Italian wild boars driving farmers from land

Male central European wild boar

 ROME - One swam freely in Milan's central Darsena canal. In a hysterical scene, recalling an apocryphal Wes Anderson movie, some four fire-brigade units, weathered aquanauts, and Alpine personnel scrambled desperately in a botched rescue mission. The creature waded through the murky port waters of the basin, once serving as an important commercial junction for the Lombard city.

 Whereas those very waters were once trafficked by the ships funnelling in from the Milanese Navigli to moor, restock and unload freight, present-day allows for an amusing contrast. The desolate channel is traversed by a solitary boar. A crowd gathers to observe its inscrutable trajectories. It plunges deep into an underground tunnel, vanishing mysteriously, to the public's general dismay, never to be found again.

 Admittedly, it is not an isolated case.  According to an analysis carried out by Coldiretti, the Italian farmers' trade union, the number of wild boars in Italy has risen to as many as 2.3 million.  The sweltering heat of recent weeks has driven the animals into cities foraging for food in the streets and cool relief in urban waterways. 

 The wild boar has always been coveted as prey for its succulent and nutritious meat and respected as a fierce adversary for its combative tenacity. Only since the 20th century did it cease to comprise man’s primary diet, supplanted by its domesticated descendant, the pig. From time immemorial, the boar has been subjected to heavy hunting pressure. Despite being repeatedly decimated, it has demonstrated extraordinary qualities of resilience and adaptability. So much as to expand across all types of known environments.

 Today they are everywhere. The substantial increase in population exerts considerable pressure on the security of many people. For instance, their frequent appearance on provincial roads constitutes a serious safety hazard for automobilists and motorcyclists alike, especially those travelling nocturnally. In the last year, casualties have amounted to 13, whereas 261 were seriously injured, according to Coldiretti estimates based on Aci Istat data. Accidents have practically doubled (+81 per cent) in ten years. Not to mention the particular instances of partial domestication registered in those sites where food is consistently available such as garbage disposal areas.

  It also procures a great deal of additional discomfort to the already strained livelihoods of many Italian farmers, enduring a severe drought, its negative consequences on irrigation, and a wartime supply shortage of cereal simultaneously.

 Wild boars cause twofold damage to cropland and property. These occurrences mainly involve vineyards, meadows, oat and wheat fields, characterised by a peak incidence in summer and early autumn and a minimum in spring.

 Their forage-related activities impact agricultural crop yield unfavourably. The direct consumption of cereals and oats, the extirpation of roots in search of invertebrates, and the compacting of the soil by wallowing in and trampling over cropland all create less than ideal growing conditions for farmers.

 Matteo Foi is an owner of a cattle rearing farm in Abbiategrasso in the province of Milan. His farm is mainly comprised of stable meadows (without crops) and maize. The latter, craved by wild boars, experienced a downturn in output: the lack of rain reduced crop yields by a third, some 45 per cent. "The sowing and ripening phases are particularly affected", explains Foi to daily Italian newspaper Il Fatto Quotidiano. The animals gain nourishment: "In fact, the groups are more numerous than in previous years. Often each female has two in the course of a single year". As for the fallow ground, he continues, "they overturn it . When they vacate, it looks as if it has been traversed by an off-roader."

 Farmers also incur damage of a structural nature. Daring for higher-hanging fruits, the boar habitually stands on its hind legs and leans the bulk of its weight on the metal threads supporting the vines. Matteo Mugelli, owner of a farm in San Casciano, registers many such cases, he says:

 “Granted that a boar weighs up to 80 kilos, he tears them down. Often, he brings down the posts as well.” The fences are expensive: in his case, as much as 14,000 euros. "And introducing them, together with nets, wires and barriers, is often an unnatural operation that causes additional stress to the crops."

 The problem stems from a cluster of social issues revolving around the problematic relationship between city and province, in the former's supremacy over the latter.

 Wild boars prefer to settle in forests and shrublands. The exploitation of cultivated fields close to the edges of these areas is quite common throughout. The risk is highest with a high presence of permanent crops and low human density. Human activity is known to be a powerful dissuasive, barring boars from venturing beyond their natural habitat.

 However, in recent years, an extensive migratory flow towards urban centres has caused an advanced depopulation of rural and mid-mountain areas, which has provoked the inverse effect of stimulating the expansion of the animal.

 "The problem started to occur 25 years ago, but in a much smaller way. The wild boars are gradually expanding their range, even reaching built-up areas and roadways."

 The trend was eloquently described by a prophetic Pasolini in the 60s and 70s in his acclaimed “Corsair Writings”. Here he denounced the unbridled rate of urbanisation and the progressive disappearance of rural communities. The ways of life fashioned on more authentic lines of existence, true of the countryside, were being supplanted by the modes of living peculiar to the characterless metropolis with its consumerist allure.

 At present, the entire life of many vast regions appears to be gathered within a handful of cities while the rest is being deserted. The abandonment of rural spaces prompts an unruly recolonisation by part of their prior owners, the woodland dwellers, including the wild boar.

 The problem is lodged into a positive feedback loop. Coldiretti, president Ettore Prandini says: “In recent years 800,000 hectares of fertile land have been abandoned, in many cases precisely because of the proliferation of wildlife that damages crops and the profitability of farmers; that land today, in addition to no longer being productive, is exposed to erosion and hydrogeological instability.

 More wild boars hasten the desertion of farmers, and the desertion of farmers encourages more wild boars. This circular causal mechanism sweeps over the Italian countryside. In the guise of an indifferent but relentless actor, nature reclaims its surface, devouring the life’s work of modest farmers; the state knows not how to curb the advancing forest effectively.