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The Story of Ossabaw Island’s Hogs

The feral hogs of Ossabaw are shrouded in history, mystery and to some extent controversy. Pigs are not native to North America. It is widely held they were first introduced to the America’s in the 16th century by exploring Spaniards who released hogs throughout the southeast to provide food for their early mission settlements. It is believed that pigs were first introduced to Ossabaw Island during this period. The pigs adapted well and thrived in the mild climate.

The island’s herd comes in a variety of colors. This is likely the result of mixed breeds being introduced by the Spaniards initially. Some varieties of Eurasian wild boar may have found their way to the island following their introduction to the American wilderness beginning around 1900. It is known for a fact that modest introductions of various domestic swine breeds were released on the island during the mid to late 20th century.

Many of Ossabaw hogs, though, are black with thick coats, long snouts and upright ears. These are thought to most closely resemble the hogs introduced by the Spaniards. This “centuries-old look” is why Mount Vernon chose Ossabaw hogs to be the breed of choice for their living history interpretive programs. It is also why Colonial Williamsburg has been using the Ossabaw hog for their 1700’s animal husbandry and culinary practices programs since 2005.

Scientists have studied the island’s pigs with great interest. Recognized as an American feral breed by the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy, Ossabaw hogs have been shaped in large part by natural selection. Long snouts are perfect for rooting in the island’s sandy soil. They can add 30%-40% of their body weight in fat by gorging on acorns and hickory nuts during the winter and live off these reserves during the lean summer months. Their tolerance of high levels of salt in their diet allows them to thrive on the salt marsh dominated island. Interestingly, Ossabaw hogs are also naturally predisposed to low-grade diabetes, a fact that has intrigued researchers for many years.

As one of the few hoofed mammals that breed in litters, the fecundity of the island’s feral hogs is impressive. They are capable of reproducing at 6 months old. The gestation period is around 115 days (4 months). Sows can produce two litters a year and young are born year round. Litters of 8-12 piglets are common. Feral pigs are also opportunistic omnivores, feeding on whatever plants or animals they find.

During the lean summer months Ossabaw hogs can have a devastating impact on the nests of the endangered Loggerhead sea turtle. Their love of eggs is not restricted to turtle nests though. They also eat the eggs of snakes, freshwater turtles, Diamondback Terrapins and ground nesting birds including several species of shorebirds that nest on Ossabaw’s beach. They prey on salamanders and other amphibians, many of which are rare or protected. In addition, they uproot rare and endangered plants as well as seedling trees impacting the island’s vegetative profile, habitat mosaic and reforestation rate.

With the island’s designation as a Heritage Preserve, the State of Georgia is responsible for the environmentally sound preservation, conservation and management of Ossabaw’s ecosystem. It is in this regard that the island’s hogs present a major challenge. With several federally endangered species at risk the Georgia Department of Natural Resources (DNR), in cooperation with the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service, has adopted an aggressive hog population management program on Ossabaw over the past decade. Public quota hog hunts are offered through the DNR annually (October – February). Attempts to reduce the number of hogs on the island are carried out by DNR Game Management personnel throughout the rest of the year. With more than 30 distinct diseases and viruses that can be transmitted from wild hog to domestic swine and livestock, Ossabaw’s hogs are currently quarantined to the island and cannot be exported.

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The Ossabaw Pig