Workshop goes whole hog on feral pig issue
Farmers and landowners got a blunt assessment of the feral hog issue and tips on ways to combat the invasive pests during a series of feral hog workshops, hosted by the Georgia Association of Conservation Districts and sponsored in part by Georgia Farm Bureau.
Workshop speakers covered North American swine history, legal aspects of efforts to contain the pigs and the problems they present. The event also featured a demonstration of prominent swine trapping tools.
Of course, the damage done by feral hogs is nothing new to farmers, who plant crops only to have the pigs come right behind them and gobble up the seeds, forcing them to replant.
“We’ve got farmers in the South that have to replant time and time again,” said Georgia State Veterinarian Robert Cobb, who noted that the pigs are not simply a problem for rural areas. “Urban and suburban environments are increasingly being invaded. We got a call about a cemetery where these pigs were invading the cemetery and digging it up. Golf courses, parks, gardens, yards. As man expands, pigs are definitely expanding, and they’re running together.”
According to Dr. Mike Mengak of UGA’s Warnell School of Forestry, pigs were brought to North America by explorer Hernando DeSoto in the early 1500s. As Mengak tells it, DeSoto had approximately 700 soldiers with him when he landed near the present-day location of Tampa. With the idea he would return with more troops in the future, he released the pigs as he explored the South.
Mengak said pigs have been domesticated for approximately 8,000 years, and in that time man has continually bred them with the purpose of shortening their reproductive cycle. Pigs that escape into the wild by whatever means are able to bear young at the age of 6 months. They can produce two litters averaging six pigs each per year.
“If you have 80 percent mortality, their population still increases,” Mengak said.
In addition to crop and property damage, feral hogs carry approximately 40 diseases and parasites, many of which are transmissible to other animals and humans, and some of which are fatal.
“Just assume that all feral swine are infected with one or more, or all, of these diseases,” Cobb said.
Two diseases in particular, pseudorabies and brucellosis, pose a significant economic threat.
“In the eyes of the world, Georgia is free of pseudorabies and brucellosis in our domestic swine,” Cobb said. “But it’s not free in our feral swine. When you go to sell your pig in the backyard, the price is dependent on several things. It is increased because of our ability to claim that the domestic swine herd we have is free from diseases. If those diseases get into your domestic swine herd, you probably won’t have a market for your pigs.”
As with avian influenza, which Georgia poultry producers in recent years have worked diligently to prevent, Cobb said the best way to keep the diseases away from domestic swine is biosecurity. He recommended that pigs kept outside be confined by high-quality fences, preferably two of them five feet apart and one of which has an electric wire at the bottom.
Individuals handling feral swine should protect themselves by wearing gloves, protective overalls, masks, and by frequently washing their hands.
“It’s not a problem if you’re cooking the meat,” Cobb said. “It’s when you’re dressing a fresh kill and coming into contact with bodily fluids.”
Matt Ondovchik of USDA Wildlife Services reviewed techniques to control feral swine. The most effective, he said, is trapping.
“There is nothing more fun than going out and shooting those pigs in your pasture,” Ondovchik said. “You might be the fastest gun in your county, but if there’s 20 pigs in your pasture, you’re going to kill two, maybe a third if you’re lucky. You haven’t done anything [to affect the pig population]. If you take 20 of these pigs and put them inside one of these traps and you drop the gate and kill all 20 at one time, then you start having an effect on your population.”
If an immediate solution – if only temporary – is needed, shooting feral hogs can be effective. This includes situations like the pigs digging up planted seed or emerging crop plants. Trapping is a process that can take several days, but by then an entire crop can be decimated.
“You’ve got to get after them right then and there to relieve that problem,” Ondovchik said. “Keep in mind, all you’re doing is providing yourself a bandaid. You might give yourself a few weeks. You might allow your corn to get to the six-inch state, which is generally all you need until it silks out.”
Ondovchik also discussed aerial hunts – shooting pigs from a helicopter – and poisoning. Aerial hunts are seasonal and habitat specific. Hilly terrain with dense forest makes it more difficult. Open, flat land presents the possibility of more effective aerial hunts.
Poisoning is in the developmental stages. Chemicals do exist that are lethal to pigs, but they also pose threats to native species like deer, raccoons and bears. Ondovchik said the National Wildlife Research Center in Fort Collins, Colorado, is working on feeders that will only allow pigs to get to the poison, but that tool is several years away from being available.
Georgia State Wildlife Specialist Charlie Killmaster discussed legal requirements for hunting and trapping pigs. On public lands, hunters can kill pigs as “incidental takes” with whatever weapon is legal for the current season. On private land, there is no closed season and no bag limits on feral pigs, which Georgia does not regulate because they are a nuisance invasive species.
Nighttime hunting is allowed with non-tethered lights. Killmaster noted, for example, a spotlight running off electricity from the 12V outlet in a vehicle, would not be legal.
“Anything that’s attached to your gun, or held in your hand or part of a belt system, that’s OK,” Killmaster said.
Shooting pigs from vehicles under power is not legal.
Baiting for hogs is legal statewide, he said, with one cautionary suggestion for hunters in North Georgia, who are still prohibited from hunting deer over bait.
“If you are shooting pigs over bait up here, don’t have a buck grunt caller around your neck or anything that might tell the game warden you’re also hunting deer.”
Trapping can be done year-round without a license if one is hunting on his/her own property. Trapping pigs on leased hunting club property requires a hunting license, though not a commercial trapping license.
Mengak and the Warnell School have established a website, www.georgiawildpigs.com, that provides information about feral pigs and a landowner’s guide to controlling them. It also has a Wild Pig Harvest Survey, which the school is asking people who trap or kill pigs to fill out to provide data on how Georgians are combating the pigs.