How the Pig became the Land: Wild Boar as Ecological Landscape Feature Creature

A balance of woodland and grassland is facilitated by herbivores who maintain the meadows and by thorny scrub that creates protective nurseries for saplings, and the spread of thorny scrub is assisted by berry-eating birds that play a role in the dispersal of the seeds. But seeds need to get into the soil, and that can be tricky when there’s a thick mat of grass cover. Plants evolved seeds around the presence of animals that disturb the ground, creating bare and opened up patches. Wild pigs such as the wild boar played a very significant role.

Pigs with rootling habits once lived in natural ecosystems across vast swathes of the planet. There’s the red river hog and bush hog of the African forests and the warthogs of the African savanna and the wild boar that once roamed across most of the northerly regions of Eurasia. The animal was food for predators, which kept it moving and reduced its numbers, and this is part of the pattern, as too many pigs in one place creates damaging over disturbance. But assuming such balancing factors are in place, ground-disturbing rootling is a feature of the ecological landscape for all these regions – the wild pig is a keystone, a landscape creature feature, or, in terms of the totemic metaphor I explore in my Keystone Creations series – a Dreamtime being that became part of the ecological landscape.

The Knepp Tamworths and the Purple Emperor

Charlie Burrell and his and wife Isabella Tree witnessed the role of the wild pig when they rewilded the estate at Knepp, in Sussex, introducing Tamworths as a proxy for wild boar. Pioneer plants were able to seed in the disturbed ground left by their rootling, including those that created a better habitat for insects, such as wild flowers. Patches of disturbed ground allowed the spread of sallow, and since the rare purple emperor butterfly lays its eggs on sallow leaves, Knepp became the home of the largest UK colony of these impressive butterflies. Rare bees colonised some of the bare patches of ground, using it for their burrows. Ants made use of the clods of earth for their colonies, with these anthills in turn increasing biodiversity. The pigs also kept down plants that other grazers don’t eat, such as bracken and the underground roots of thistles and docks. And in Winter Charlie and Isabella noticed that wrens, dunnocks and robins trailed behind the ploughing boars eating the exposed invertebrates.

Henwen – the biodiversity-spreading Wild Pig of Wales

There’s an old Welsh myth which seems to reflect the way wild pigs can bring biodiversity. A sow named Henwen (“Old White”) was chased through Wales, and at various, particular geographical locations, she gave birth to a number of different plants and animals. So, for example, she stopped at a place in Gwent and gave birth to a bee and a grain of wheat. The place is known as Wheat Field. As we’ve just seen, the disturbance of wild ranging pigs does indeed allow seeds to be born, to take root and grow and boars create habitats for rare bees. Henwen stopped again in Llonion in Pembroke/Dyfed, and gave birth to another bee and a grain of barley. At Lleyn in Arfon she gave birth to a grain of rye, and at the Hill of Cyferth in Eryri she produced a wolf-cub and eaglet, and at Llanfair in Arfon under the Black Rock, a kitten.

This story is more than passingly reminiscent of Australian myths of how a Dreamtime being such as the Rainbow Serpent passed across the land producing various plants and animals as she went, with the story being tied to particular locations and geographical features, and the journey forming a songline of interrelated stories.

Such Dreamtime beings often either painted themselves onto the wall of a rock shelter, or became features of the landscape. There are a couple of ways in which pigs can be thought of as having become part of the landscape here in Britain. For a start, there’s the long hill ridge in Surrey that is known as the Hogs Back, because it looks like this from a distance. For my latest Keystone Creation, I chose to paint an African red river hog, simply because it looks paint-o-genic to me, with striking colours that suit my earth pigment palette well, with an orange I’ve made from mixing red and yellow ochre from the south of France, lamp black (which is made from soot), and a white paint I made from British chalk. Would’ve been quite cool if I’d collected the Chalk from the Hog’s Back in Surrey, because it is indeed a ridge formed from chalk, and the red river hog does have a white line along the ridge of its back. I may get a chance later in the year to get some chalk from the Hog’s Back, in which case I will over paint using it along the ridge of the red river hog’s back.

The Cartographic Wild Boar of England and Wales

Another way that the pig can be thought of as having become part of the British landscape can be seen by looking at a map. As you can see, Wales and the southern half of England form the image of a charging boar. The Gower Penisula is the tusk. The Vale of Glamorgan is the cheek. Pemprokeshire is the snout. Anglesea and the Llyn peninsula are the ears. Cornwall is the front trotter. East Anglia is the rump.

Finally, it’s worth mentioning that of course the wild boar has returned to Britain. There are a number of areas now where they are living wild. Without their natural predators, the numbers need to be managed to mimic the natural balance, but if this can be achieved without going too far the other way, this can be counted as a British rewilding success story.