Bulloch County farmer Wayne Mallard stood in the middle of one of his peanut fields Wednesday, surveying the devastation caused by feral hogs.
Also called wild pigs, these destructive animals that raze crops and uproot farmland are different from the wild boar, or razorback, introduced to the country centuries ago by the Spanish and other explorers.
These wild hogs are descendants of domesticated swine, which have interbred with the European wild boar to create the pests Mallard wishes would disappear.
According to the Internet Center for Wildlife Damage Management (icwdm.org), feral pigs, "like domestic hogs ... may be any color. Their size and conformation depend on the breed, degree of hybridization with wild boar, and level of nutrition during their growing period."
Mallard wants them gone, and he isn't alone. Many farmers across Georgia, not just Bulloch County, are tired of wild hogs destroying crops and damaging land. The mass destruction by deer is bad enough, but a herd of hogs can wipe out a peanut field in no time.
Mallard pointed out a 20-acre field he has planted twice this year. There are still some visible peanut plants, but they are spotty and far between. They are small and stunted; the empty spaces of sandy soil between them show signs of damage from hungry snouts and digging hooves, where the feral porkers have enjoyed the fresh, young peanuts starting to "peg out" and grow.
Mallard spent $200 an acre to plant the field twice. He spent more on chemicals, fuel and time in covering the field two times. He has just enough of a "stand" that the insurance company insists he maintain the field instead of abandoning it, but when and if the remaining peanut plants survive and make a crop, it won't be enough to cover expenses, even with insurance payments, he said.
Bulloch County Extension agent Bill Tyson confirmed that Bulloch has a significant wild hog problem, but he said deer are just as bad, or worse.
Mallard said hogs target peanuts and corn more than other crops, while Tyson said deer will damage any crop, including cotton. Deer love the tender first shoots of a cotton plant, called cotyledons, and when those two baby leaves are nibbled away by deer, the plant is ruined, Tyson said.
Deer damage seems to be more widespread, while feral hogs tend to stay near wetlands and river property. There really is no effective way to deter the hogs and deer except to shoot them, Tyson said.
There is no season for hog hunting, but farmers and their designated hunters can obtain permits to hunt wild hogs as well as deer as a method of crop damage control, said Cpl. Eddie Akins with the Department of Natural Resources.
Hogs can be hunted year-round with a permit, and hunters can shoot from their vehicles and use spotlights, as the hogs come out late and mostly at night, he said.
Permits to hunt deer for crop control have more regulations. The permits are only good for 10 months, and during regular deer season, a license for that season must be obtained and regulations for that season must be followed.
Crop-control permits for deer allow only antlerless deer to be shot, Akins said. The deer cannot be hunted from a public road or vehicle.
If a hunter kills a hog or deer under a nuisance control permit, he or she is allowed to harvest the animal, he said.
Permits are location specific, and only persons listed on the permits can legally hunt deer or hogs for crop control. Hog permits usually are not issued during deer season because it is difficult to determine what a person is actually hunting, Akins said.
Mallard is familiar with the nuisance permits, as he holds several for various fields he tends.
"We still hunt, we dog hunt, we trap," he said.
Earlier this year, he and others killed seven hogs during a hunt, but there were about 30 in the herd. There is no telling how many are hidden in the bottomland near the Ogeechee River or elsewhere in the thick woodlands around the Baygall and Middleground areas.
Mallard has traps, but the wily creatures are not that easy to catch, he said. The traps are baited with corn, but if a hog has seen another hog become entrapped or if it senses danger, it will ignore the bait. Still, traps can be effective, he said.
"I've always had hog problems," he said as he drove a utility vehicle across the bumpy field, riddled with hog wallows and holes where a peanut plant was once growing. "I've been here for 20 years and have had problems along the river ever since I've been farming."
Wild pigs are very active breeders, according to ICWDM.
"Wild boar and feral hogs hybridize freely," the site reads. "The wild pig is the most prolific large wild mammal in North America. Given adequate nutrition, a wild pig population can double in just four months. Feral hogs may begin to breed before six months of age, if they have a high-quality diet. Sows (female, adult hogs) can produce two litters per year and young may be born at any time of the year."
So, how did they get here? According to the website, "Christopher Columbus first introduced members of the family Suidae into North America in 1493 in the West Indies. The first documented introduction to the United States was in Florida by Hernando de Soto in 1593.
"More introductions followed in Georgia and the Carolinas, which established free-ranging populations in the Southeast. Free-ranging practices continued until they became illegal in the mid-twentieth century. Populations of unclaimed hogs increased and spread throughout the Southeast."
These feral pigs interbred with domestic hogs that escaped or were released from captivity, and that hybridization resulted in the wild hog population that is becoming increasingly pesky today.
In the past, farmers have solicited hunters to help eradicate feral pigs, and they continue to work together. Southeast Farm Press agriculture magazine (southeastfarmpress.com) reported in 2014 that there is a program, Hunters Helping Farmers, that pairs hunters with farmers who need help controlling the population of feral hogs on their land.
Akins said hog hunting regulations, as well as information on obtaining permits to hunt nuisance deer and hogs, are available at www.gohuntgeorgia.com.
For more information on Hunters Helping Farmers, visit agr.georgia.gov/hunters-helping-farmers-faq.aspx.
Holli Deal Saxon may be reached at (912) 489-9414.