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Wednesday, 29 April 2009 16:54

Wild mountain boars

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Numerous non-native plants have been introduced into the southern mountains during the last century or so. Many of these are now classified by wildlife biologists as “exotic pests.” Few would argue that kudzu does not fall into that category. And without doubt, the most notable alien mammal ever introduced here was the European wild boar.

There are friends of the wild boar — mostly hunters — who believe that the animal’s outstanding qualities as a game animal outweigh its negative qualities. Then there are those who have observed its capacity to devastate large areas that think otherwise.

I used to be a friend of the wild boar. Its survival instincts and ability to adapt to truly rugged backcountry seemed to me to be admirable traits in any animal. In recent years, however, after some up close and personal encounters, I’ve changed my mind.

A 29-page pamphlet by Perry Jones entitled “The European Wild Boar in North Carolina” (North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission, 1959) tells the story of how the animal arrived and subsequently flourished in this region of the world. In 1908, the Whiting Manufacturing Co., an English concern, purchased Hooper Bald and adjoining lands near Robbinsville in Graham County. George Gordon Moore, an adviser to English investors, was allowed to establish a 1,600-acre game preserve on Hooper Bald in return for assisting the company with floating a loan of two million dollars.

Beginning in 1912, the preserve was stocked with eight buffaloes, 14 elk, 6 Colorado mule deer, 34 bears (9 of which were Russian brown bears), 200 wild turkeys, 10,000 English ring-neck pheasant eggs, and 13 wild boars. Area residents have long referred to the wild boar as the Russian (or “Roossian”) wild boar, but Jones speculates that they actually came from Germany. At any rate, they were the only ones to escape from the preserve and survive in the surrounding mountains.

“One source states that the wild boar were capable of sticking their legs between the rails of their pen and actually climbing over the fence,” Jones reported. “It seems likely, however, that the majority of them chose to remain within the enclosure where they were allowed to reproduce unmolested for a period of eight to ten years. The first time Moore and his guests set dogs on the animals, the boar leaped over low places in the fence rail, and took off for the horizon.”

Established in 1934, the 520,000-acre Great Smoky Mountains National Park has become their prime sanctuary despite extended shooting and trapping campaigns by the park service to eradicate them because of their destructive habits. A mature animal can attain a height of over three feet at the shoulder and a weight of over 400 pounds. The average weight, however, is probably less than half that.

They vary in color from pale gray to brown to black. The most striking one I’ve ever seen was a young charcoal black sow weighing perhaps 170 pounds that broke into my wife’s fenced garden plot last summer. When Elizabeth started shouting at the beast to go away, the startled sow spooked and commenced bouncing off of the hog wire fencing like a billiard ball before finally escaping. The fence was a wreck. It looked like a small tank had hit into it on all four sides.

Roaming widely in herds, they are omnivorous, feeding on plant matter and small animals like salamanders. The head of the wild boar is wedge shaped with a pointed snout, which enables it to root up the ground seeking underground tubers in search of food.

Troy Hyde, a veteran Graham County hunter, told Jones that one could “root up concrete, if he put his mind to it.”

That sounds like exaggeration until you see areas where they have been rooting. The first time I encountered such an area I momentarily wondered what fool had been rototilling a mountainside. Then the hog smell betrayed the culprits’ identities. I was astonished at the extent of damage. But just how destructive they are didn’t really hit home until several years ago when they came onto our property — which adjoins the national park several miles west Bryson City — and went to work digging up the richest wildflower area we have. (They especially love the tubers of the showy spring species: bloodroot, trillium, rue anemone, blue cohosh, trout lily, etc.) When we returned home after a two-week absence, my first thought again was that some fool had rototilled the slope behind the house. Then I smelled that smell and saw the hog tracks.

At that time we had to temporarily discontinue using our gravity-flow water system because the critters decided to root and wallow in the watershed up on the ridge above the house. North Carolina wildlife officers issued us an out-of-season hunting permit to help remedy the problem — but I didn’t have enough firepower to make a stand. The pellets from my 12-gauge shotgun would have only tickled a boar’s funny bone. I never even fired a shot. After awhile, they upped and left on their own. Good riddance, we thought.

But alas, they returned again while Elizabeth and I were away teaching for a week. That time they attacked a partly buried rock wall above our house. The 60-foot long wall had been built in the early part of the 20th century by a farmer clearing the land to plant corn. We suppose there was something living in or under the wall that the wild boar craved. The hillside looked like several grenades had been detonated under the wall, throwing rock debris helter-skelter.

Wild boars are independent cusses that have made the transition from one continent to another with admirable ease. They didn’t asked to be hauled from Europe to Graham County, but they’ve made a go of it without any whining. But you can’t really be the friend of an animal that pollutes your water supply, uproots rock walls on your property, and decimates the fencing around your wife’s vegetable garden. Even kudzu doesn’t do that.

George Ellison wrote the biographical introductions for the reissues of two Appalachian classics: Horace Kephart’s Our Southern Highlanders and James Mooney’s History, Myths, and Sacred Formulas of the Cherokees. In June 2005, a selection of his Back Then columns was published by The History Press in Charleston as Mountain Passages: Natural and Cultural History of Western North Carolina and the Great Smoky Mountains. Readers can contact him at P.O. Box 1262, Bryson City, N.C., 28713, or at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

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