To arrive in the pretty Somerset village of Witham Friary on a perfect English summer day is to feel instantly envious of its residents.
Who wouldn’t want to live in an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, where neighbours leave out honesty boxes alongside bunches of flowers and the traditional pub sells as much cider as beer?
Yet just lately, a rather dark mood has prevailed here and in the wider area known as Witham Vale.
Beth Horstmann, a 62-year-old horse breeder whose stud is on the outskirts of the village, sums it up. ‘It used to be idyllic, but now it’s frightening,’ she told me this week.
Villagers in Witham Friary, Somerset, have spoken of their distress after wild boar they believe were released by financier Ben Goldsmith wreak havoc in the area
Beth, like other riders, is no longer taking her horses along some lanes and bridleways, while dog-walkers are avoiding certain paths, several of which are marked with warning signs put up by Witham Friary’s parish council.
Local farmers, meanwhile, are angry rather than fearful. The reason? A spate of recent sightings of wild boar.
Back in the Middle Ages, the creatures roamed Britain freely, but they had been hunted to extinction by the 1300s. It wasn’t until the 1980s, when imported animals escaped or were illegally released from farms, that they re-emerged.
Generally shy of humans, boar are unlikely to attack unless provoked. But if they feel threatened, they can be terrifying.
Sows will vigorously defend their piglets and boar can be particularly aggressive during the mating season. Which is cause for concern, given that they can weigh 20 st, run at up to 30mph, have tusks and can jump 6 ft barriers.
Princess Anne once revealed that one of her prize Gloucestershire Old Spot pigs had been savaged to death by a wild boar.
But it’s not just their aggression. They breed rapidly — as seen in the Forest of Dean, where, since farmed boar were dumped there in 2004, numbers have risen to about 1,100 and they are now the UK’s biggest boar population.
Add to all that the threat of African swine fever, a highly contagious and often fatal disease in pigs which could be transmitted by wild boar if it reaches the UK, and it is easy to understand the anxieties being expressed in Witham Vale.
Although they concede they have no proof, many locals I spoke to believe the creatures have been deliberately released into the area by millionaire financier Ben Goldsmith, who in 2009 paid £3.8 million for the 250-acre Cannwood estate just next to the village.
He is an enthusiastic proponent of ‘rewilding’ — bringing animals back to areas from which they have disappeared and returning the countryside to its natural state.
As the Mail’s Guy Adams revealed last week, Goldsmith has admitted ‘stupidly’ releasing 22 red deer into the surrounding countryside, then lying to locals when he claimed he had rounded them up again.
Locals believe the boar have been deliberately released into the area by rewilding enthusiast Ben Goldsmith – a serious offence which carries a maximum prison sentence of two years
This is incendiary, not least because Goldsmith is a non-executive board member of the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (Defra) and releasing deer in this way is against Defra guidelines.
Goldsmith vehemently denies being responsible for introducing wild boar to the area — a serious offence which carries a maximum prison sentence of two years.
He has, however, confirmed that he fed wild boar which wandered on to his land. Many farmers regard this as the height of irresponsibility.
Feeding wild boar is not illegal but since they have the potential to spread diseases that can wipe out pig populations, there are strict biosecurity protocols to ensure they go nowhere near livestock — and Goldsmith farms free-range pigs at Cannwood.
Moreover, he appears to have been feeding the boar at a time when swine fever was sweeping through Europe.
Goldsmith nevertheless protested his innocence. He told the Mail last weekend: ‘In the ten years I have been here, I have never owned a wild boar or been responsible for the release or escape of any wild boar. I am categorically sure of that.’
Goldsmith paid £3.8 million for the 250-acre Cannwood estate just next to Witham Friary in 2009
Yet in April he sent a neighbour a text that read: ‘Do you remember about ten years ago some of my wild boar got loose and try as I might I was unable to retrieve them? We didn’t know each other then, but I know you were annoyed about it. I’m so sorry about that. Do you ever see them nowadays?’
Asked to explain this, Goldsmith said: ‘I have no idea why I wrote the words “wild boar” in that message. It was a mistake.
‘Some pigs escaped in around 2009 but they were Tamworths or Tamworth crosses. I must have been typing on my phone while driving or something and accidentally written “wild boar” instead of pigs.’
We must take Goldsmith at his word — although Avon and Somerset Police are investigating the allegations about releasing wild boar, which Goldsmith has dismissed as ‘a bit of a Vicar Of Dibley-style local ding-dong’, caused by ‘philosophical’ differences with his neighbours over rewilding.
One thing is certain. However the wild boar got into the area, they are causing much damage and distress, not to mention incredulity at Ben Goldsmith’s suggestion that they have been around for decades.
‘I lived and farmed in that area for 60 years and in all that time I never saw a wild boar,’ said 80-year-old Gordon Stevens.
Ben Goldsmith with wife Jemima Jones in 2015
He has now retired to nearby Wincanton but felt compelled to join the debate on Witham Friary’s Facebook page.
‘I chaired the parish council for 20 years and during that time we got a playing field in the village,’ Gordon explained this week. ‘Boar are very efficient ploughmen and the thought of what a party of them might do if they got on it prompted me to take an interest.’
He was referring to boar’s habit of uprooting soil in their search for worms and grubs, causing damage all too familiar to Nick Hutton, 42, who has been a dairy farmer here for 27 years.
Like Gordon, he insists there were no boar in the area until Goldsmith’s arrival in 2009, soon after which a group of about 11 boar were seen and shot by farmers. He now estimates there are about 60 boar at large.
Early one morning last month, a neighbour phoned Nick to tell him his cattle were charging along the road as if being chased by a dog.
‘When I got to them, they were acting very strangely. I realised why when I got them back to the field and saw a wild boar sow and her piglets there.’
Then Nick ran into problems cutting a field of grass destined to be made into cattle feed.
‘We hadn’t realised the boar were in there when the grass was longer,’ says Nick. ‘But the ground was all turned upside down and the grass was unusable because it had soil in it.’
He estimates it will cost him about £2,500 to re-seed the field and worries he may yet face the same problem in other fields.
There’s also a toll on his time, as he has become the unofficial spokesman on the issue for local farmers.
‘It has taken over my life,’ he says. ‘In one day alone I had 127 calls, all asking what’s happening about the “bloody boar”.’
Feeding wild boar is not illegal but since they have the potential to spread diseases that can wipe out pig populations, there are strict biosecurity protocols to ensure they go nowhere near livestock — and Goldsmith farms free-range pigs at Cannwood
There is little consolation in Ben Goldsmith’s cheerful contribution to the debate on Witham Friary’s Facebook page.
‘It’s not all bad news that we have boar about — as long as numbers remain low,’ he wrote on June 26, posting a picture of a wild boar with captions arguing that they bring benefits, from soil disturbances encouraging the germination of trees to their ripping open carcasses of dead animals with their tusks, thus allowing small organisms to speed the process of biological decay.
Such a post tactlessly underestimates the animals’ impact on people like Beth Horstmann. She first spotted a group of six wild boar in the field behind her garden one evening last month.
The next morning, she awoke to find her flowerbeds destroyed and her eyes welled up as she told me the boar’s presence has stopped her seeing her three young grandchildren, aged three, six and 11.
‘I’ve only seen them once since lockdown started and they were going to have a little camping holiday in Grandma’s garden, but my daughter is too worried to bring them over.’
Beth is now scared to walk around her own property and, since horses have a fear of pigs, has also been reluctant to go ahead with plans to train two young Black Arab stallions to be ridden.
Millionaire farmer Ben Goldsmith , pictured, received £25,000 in EU subsidies for his farm in Somerset. While he admits the deer escaped over fencing on his land, he insists the boar, which he admitted feeding, were already in the area
‘They weigh around 500kg and if they saw a boar and were terrified, I couldn’t stop them bolting.’ Her fear is justified. Locals say that during that first appearance of the boar about a decade ago, a woman fell from her horse and broke her arm after meeting one on the public right of way that crosses Ben Goldsmith’s property.
It has not been possible to substantiate that story but there have been 12 encounters reported in the past month alone, many of them alarming. One woman, 58-year-old Val Barton, described riding along a narrow lane when ‘a snout appeared from the hedge and my horse shot sideways.
‘Luckily I’m an experienced rider and I kept control but lots of kids are out on ponies around here.
‘I haven’t ridden up that road since. I load the horse into the horsebox and go somewhere else.’
In another incident, the 14-year-old daughter of Claire Tatum, a resident of nearby Brewham, was out riding one morning when she came face to face with wild boar on the road bordering Ben Goldsmith’s estate.
‘A lorry had to skid to a halt to avoid them,’ Claire wrote on Facebook. ‘It was quite frightening for my daughter.’
It’s not just riders who are at risk. A woman who asked not to be named glanced into the trees on the Cannwood estate as her dog ran ahead and saw a wild boar sow looking back at her.
‘It grunted and it was quite frightening. You could see its intent. It started following me and all I could think about was not letting the dog see what I had seen.
‘Eventually the boar went back into the trees, but if the dog had come back we would have had a big problem. I haven’t walked that way since.’
The boar have also ventured close to the picturesque town of Bruton, seven miles from Witham Friary and now something of a celebrity enclave with residents including Sir Cameron Mackintosh, Stella McCartney and former chancellor George Osborne, who has just bought a house there for a reported £1.6 million.
One inhabitant of a farmhouse only four miles from Osborne’s new home reported on Twitter last week that boar have been spotted in her back garden.
‘I have been approached by them when out walking my dog and even when I’ve been on my bike,’ she wrote.
That was in response to a tweet from Avon and Somerset Police’s Rural Affairs Unit, announcing the investigation and asking: ‘Who released them? Who transported? Where do they come from?’
Another question, of course, is what should be done about them. According to a Witham Friary parish council notice issued on June 29, Ben Goldsmith has already agreed to ‘initiate a cull of non-breeding animals on his land’.
There were certainly no signs of any wild boar when the Mail’s photographer and I walked along the public footpath that crosses through the estate this week.
But that was perhaps because we were followed at close quarters by one of Goldsmith’s estate workers on a very noisy quad bike.
An element of comedy? Yes. But even though Ben Goldsmith may try to pass this off as the stuff of a TV sitcom, for the farmers and villagers of Witham Vale there is nothing remotely funny about it.