THOMSON, Ga. - Epp Wilson remembers the day he first saw wild hogs in McDuffie County.
"It was three years ago," he said. "We came across a sow and two piglets out near Hart Creek."
At the time, the isolated sighting didn't concern Wilson or others who frequent the rural area. But it should have.
Since then, the unwanted feral hogs have rooted and reproduced their way across much of McDuffie and Warren counties, annoying landowners and, with increasing frequency, interfering with the Belle Meade Hunt.
"They went from next to nothing to everywhere - around every curve," said Wilson, who is master of foxhounds for the equestrian fox hunting group formed in 1966.
The Belle Meade Hunt, with as many as 70 hounds and dozens of riders, uses more than 40,000 acres of private land, where encounters with wild hogs are becoming all too frequent.
"We've had 19 dogs beat up in a single night, whipped by pigs," said Raymond Morris, a Belle Meade volunteer and field secretary. "Hogs are bad on foxhounds. We've even had some of our dogs cut up."
One foxhound, named Longo, was killed last year after his lung was punctured during a hostile encounter with a wild hog. Hogs also damage crops and property.
Statewide, feral pigs are becoming a problem in many areas. River basins like the Savannah River swamp often have true wild hogs that owe their origins to European pigs released in Colonial times.
Some hogs are descendants of escaped livestock; other groups were released in recent years - intentionally but inappropriately - by hunting clubs seeking big game alternatives to deer.
But wild hogs are bad news, said Vic VanSant, a state wildlife biologist. They compete with deer by vacuuming up acorns and natural foods. They also destroy ground-nesting birds like wild turkey and quail.
In McDuffie County, hunters and landowners are trying to kill as many hogs as possible, but eradicating the unwanted creatures is almost impossible once they've taken hold.
"Our group has taken 16 in the last month, but there's more and more of them," Morris said. "I counted 28 in one herd. When you see that many at one time, there's no telling how many more are back in the woods."
Hogs aren't classified as wildlife and can be shot legally anytime. Dozens of hogs were killed in McDuffie County during deer season by hunters.
"But when you shoot one, it trains the ones that get away to be even smarter," Morris said. "They say you're supposed to try trapping them."
But even trapping efforts produce only mediocre results - at least for Morris, who has placed expensive traps in key areas.
"We've got 150 pounds of corn, 20 pounds of apples and a bushel of sweet potatoes in here," he said, showing off one such trap. "We haven't caught a thing."
One method, which Morris hopes to utilize in McDuffie County, is to implant a tracking device in a captured sow and release her to return to the meandering herds. The "Judas Pig" is painted orange for easy spotting - and to dissuade landowners from shooting her - and used to find the larger herds.
The Belle Meade Hunt organizers also have invited hog hunters from north Georgia and South Carolina to bring trained hog dogs to seek out and capture or kill the problem pigs.
Ben Henson and Clint Carpenter drove all the way down from Clayton, Ga., last weekend - with their dogs - just to chase wild pigs.
"We'll go anywhere to catch hogs," Carpenter said. "We've even gone all the way to Alabama."
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