This story is like a shiver looking for a spine to go up. Call me alarmist, over wrought, sensational, but don’t call me and say you’ve seen wild, feral hogs run across the road at our farm. By then it’s too late.
Of all the invasives we’ve endured here in eastern Iowa — plant and animal — feral hogs would be the ultimate threat. To be clear, Jackson County does not have this destructive invasive animal, yet.
The Iowa DNR has trapped and destroyed perhaps 60 feral hogs in recent years in southern counties near the Missouri border. Their presence there means the threat is just over the horizon.
Feral hogs are maddeningly destructive of agricultural crops, capable of rooting up acres of valuable farm commodities like corn overnight and in the South especially, peanut acreage is an inviting banquet. There is little they won’t eat including ground nesting birds, small mammals, even carrion.
Rooting and wallowing by feral hogs can cause soil erosion, water contamination and threaten endangered plant species and waterfowl. The USDA estimates the annual loss from crop damage, water contamination, and disease transmission by feral hogs at $2 billion.
It is their potential for carrying diseases that causes alarm among hog producers here in Iowa. Pseudorabies, brucellosis, African swine fever, reproductive viruses, they are linked to a southeast Iowa brucellosis infection after a wild boar mingled with pasture-raised pigs. The 2017 ag census listed the county’s hog population at close to 52,000. Any disease threat to that industry by transmission would be a catastrophe for producers.
Feral hogs have spread to 35 states now. They are virtually impossible to completely exclude as they expand to new territory and they are expanding. Southwest Wisconsin is dealing with their threat after a landowner in Crawford County illegally released some in a fenced property as a potential hunting species.
When 130 feral hogs escaped elaborate fencing on that southwest Wisconsin property, which is an-all-too-common outcome, they spread rapidly damaging everything from forage seedings to expensive apple orchard plantings. Reports of feral hogs now have come from bordering Iowa counties like Winnishiek and Alamakee.
They simply reproduce too fast for hunting to control them. You would almost have to live to hunt to keep their numbers down. Wildlife biologists who research these spreading populations say to be effective hunters would have to harvest 60% to 80% of the feral hog population every year, year in and year out, just to control, let alone eliminate them from an area. That kind of success rate is impossible to achieve, suggest biologists.
This invasive species is another example of humans playing god. Local populations of feral hogs are sometimes the result of humans deliberately introducing them, in this case as a hunting opportunity. Like house sparrows and starlings, multiflora rose and garlic mustard they’ve managed to spread unassisted once they escape.
Feral hogs are fierce survivors. Once domesticated animals, their ancestry can also include what is known as wild boar, a Eurasian species, as well as escaped domestic hogs.
Within just a few generations these feral animals quickly revert to the wild state with acute smell, hearing and tusks to root and defend. Mature adult wild hogs will weigh 100-400 pounds. Heavier weights suggest closer lineage to domesticated hogs.
They are capable of breeding at six months of age although eight and 10 months is more common. Feral hogs can farrow two litters a year in favorable conditions with adequate food resources. One spring litter is often observed though. Litters range from four to 12 piglets. They can be found now from Florida to Saskatchewan, Canada. Coarse bristle hairs, nests of vegetation and grouping for warmth help them survive bitter winter weather.
They have few predators to fear although piglets are a target. Feral hogs are not a protected species and can be hunted the entire year. Nocturnal in their foraging habits, they are most identified by where they’ve been, not where they are. Feral hogs are extremely wary animals, in part because they travel in groups, called sounders, and dozens of eyes and sensitive noses are the best insurance against surprise attack.
Some states have even dropped the need for a hunting license to shoot them, so serious is the impact on agriculture.
So successful are feral hogs at gaining a foothold in densely populated areas they can become a threat to residential areas where they destroy landscape plantings and rip up lawns. The first verified fatal attack on a human occurred in Texas recently when a rural home health worker was killed at night while outside a residence where she was employed.
Prevention? There are no toxicants or repellants in existence that are specific to feral hogs at this point. Hunting, again in the South, is often a nighttime or twilight effort and now companies have inserted themselves in efforts to control feral hogs.
Automated trapping pens, heavily baited, are employed in high concentrations of feral hogs. It’s labor intensive, very expensive and never a sure bet. In lieu of trapping and hunting, farming and livestock enterprises have to assume the burden of exclusion as best they can. Expensive fencing, electric fence around high dollar crops adds to the cost of farming in feral hog territory.
Some specialty restaurants in Texas especially have taken lemons and made lemonade when it comes to feral hogs. The meat is lean, as you might expect; it has been described as having a nutty flavor, perhaps because they forage for acorns under oak trees. Smoked, cured, barbequed, feral hog pork has a following that is growing in the South.
I am willing to forego all that just to never have to deal with this burden.
Landowners need to watch for feral hogs, more specifically damage likely caused by these marauders. Deer hunters also can play a vital part in early detection as they move into wooded, less visible parts of the county.
I cannot overstate how serious feral hogs are in their impact on the environment, the economy, the farming and livestock enterprises they would roam over if they ever get a foothold here.