On the nature front, and as was reported in the P&C recently, the feral hog problem in South Carolina has just gotten totally out of control. In response, the S.C. Department of Natural Resources has authorized from March 1 to July 1 a special hunting season, whereby those who register their hunting properties with DNR can hunt hogs (plus coyotes and armadillos) at night with any legal weapon, plus bait, lights and even night-vision technology.

There’s something of a romantic sense that the feral hog population, at least in certain parts of the state, is genetically connected to wild Russian stock that was imported to the Biltmore Estate back in the Gilded Age of the Vanderbilts. And this may be true, but the gene pool has been diluted by domesticated pigs that have escaped captivity over the decades and reverted to the wild. It’s actually a study of devolution that I imagine someone like Charles Darwin would find fascinating.

The appearance of the pigs found in the woods generally represents a dramatic change over a compressed period of time. They acquire thick, bristly coats ranging in various colors from black to browns and tawny grays, a relative flattening and elongation of the forehead and snout, whose massive shoulders and necks are protected by a dense “shield” of gristle that’s resistant to almost everything, including a variety of shot. Small gleamy eyes reflect an innate intelligence, and their demeanor while tearing through the woods reflects a danger and fierceness that can be unsettling.

The larger boars develop fearsome tusks that are primarily used to fight other boars, but which nonetheless can rip a dog (or human being) to shreds in a flash. (Sows have tusks as well although they’re not nearly as big.) Many dogs are killed each year in the pursuit of wild hogs, and it’s a wonder that there aren’t stories out there of people getting killed as well, because just one sufficiently deep goring would more than do the job. As it so happens, this hasn’t happened (yet), but it’s conceivable that it will as the wild hog population grows and as more people get involved hunting them.

Smart and dangerous

These animals are smart enough to figure out ways to get well-fed, and although I’m not very experienced with them, I have yet to see emaciated wild hog in the woods. They’ll probe incessantly for invertebrates, small amphibians and reptiles, and will absolutely lay waste to food plots, farmlands, sensitive estuaries, swampland and even backyards and public lands. Any newborn animal is at risk for being killed, and any bird that roosts on the ground will lose her entire brood if discovered by these foragers.

Feral hogs have been known to kill pasture animals in the process of giving birth and also larger sick, injured or disabled animals. With such voracious feeding habits, it’s not surprising that their size potential is huge — literally. Reports of 300-plus pound boars in South Carolina are not uncommon. An animal this size can be expected to have 3- to 4-inch visible tusks, which does not include the extra 3 to 5 inches beneath the gum line that anchor each into the jaw or skull. The upper and lower tusks rub against each other constantly and file the longitudinal contact lines into razor-sharp edges that aren’t fully appreciated shy of a hands-on inspection. And then suddenly, you realize that, no, you would never want to get in the way of one on these things.

New problem

A couple of generations ago, there really wasn’t a feral hog problem in South Carolina. In fact, seeing the mythical “wild boar” was an uncommon event, and their relative scarcity dissuaded many people from hunting them.

For a variety of reasons, the population exploded and has now become — in some parts of the state, at least — a real problem. And it gets exponentially worse over fixed periods of time, owing to sows’ ability to produce three litters per season. Someone recently told me that about 70 percent of the herd needs to be culled each year just to keep the population in check!

Hunting techniques vary. The single-shot approach may be an effective way to bag a single hog but will disperse the herd, and you can’t have a bunch of people shooting every which way at ground level with high-powered rifles and buckshot. An increasingly popular way to hunt feral hogs is with an overwhelming force of bay hounds (which track the scent and locate the hogs) and trained pit bulls (which subdue the animals), so that hunters in rapid pursuit (sometimes on Marsh Tacky horses) can dispatch their quarry in close quarters. Sows in particular can be used for a variety of outstanding table fare.

It’s brutal, perhaps more than a little dangerous, adrenaline-surging, and just one of several ways hunters and property owners will try to get some control over an increasingly difficult problem. And yet it has gotten quite clear that something needs to be done.

Edward M. Gilbreth is a Charleston physician. Reach him at edwardgilbreth@comcast.net.