaged in their constant battle against the “bête noir” – and I’ll also be buying more of the sanglier saucisson from the Cotignac market from now on….