By Isla Binnie
CASTELL'AZZARA, Italy (Reuters) - Dogs and men prick up their ears at a rustle in the undergrowth, a rifle cracks and a big black boar thuds to the ground, killed by a single bullet.
The hunters of Castell'Azzara, Tuscany, celebrate as they heave the 70-kg (154 lb) sow and a handful of other slain animals back to their lodge to be skinned, but their haul barely dents Italy's soaring wild boar population.
Extinct across much of the country by the end of the 1800s, the number of wild boar in Italy has almost doubled over the past decade and there are now about a million roaming the country, environmental and agricultural associations say.
Rampaging boar, along with other wild animals such as river rats, have racked up almost 100 million euros ($110 million) of damage by destroying crops, killing livestock and causing road accidents in the past year, agricultural group Coldiretti says.
Isolated accounts of attacks on people have also stoked concern. A man died in the northern town of Iseo in May, apparently bitten by a boar, and media said a pensioner was attacked and killed while walking his dog in Sicily.
"If some unfortunate person comes across a sow with piglets, his life is at risk," said Castell'Azzara native Francesco Vicarelli, 49, after taking part in the "braccata" (group hunt with dogs) on the first day of the November-January season.
With a higher concentration of boar on its land than anywhere else in the country, Environment Undersecretary Silvia Velo said this week that Tuscany, a central region famed for its art and unspoilt countryside, was facing an "emergency".
Boar were brought mainly from eastern Europe to Italy in the 1950s to facilitate hunting, which is as passionately defended by its practitioners as it is opposed by environmentalists.
However, hunting is less popular today than 60 years ago and the dwindling number of hunters say they can only combat the burgeoning boar population if current curbs are loosened.
Authorities should let people "hunt freely, like they did once upon a time", Vicarelli said, referring to limits on when and where groups of hunters can go, and with how many dogs.
"We are not only there to kill the boar but to protect other animals, the hare and pheasants which are practically extinct because the boar destroy their nests."
Soily furrows in the green hillsides betray late-night foraging for roots and plants.
"White and black truffles grow here, it is rich in fauna which is disappearing," Vicarelli said.
Bigger and more prolific than their native predecessors, the imported boar thrived as farmland was abandoned, leaving the smallholdings typical of Italian agriculture vulnerable.
The efficacy of the braccata is widely disputed as a means of solving a problem it helped create. Selective culls are carried out in places where the group hunt is banned.
Boar raised on farms or shot in culls often end up in ragout, infused with juniper or lemon, and served with wide, flat ribbons of "pappardelle" pasta and a glass of Chianti wine.
But the wild boar are also partial to the local grapes, and vineyard owners have to put up electrified fences to keep them out, said vineyard owner Edoardo Ventimiglia.
"Boars are connoisseurs. They take the grapes when they are ripe, like great sommeliers," said Ventimiglia, who produces wine from 72 hectares of vines near Castell'Azzara.
"The only possible defense is to put up fences, but turning Tuscany into a sort of Guantanamo does not seem the best solution."
Now Tuscany's government is considering a law to allow long periods of selective hunting of hoofed animals such as boar and deer and let farmers trap the animals on their land.
When Environment Minister Gian Luca Galletti tweeted: "Tackling it is our duty" last month, environmentalists feared the regulations around hunting would be relaxed.
National animal protection body ENPA and the Anti-Vivisection League recommended a nationwide ban on raising and selling boar.
The World Wide Fund for Nature in Italy says the best way to limit the boar population here would be for farmers to trap the animals, but it believes the influence of hunting lobby groups has prevented the spread of this practice.
However, this influence may be starting to wane.
"The hunters are getting older, so maybe in the end this will lead to different decisions being made," said winemaker Ventimiglia
(Reporting by Isla Binnie; Editing by Crispian Balmer and Alison Williams)