Escaped and loose livestock are common on working farms and ranches. Sometimes, a critter can remain on the run for days, weeks and even months evading capture before it’s finally cornered and returned to its barn. At what point do these domestic runaways change status from escapee to feral?
While there is no across-the-board legal definition for feral livestock, it is generally accepted that any domesticated animal that can survive and reproduce on its own without human intervention has gone feral.
“One loose animal is not feral,” said Colt Knight, wildlife specialist with the University of Maine Cooperative Extension. “But once they can make it on their own, they are considered feral [and] that can happen within one generation from escape.”
The two best examples of feral livestock in the United States, according to Knight, are swine and horses.
“Technically there are no ‘wild’ horses in the US,” Knight said. “The horses that we call ‘wild’ are actually feral descendents of domesticated horses that were introduced here hundreds of years ago.”
While feral horses have become admired symbols of the American West, the swine are largely viewed as crop and ecosystem destroying pests.
Hogs in New England
In New England feral descendants of once domestic Eurasian boars that were introduced in the 1800s are causing major damage in New Hampshire and Vermont, according to federal wildlife officials.
“Yes, it’s a concern when these hogs are on the landscape,” said David Alloben, United States Department of Agriculture state director of wildlife services in New Hampshire and Vermont. “They root up a lot of natural resources and can destroy crops.”
There are populations of feral hogs in New Hampshire and Vermont, but to date, none have moved into Maine or Massachusetts. But according to Knight, it could just be a matter of time until they do.
“The cold winters in Maine have helped keep them out so far,” Knight said. “But [hogs] are a remarkably adaptable animal and I would assume in time they will be here [and] when they arrive it will not take them long to become a serious issue in the state.”
In Massachusetts, meanwhile, the USDA claims there are no feral hogs in the state yet, however, in 2008 a suspected feral hog was hit by a car along Route 2. So it is possible the animals will eventually populate that state as well.
Wherever the hogs go, problems follow, according to officials.
“By rooting around, the hogs cause major erosion that damages creeks and other water systems,” Alloben said. “They tear up turf, lawns and crops [and] feed on and destroy natural and endangered plant and animal species.”
Omnivorous with ravenous appetites, the swine eat pretty much anything, Alloben said. HE added that this includes the eggs of ground-nesting birds and the eggs and young of turtles.
“They can and do eat a lot,” Alloben said. “They will even eat fawns.”
Then there are the diseases the hogs carry.
“Feral hogs carry 30 diseases and parasites that are harmful to humans and livestock,” Alloben said. “Things like trichinosis and pseudorabies, for example.”
Pseudorabies is a disease of swine that can affect cattle, sheep, goats, dogs and cats. It’s a contagious virus that causes reproductive problems and respiratory issues and can result in death.
The feral hogs are also very good at reproducing, with one female capable of giving birth to two- to three-litters a year of up to a dozen piglets each.
In New Hampshire, the feral hogs have no legal game status and are considered “escaped wild property.” As such, they may be hunted with permission of the owner of the property on which the hogs are roaming.
In Vermont, the feral swine are regarded as nuisance animals and may be hunted and killed in accordance with that state’s nuisance animal laws.
If cornered or threatened, a feral hog can be aggressive in defending itself, Alloben said, referencing the scene in the classic book and movie “Old Yeller” in which the title character — a Black Mouth Cur dog — drives off a herd of attacking hogs.
“I don’t recommend approaching one,” Alloben said. “But most [wild] pigs will run away if they see you first.”
Anyone spotting a feral hog is encouraged to report it to their state USDA wildlife office, Alloben said.