The corn crop rustled, their leaves parting as the beast pushed its way through the stalks.
Above, a shooter takes careful aim.
The whirl of a copter’s blades drains out any shot fired from rifle.
The prey this day is feral hogs.
Kenneth Wallek is a farmer in Bee County and like so many landowners, he is trying to save his crops, his livelihood.
“We have to declare war on them,” he said.
The story here is nothing new. Feral hogs have been increasing their numbers now since settlers brought them here in the early days of colonization.
Bit of history
Hogs arrived, according to Texas Parks and Wildlife, by way of early Spanish settlers some 300 years ago.
During the subsequent Texas fight for independence, many of the domesticated animals were released as residents fled for safety.
As the years went by, settlers continued raising hogs, often as free range livestock where populations continued to escape.
Then came the introduction of the Russian boars which also escaped their captors and began breeding with the wild hogs of Texas.
Since then their numbers have been increasing.
“They do the most damage two times a year,” Wallek said. “One is right after we plant the crops, they go along and dig it up, and then when it is trying to make the roasting ears or when the milo is making seeds.”
The damage done is almost untold.
“Sometimes there will be 100 acres they will wipe out,” Wallek said. “That can amount to tens of thousands of dollars.”
The evidence is visible from above. This past week, Brandon Nau, owner of Ace High Helos out of Skidmore, pointed out several small areas where the corn was crushed beneath the hogs’ hooves. Then, below his helicopter, one patch was flattened, the stalks crushed by the pests.
“That is probably 100 acres of corn they have destroyed,” he said.
Grass fields, rows of milo, none of it is safe as the hogs root the soil, leaving holes that will break farming equipment as it bounces over the rough soil.
“It is hard to put an exact dollar amount on the damage,” Wallek said. “I have seen 100-acre fields completely wiped out. There was nothing to combine.”
Farmers are trying to adapt.
“A lot of farmers won’t plant corn if it is close to any brush,” he said.
Many will tell stories of hogs even being selective of the corn. The sweeter the kernal, the more appealing it is.
“They damage more than they eat,” Wallek said. “Deer are not that bad. I will tolerate deer.
“They are very meticulous the way they eat.
“They will walk into a field and eat from a row of stalks before moving onto the second row.
“You can put up with some minor feeding of God’s creation.
“But hogs will go in and knock down a row of corn and hardly eat one or two stalks.”
Lack of predators
At the heart of this problem is that these animals aren’t native to the country.
“They don’t have any natural enemies,” Wallek said. “The coyotes won’t even bother them.”
And then there is their reproduction.
“They have two to three litters a year and 6-8 piglets in each,” Wallek said.
To combat their exponential expansion, Wallek and other farmers here are taking to the air.
Wallek began aerial hunting these animals about six years ago.
“At first we were only doing it once or twice a year,” he said. “Then we started doing it once or twice a week.”
At $1,000 an hour for the helicopter, it is costly, which paying hunters help offset.
No easy hunt
The hogs are smart — they are adapting.
“They have learned to adapt and survive,” Wallek said. Now, some of the animals are no longer running from the helicopter, opting to crouch low in the thick brush and shadows beneath the corn stalks.
“If they don’t move when you fly over, they are difficult to see,” he said.
Population totals here are anecdotal.
“We are either doing some good or they are getting smarter and hiding better,” Wallek said. “I am hoping we have decreased the population and it is getting harder to find them.”
What makes hunting more difficult is their nocturnal nature.
“You don’t see them out in the open except early in the morning or late in the evening,” Wallek said.
Some trips, they will kill dozens of the animals. Other times, it only be a handful of them.
“We are bound to be making a dent in their population, but not as much as I would like to have,” Wallek said.
The bad news for Wallek and the other landowners across the state — the hogs are winning.
It is estimated that hunters shoot, trap and kill about 30 percent of the hogs. But the number of hogs is growing at a rate of 20 percent each year. Calculations show that hunters will need to increase their kill rate to 70 percent of the total hog population to maintain or even slightly decrease the current herds.
This is a daunting proposition given the intelligence and adaptability of these animals.
Wallek reminds landowners that these animals will eat just about anything.
If no crops are around, they will dig for roots and grubs.
Even rattlesnakes and fawns are on their menu.
Given the choice between rattlesnakes and hogs, Wallek will pick the snakes.
“The average person doesn’t know how much havoc it has caused to us,” he said.
That is why he and the others farmers will continue their aerial onslaught of this invasive species.
“We are not in it to make money,” he said. “We don’t stop shooting until we run out of hogs or we run out of ammo.
“And we take plenty of ammo.”
Jason Collins is the editor at the Bee-Picayune and can be reached at 343-5221, or at media@mySouTex.com.