Photo of Bluebell Woods in Sussex Photo of Bluebell Woods in Sussex

The Search for Boar Wallows

An adult sow and a motley of juveniles (some of which are probably the offspring of other sows in the sounder) enjoy a nocturnal wallow. Video Credit: Chantal Lyons

A Guest Blog by Chantal Lyons, author of Groundbreakers: The Wild Boar’s Return to Britain.

It took me five months to find.

The boar were often hard to encounter in the flesh. Many of their signs were not. The rootings they leave after ploughing up the soil with their snouts often look as if someone has been out chucking miniature grenades. They bend the mesh wire of fences upward. Tamp down tunnels through the bracken. Drop gigantic black turds with cerebrum-like folds.

Boar do not live in large herds. Instead, the females form sounders, each led by a matriarch. Young males may band together into so-called bachelor groups, while those in their prime live in solitude. Even so, boar have secret places that all of them are drawn to.

The tip of a bracken frond which looked as if it had been dipped in liquid chalk alerted me. Not chalk, though. Dried mud, whitened with age. It covered only the side of the frond tip which had been facing away from me as I approached. I would’ve missed it had a chink of sunlight not caught it and made my head turn after passing.

Image Credit: Valentin Panzirsch

I’d entered a plantation of mature Norwegian spruce trees. Their spreading branches wove a thick canopy high above, but their streamlined trunks left plenty of light and space at ground level. Bracken vied with wood spurge and nettles, but amid their slow-motion battles for territory, I saw clear paths. Ones left by the passage of many bodies; boar, deer, and no doubt the odd human. I walked on, doing my bit to keep the way open. I could’ve kept my eyes stuck to the ground, seeking out the hoofprints with a stiletto-like point on either side (from the boar’s dewclaws), or dung, or rootings where the whiteness of exposed roots would speak of their freshness. But I knew something else lay in this plantation.

I found it almost perfectly in the middle: the wallow.

It wasn’t my first. The Forest of Dean is dotted with them. They are pools of mud and water, no one the exact same colour. Their origins feel somewhat mysterious. I have seen one in the hollow beneath the vast root-plate of a fallen conifer, but many must begin as depressions in the ground – natural or perhaps carved out by the tyres of forestry vehicles – which the boar see promise in. They use their bodies to sculpt these landscape features for their purposes.

The one in the spruce plantation was my biggest by far. It had the air of a spa complex, with deeper parts fully waterlogged, and beaches of sticky mud pocked and raked with visitations from nights past. Other animals may come to drink from or bathe in wallows, or even live in them; my trail camera has captured roe, fallow and muntjac deer, foxes, badgers, buzzards, tawny owls, sparrowhawks, and frogs. The one other native British species which makes wallows is the red deer, although it’s mainly male individuals in the rut who engage in the act. Boar do not have sweat glands, and they all wallow joyously from winter to summer.

Let us assume, for a moment, that both red deer and wild boar are far more widespread across Britain than they currently are (the Forest of Dean is home to England’s sole thriving boar population, while the others are found in Scotland). How are you to tell whose wallow you’ve stumbled on, if indeed it isn’t a shared one?

If the mud is a mess of prints overwriting each other, with no clear stories to be told of who has been by, your best hope is to weave through the trees surrounding the wallow. Look out for more plants splashed with mud while you’re at it. Follow them. If the wallow is boar-authored (or co-authored), then not too far away will be a rubbing tree.

Wallowing is often a two-parter for boar; they bathe, then look to shed the mud. Either deciduous or coniferous will do (although some scientists suggest that boar utilise the sap of conifers for medicinal purposes). Rump, legs, flanks, shoulders – off comes the mud, along with parasites and the odd long black hair. The same trees are used by all boar visiting the wallow, resulting in thick accretions that feel cool and hard beneath human fingers. And there are notches in this dried mud, where boar have turned to bite and leave traces of their saliva for others of their kind to sniff and catalogue.

I have been visiting the wallow beneath the Norwegian spruces for three years now. With all the rain we’ve had so far in 2024, the wallow has never been so full of water as it is now. But amid the heatwaves and drought of summer 2022, it was a literal oasis to the forest’s denizens.

I’m sure it will be so again, in the summers to come.

Chantal Lyons is the author of Groundbreakers: The Wild Boar’s Return to Britain

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