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Wild Boars Raising Havoc in France

February 22, 1999

AUPS, France (AP) _ The good news across France is that hunting for sanglier _ the beloved wild boar _ is terrific. Just about all other news related to those brazen pork barrels on the hoof ranges from bad to catastrophic.

``They’re destroying everything, those beasts,″ grumbled Jeannot Romana, a farmer in Provence who much prefers his sanglier as chops and sausage. ``Wheat fields, fences, everything. It’s a plague of pigs.″

In a single year, French authorities have paid $20 million to indemnify farmers and growers for sanglier depredations, and that is only part of the damage.

From the Luberon to the Riviera, in southern France, homeowners report uninvited porcine families happily lounging by their swimming pools. Deep holes like bomb craters mar vegetable patches and flower beds.

Perhaps the worst news comes from Aups, a mountain town dating back to the Romans, due north of Saint-Tropez. Wild pigs, breaking an age-old balance of nature, are eating up the truffles.

Of all the delicacies in a country addicted to exotic edibles, nothing ranks with those ``black diamonds,″ lumps of fungus that under the right conditions grow on the roots of truffle oaks and lindens.

In the good old days, truffle gatherers used domestic pigs to find their treasure, quickly substituting an acorn as a reward before the pig could gobble up the profit. Sangliers left truffles alone.

When too much hunting caused a population crash among sangliers a decade ago, however, hunters sent domestic sows into the woods to breed with wild boars. Numbers shot up. But the hybrids loved truffles.

A parched summer not only hammered the truffle crop, gatherers report, but also killed off many plants that feed sangliers. The boars were forced to dig deep _ for truffles or anything else they could find.

The National Hunting Office estimates the French sanglier population at 700,000, nine times the total 25 years ago, despite a kill of 322,000 in 1997 and an even greater number _ still not tallied _ in 1998.

``They tear up vineyards, gardens, crops, and you can’t keep them out,″ said Yvon Creissac, a vintner near Montpellier, 250 miles west of Aups. ``They charge an electric fence and knock it over before it stops them.″

He blames hunters for destroying a natural balance. A pure sanglier female had one litter a year of perhaps three piglets, but hybrids can reproduce twice a year, with up to 20 babies in all, he said.

``It’s been a disaster, and it is getting worse,″ Creissac said. ``These animals look just like sangliers, but they’re different, much bolder, much less fearful of man.″

Hunters agree the numbers are up, but not many are happy to shoulder all the blame.

Yves Merino, whose Grand Cafe du Cours at Aups displays a mounted sanglier wearing Elton John sunglasses and Christmas bulbs, said his club shot 125 boar last year, easily beating the previous record, 80 in 1997.

If anyone messed around with the sangliers’ mating habits, it wasn’t him or his buddies, Merino said. And, he added, the damage reports are overwrought.

``Look, we pay indemnities to farmers who say they suffer damage from sangliers, so what do you expect?″ he said. ``They claim boars kill their sheep. Please. Wolves, maybe. Not boars.″

Sangliers are not known to be carnivorous. They just look like it. Brawnier, bigger and meaner looking than their southwestern U.S. relatives, javelinas, they attack humans only when threatened.

``We haven’t substantiated cases of sanglier killing sheep, but they wreak havoc with agriculture,″ said Eric Tournier of the National Hunting Office. ``They’re smart, and they know how to get a meal.″

In France, the hunting office pays damages to farmers from funds collected in hunting permits. Seasonal sanglier licenses vary from place to place, but the average cost is 250 francs, just under $50.

``There are plenty of sanglier in the north of France, too, and their numbers are growing,″ said Florence Ferte, who hunts stag on horseback and follows the plight of game closely.

``Before, hunters could shoot them without a license, and the numbers were kept in check,″ she said. ``Now, a lot fewer are being taken.″

For big game hunters, this is tragedy.

``Sanglier tend to colonize in one spot, scaring off the other animals,″ Ferte said. ``They used to migrate, but now with so many roads and fences, they gather in one spot and breed like crazy.″

Recently, Ferte visited friends near Aix-en-Provence and found the luncheon party increased by six.

``Right there at the pool, a mother sanglier trotted up with her five babies following behind,″ she said, with a chuckle. ``They acted like they owned the place. My friends were not amused.″

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