Wild hogs used to be a nuisance in the Southeast, in some areas they became a problem, but along the Congaree River in South Carolina they have become an outright menace to crop production.

The Congaree flows through some of South Carolina’s most productive farmland. It is a short, but wide river, flowing for only 47 miles. The river’s short and wide dimensions create a large swampy area that has proven ideal for wild pigs to thrive.

The South Carolina Department of Natural Resources (DNR) has deemed wild hogs in the state to be an "ecological disaster" and the destructive nature of this invasive species easily lends itself to such a description.

During the last year, the South Carolina DNR has made an effort to provide increased information on wild hogs in the state by participating in several workshops with Clemson University Extension and other agencies. The information is good, farmers say, but the answer to the crop destructive nature of these animals is yet to be found.

Calhoun County, S.C., farmer Kent Wannamaker is near the epicenter of wild pigs along the Congaree. Once a top hog producer in South Carolina, Wannamaker says these pigs are sometimes a blend of wild hogs and hogs that were once domesticated.

“The majority of the wild pigs we see are a mixture of wild hogs that were released along the Congaree River and domesticated hogs that got loose or were set loose and bred into the wild herds. We have trapped a few that are mostly white, so it’s pretty clear these animals came from Yorkshire hogs raised by farmers,” the South Carolina grower says.

Wild pigs have been present in coastal South Carolina since they were released by the Spanish in the 1500s. Their historic range was primarily limited to floodplains of the major river systems. In the 1980s wild pigs were found in only 26 counties, with the distribution generally resembling their historic range in the coastal plain.

Found in all 46 counties

By 2008 wild pigs were documented in all 46 counties with small scattered populations in the piedmont related to recent translocations by humans. Wannamaker and Davis contend the population explosion along the Congaree has been spurred by an increase in peanut production.

Peanut production in South Carolina was limited to a few counties and a few thousand acres in the state, prior to the end of the government-supported peanut program. Since the end of the program, peanut production has grown to more than 70,000 acres, and is expected to push even higher in 2012.

Wannamaker, who started growing peanuts in the mid-2000s says wild pigs were around prior to peanuts. “We would see signs every once in a while, usually where they had been feeding on nutsedge along the edge fields,” he says.

The South Carolina grower says getting rid of the nutgrass was a bonus and the pigs rarely did any damage to cotton or other crops.

With the coming of peanuts, wild pig herds quickly multiplied. When peanuts aren’t available, they now quickly switch to corn, even soybeans in some locations. In peanuts, it looks like they are GPS-guided Wannamaker quips. They go straight down a row of peanuts and they don’t miss many at planting time or when the peanuts get ripe, he explains.

Wannamaker says the first few years they grew peanuts, wild pigs were a problem primary after planting. The pigs would go down the row and dig up and eat seed peanuts. Now, they still are a problem at planting time, but they also go down the row digging up mature peanuts.

Pointing to snow white field of cotton, Wannamaker says, “This 60 acre field was planted in peanuts in 2009. We use GPS for planting, and we offset cotton rows and peanut rows. The pigs would get in the cotton field and go right down the row where peanuts had been planted last year, looking for peanuts.

It looked like we had plowed the cotton field from one end to the other. They didn’t do any damage to the cotton, but they plowed up that field like they were following our GPS rows,” the South Carolina grower says.

Farmers along the Congaree have tried everything from hunting to trapping to more exotic schemes to try and get rid of wild pigs, but so far the pigs are winning,” according to long-time Calhoun County Extension Specialist Charles Davis.

Hunting pressure not the answer

Hunting pressure is definitely not the answer says Davis, who has worked with Calhoun County farmers since peanuts became popular to eradicate the pigs. Hunting pressure, he explains, has forced these animals into becoming mostly nocturnal. They have an excellent sense of smell and good eyesight, so feeding at night has been an easy transition, Davis adds.

The Extension Specialist says hunting wild pigs has become a cottage industry along the Congaree. A few farmers have capitalized on the rapid rise in wild pig populations and rent out their land for night hunts. Others provide dogs to track and run wild pigs for hunters.

Neither night hunting or hunting with dogs during the day has made much impact on pig numbers along the Congaree River Valley.

Hunting pigs with a rifle and/or dogs makes lots of noise, Davis explains. Hunters can shoot one pig and the others are gone. With plenty of room to roam and plenty of crops for food, they can easily relocate to another area, then come back when the hunters are gone.

Wannamaker has invited hunters with federally approved silencers for their rifles. This allows night hunters to shoot more than one pig at a time, but still doesn’t seem to be making much difference, the South Carolina grower says.

“We have trapped wild pigs, put a camera on them to determine when they feed at night, so hunters will have a better chance of finding them in a peanut field. After one time of shooting the pigs, they changed the whole time they come out and feed. They just adapt really well to the environment, Wannamaker adds.

The onset of peanut production also increased the amount of irrigation being used in South Carolina crops, another factor in the population increase some contend.

“In the past these pigs would come out and feed and go back to the river for water. With irrigation, there is plenty of water, so they don’t have to move as much. Unless they are threatened, they will stay in and around a peanut field all year, Wannamaker notes.

Wild pigs reproduce at a prodigious rate, sometimes producing litters of piglets twice a year. They directly compete with native wildlife for food and they can negatively impact natural ecosystems.

Hogs present problems related to land, wildlife, and timber management. They can cause significant damage to agriculture and pose disease risks to humans, as well as, domestic livestock.

These animals have proven to be extremely difficult to control once they become established. They are not protected in South Carolina and there is no closed season or bag limit on private land.

Over the last few years in order to slow the spread of hogs in South Carolina, the General Assembly has made it illegal to release hogs into the wild or to remove a live hog from the wild without a permit.

Additionally, the DNR has instituted special hunts for wild hogs on Wildlife Management Areas where they occur. Despite the increased focus, farmers contend the problem is getting worse, not better in some areas of the state, including along the Congaree River.

Though peanut farmers seem to have the biggest crop losses from wild pigs, they are by no means alone in their quest to get rid of these animals.

South Carolina has 90,000 to 280,000 wild hogs, according to Jack Mayer, a feral-swine expert at the Savannah River National Laboratory in Aiken, S.C. All 46 South Carolina counties have wild pig populations.

"We don't have a good handle on the actual population," he said. "We say there are 2,000,000-6,000,000 wild hogs nationally. That's a pretty big spread. The truth is we don't really know how many of them there are," Mayer says.

rroberson@farmpress.com