By Allison Salerno, Photography by André Gallant
A barbed wire fence forms the border between Donnie Wakefield’s farm and one of the planet’s most contaminated pieces of land. Here at the South Carolina-Georgia border, the United States’ 310-square mile nuclear reservation, the Savannah River Site, was built at the behest of President Truman in the 1950s to produce radioactive tritium and plutonium-239 for the nation’s nuclear weapons arsenal during the Cold War.
Wakefield’s battle is quite hot: he’s out to rid his farm of feral hogs.
Wild swine root through rows crops in at least 45 states, according to a University of Georgia study, munching up plants and profits as they go. But in southern river valleys like the one Wakefield sows in, feral hogs are especially destructive.
“My whole life, they’ve always been around,” says Wakefield, 52. “But we seem to be getting a lot more of these pigs than we have in the past.” Wakefield is six feet tall and wears cargo pants and an untucked plaid short-sleeved shirt. His hair is gray beneath his wide-brimmed hat; his blue eyes shine through fashionable silver wire-rimmed glasses. One-handing the wheel of his white Ford F-150, he spits into a bottle of Mountain Dew.
Accompanied by Lily, his “very well-spoiled” six-year-old yellow lab, Wakefield takes his visitors along the puddled dirt roads of his farm to the first field out of the swamp — what he calls a “bait field.” Here’s where he plants rows of corn, hoping to lure the hogs to this field and spare the others.
The land, which he co-owns with gunsmith Jay Jarrett, is squishy underfoot, and the air is thick with gnats. It’s only 9 a.m. and the temperatures have risen into the 80s. Cirrus clouds feather the sky. The corn is high and has already tasseled, ready for Wakefield to collect from the air-conditioned cab of his Casc International Harvester combine. But not all of it. Some is damaged beyond rescue.
He drives along a swath of corn and finds a large flattened patch. The black soil is upturned, the cobs gnawed and discarded in the dirt. Feral hogs recently felled this section of Wakefield’s farm. He’s frustrated by the loss, but almost more so by the marauders’ inefficiency.
“It would be better if they ate the whole cob,” said Wakefield, whose word choice is frugal and precise. The hogs enjoy nestling into cotton in search of respite from the humid summer air. But they really love to chew on corn. “They take a bite or two and move on to something else.”
It might be due to boredom: wild hogs have nosed through the South for centuries, long before farmers like Wakefield showed up. When Hernando De Soto arrived near present day Tampa in 1539, he brought with him 620 people, 220 horses, and a big herd of black Iberian hogs. Their feral progeny now number in the millions, spreading disease and parasites and causing damage to land throughout the South, from crops to golf courses. These tusked omnivores (the tusks are actually teeth) cause such ecological and economical damage that their eradication is now the focus of a gathering each year in Oklahoma City: the International Wild Pig Conference.
One early evening, Wakefield and his business partner, Jay Jarrett, 41, spied a sounder, the wild animal’s sow-led social unit, wallowing in a mud puddle near one of their corn fields. “Jay come across the railroad track,” he says and points. “Right there where that mud puddle is, right there, there was eight or nine of them drinking out of that mud puddle right there.
“ And he jumped out of the truck and killed one, and the rest of them run back into the corn. As usual, I’m fumbling, trying to get a shotgun out, and they were gone before it was over with.”Wakefield
Wakefield’s been farming—and dealing with the hog menace—his whole life. He went to the public schools in Aiken, South Carolina, and grew up working on a 1,000-acre farm owned by his grandfather and uncle, closer to town. He and Jarrett, 41, became business partners about 15 years ago. Wakefield and Jarrett are among the biggest property owners in Aiken County. Cowden Plantation, as the entire 10,000-acre plot is called, also hosts a hunting and game preserve amid the cypress trees in the swampier land along the river that forms a natural boundary between Georgia and South Carolina.
Most days Wakefield drives onto the farm early in the morning and works until sundown. He and Jay, along with Larry Rowe, 54, work at the farm full-time, hiring some local folks at harvest. Finding part-time help is tough, Wakefield says, because people have had more lucrative options at the Savannah River Site. The U.S. Department of Energy facility employs thousands of local residents. Wakefield says even custodial jobs go for $50,000 a year, plus benefits.
“We have a help situation,” Wakefield says. “A lack of workers and this is a lot of hard work.”
That effort includes battling with the ferals sounders, who eat up 10 to 15 percent of Wakefield’s time. The season determines the strategy. In winter, with no corn available for the hogs to forage, he lures them with five-gallon buckets of corn in two remote-control traps. The state-of-the-art equipment, which cost $5,000, comes with wireless digital cameras that texts him images via an app in real time each time hogs go for the corn. Wakefield then decides whether to click a button and close the traps.
The technology is tricky to work effectively, says Shari Rodriguez, an assistant professor of Human Dimensions of Wildlife at Clemson University. That’s because wild hogs are super smart.
Say a farmer gets an alert on his phone in the middle of the night. A text message with photos shows several hogs have made their way into the trap. The farmer clicks the button, the door closes, but two hogs in the sounder are still free. “If you shut that door, you’ve just educated the two outside the trap to never go into a trap,” Rodriguez says.
During farm season, Wakefield’s feral hog catching strategy is simple: Before dawn, “get out of bed, grab your .22 rifle and shoot ‘em,” Wakefield says. On a good night, he kills 35 to 40. The battle is time-consuming. “Sometimes you get lucky and you aren’t there 30 minutes. Sometimes, it takes hours.”
Farmers across South Carolina are engaged in similar pursuit. A 2016 report by Rodriguez estimates $44 million in damage to crops, livestock and timber across the state. She surveyed 2,500 farmers and rural members of the S.C. Farm Bureau to better understand their perceptions of wild hogs and the cost of damage.
“Feral hogs represent a really significant threat to native wildlife,” Rodriguez says, “because essentially the full grown boar or sow has no natural predator.” Mountain lions could be their predators, but they’re extinct east of the Mississippi, she said.Rodriguez
Other factors feeding into the continued population increase, Rodriguez says, are the hogs’ low mortality and high birth rates. Charles Ruth, who works for the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources, says that in the wild, females have litters about twice a year, bearing 5 or 6 shoats at a time. “They clearly have extraordinary reproductive potential,” he says.
Still, humans are mostly responsible for their rising population over the past two decades. Rodriguez says people have been trapping and transporting hogs outside their preferred freshwater habitats to other locations in order to hunt them. This practice prompted phone calls to Clemson wildlife researchers from rental van company employees, asking for help identifying the wiry animal hair left behind in their vans.
South Carolina law prohibits the release of hogs in the wild as well as the removal of live hogs from forests without a permit, Ruth said, but hunters have easily evaded law enforcement by hiding them in windowless vans.
The appeal of this particular catch-and-release practice is that while hunters have limited, state-proscribed seasons to hunt turkey, bears and deer, South Carolina permits feral hog hunting year round on private land.
“It sounds like a good idea to have something to do,” Ruth says, but not when it introduces hogs to your property.
Feral hogs were controllable when their geographic range was limited to riparian habitats. Now, 150,000 wild hogs are estimated to wander across every county in the state.
Rodriguez says even she has killed feral hogs “opportunistically” while deer hunting. But other hunters who set out to kill feral hogs for sport generally just pose for a photo with the carcasses and often don’t bother to bury them, leaving them to decompose or be consumed by scavengers.
Feral hogs don’t usually make it to dinner tables. “They carry a plethora of diseases. The disease list goes on and on and some can be caught by humans” if the meat is not cooked thoroughly, she says.
The proximity of Cowden Plantation to the Savannah River explains why Wakefield struggles so with feral hogs, which start tearing up soil as soon as seeds are in the ground.
“A lot of times, you can smell them before you see them,” says Chris Boyce, a 32-year-old graduate student at the University of Georgia. “When the wind shifts, it’s like the smell of a wet dog mixed with a barn-y manure smell. They are prodigious poopers.”
Boyce walked Wakefield’s corn and peanut fields for hours this summer and last as part of a graduate project with the Savannah River Ecology Laboratory, a research unit of the University of Georgia based at the nuclear site.
“Once in a while, I’ll be working along the edge of a field and I will hear something rustle,” Boyce says. “Three or four pigs come bounding out and into the woods. They don’t look like farm pigs. They’re covered in fur from head to toe and it’s very thick wiry fur. And they have tusks.”
The project is funded by the United States Department of Agriculture to examine the economic impact of feral hogs. Boyce explains that not many researchers have seen this impact with their own eyes. This “ground truthing” work confirms academic damage estimates.
The research goal is to figure out just when in the growing season the hogs do the most damage, so that federal and state agencies can target their eradication resources.
“If you ask the farmers, the damage comes right after planting and then when the crops are maturing,” Boyce said. He walked the Cowden fields at planting time and one month later, physically tallying crop damage. His work was enhanced by a drone that surveyed Wakefield’s property and took aerial shots of the damage.
South Carolina does not have a dedicated hog person in its Department of Natural Resources. Because the animals are physically so large, the point person is Ruth, who coordinates the Big Game program. Adult females can grow to 200 pounds and males to 225 pounds. Boyce said he’s seen a male hog that was 400 pounds. “They’re kind of like big game” Ruth acknowledges.
While Wakefield and his crew spend their days planting and harvesting, Ruth says a typical day for a feral hog includes “hiding, feeding … and making baby pigs.” Feral hogs are what’s known as “opportunistic omnivores. They will eat just about anything they can get their mouths on, if it’s got calories in it,” he said. Their preferred diet is acorns and persimmons and berries, but row crops are too tempting when they’re available, and it’s the rooting behavior that destroys them.
Rodriguez calls the animals “ecological zombies,” because “zombies will eat anything. And hogs will eat anything…They will make a living doing anything.”
Wakefield appreciates all these efforts to document and contain the hog population, but he knows there’s only so much the researchers can do to contain the beasts.
“They are a nuisance and that’s being kind,” he says. “They’ve been here since I’ve been here and they’ll be here when I leave.”
(From Crop Stories No.6)