The boat grounded with a hiss on the fine white sand and two seamen jumped overboard to secure the vessel before the next wave washed under the keel and slewed the craft sideways. The others in the boat struggled with two squirming, kicking animals, tied down in the stern. The grunting pigs – a boar and a sow, were manhandled onto dry land and carried up into the low scrub above the beach. In a clearing, the animals were untied and let go. In a small crate, a rooster and two hens were also released. It is January, 1803.
Out in the bay, with sails furled, stood a ship at anchor. The corvette was named Le Geographe. She drew about 15ft of water and was considered a fine sailer. From aft of the vessel, the French flag, tricolours of blue, white and red vertical bands, fluttered on the light summer breeze.
Onboard Geographe, Captain Nicolas Baudin scrutinised the shoreline through his spyglass, focussing on the smaller craft on the beach. The release of the hogs had been his decision. With luck, the pair would breed and multiply, making life easier for future mariners who landed here, on what the English explorer Mathew Flinders had already named ‘Kangaroo Island’.
Geographe, and another ship – Naturaliste, had left France in October 1800, bound for New Holland (Australia). The purpose of the voyage was to map the coastline, and record and research the indigenous people, plants and animals they found there. Therefore, the ship’s company included scientists, gardeners, botanists and artists.
After long months at sea – scurvy, dysentery and fever had plagued the crew, resulting in deaths. Due to his common upbringing, some of the scientists, sons of aristocratic French parents, considered Baudin unfit for the task. There had been desertions and quarrels along the way.
Baudin first sighted Kangaroo Island on January 2, 1803. After circumnavigating the island, the crew were dispersed. Fresh water had been found trickling from a small spring in the cove, and men were sent ashore to dig pits and collect the precious liquid. Hunting parties were about, and on the day of the porkers’ release, 12 kangaroos were taken with the aid of dogs. Seven kangaroos were caught alive; three of them had young ones. They were carried aboard the ship and placed in pens.
Before the Frenchmen left Kangaroo Island, at the place aptly named Hog Bay, they chiselled on a flat upright rock in large letters the words translated into English: EXPEDITION OF DISCOVERY BY CAPTAIN BAUDIN IN THE GEOGRAPHE, 1803. The township of Penneshaw now sits overlooking what is still called Hog Bay Beach, and the rock, now removed from its resting place, can be seen in Penneshaw’s visitor information centre. A replica has replaced the original at the site, which is covered by a white concrete dome, itself over a hundred years old.
Captain Nicolas Baudin never saw France again. On its homeward voyage, the ship called into Mauritius, where he died of tuberculosis on September 16, 1803.
The next thirty-odd years were a wild time in Kangaroo Island’s history. Whalers and sealers began to ply the waters of the south-coast, from Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania) to the offshore islands of lower Western Australia. From Sydney they came, and as far off as the Americas, in search of whale oil and seal skins. The ships dropped men off on these lonely and wild shores to establish camps and hunt the sea mammals.
On KI, lookouts were established on high ground to spy the whales as they came inshore along the coast, and the whale boats lay ready for action in the coves. But mainly it was the sealers who searched the rugged coast for colonies to decimate. With no restrictions in place at the time, it was a slaughter, and using clubs, thousands of seals were killed for their pelts and stockpiled until the ships returned for them. Kangaroo and wallaby skins were also traded and the leather was said to be very good for use on the uppers of shoes and boots.
Salt was also a saleable commodity, used for preserving skins and meat, and the island had large salt lagoons. When dry in the summer, the salt was scraped off the surface, and later shipped to NSW, where it was considered a much better product than the local variety.
And so, a small, transient population grew on the Island. The wildlife attracted hard, young men. Escaped convicts and other miscreants were amongst those who had their base on KI and travelled in long boats up and down the southern coasts in search of seals.
Some sailors, in search of adventure and sick of shipboard life with its poor food, hard work and brutal administration, jumped ship and joined the fray. When the seals had all but been wiped out by the mid-1830s, and government ships had policed the area, taking away the worst of the lawbreakers, a few stayed on to try and eke out a living on the harsh island. The bush was thick and water was scarce. The islanders lived on what they could catch or grow – trading skins for flour, sugar tobacco and other basic needs.
The South Australian Company was formed and decided to make Kangaroo Island its own. In 1836, the Duke of York arrived off the shores of Nepean Bay, carrying immigrants from England to settle this new land. The company hoped to establish a commercial port and turn a profit. The new arrivals were met by the local islanders, who were described as being dressed in animal skins and smelling like foxes. Amongst them was Henry ‘Governor’ Wallen, who had a small farm at Three Wells, now known as Cygnet River. The old trapper and sealer grew vegetables and grain, along with poultry and pigs.
One visitor to Wallen’s farm described a trek through the thick bush. “Five of us having agreed to walk inland for a distance of eight or nine miles, set off in great spirits, for one of the sealer’s farms, who had been living on the island for 18 years. We began to prepare a sleeping place, when suddenly a sow grunted behind us. We started up and discovered a sow with four young pigs. Her ladyship was half wild and made a desperate attack upon us”. So here is one of the first accounts of pigs on the island, besides that of Baudin’s first release of the boar and sow.
The South Australian Company’s efforts failed and 10 years later, after much hardship, many of the immigrants had moved to the mainland, where a much more suitable area was found, and the city of Adelaide was born. But on KI, the township of Kingscote was now established, and the ones who stayed began to not just survive but actually thrive.
Others came to the island with plans to tame the land and settle there. By the 1880s there were farms dotted around the coast but there were few roads and the exchange of goods was by sea. Kingscote was growing, and council notes from 1890 addressed the matter of pigs and goats roaming indiscriminately through the town. November 1890 council notes reveal that crows, sparrows, galahs and pigs were occasional problems to the farmer and the home gardener. Three pence per crow head and one pence per egg was payable by the council. Two shillings (later reduced to one shilling) was paid per scalp for wild pig.
The human population gradually increased on the island. Roads were improved and the land cleared for farming. The pigs were gradually pushed back to the western end of Kangaroo Island. The country here was still muchly untouched, with many creeks and thick bush. These conditions suited the feral hogs and they increased in numbers dramatically.
The Soldier Settlement Scheme was established on KI in 1947 for returned servicemen from the Second World War. The island’s population increased fifty-percent when the soldiers and their families moved there. A camp was established in the middle of the island, near what is now the township of Parndana. The Crown land was cleared and seeded and houses were built.
Encounters with wild pigs increased. These animals had probably never seen a human before and were unafraid and aggressive. The bulldozers were clearing the scrub and the pigs were being pushed out. The grunters were considered a change of diet for the camp and were turned into pork whenever the chance arose. Slowly, the landscape began to change from bush to pasture. By the end of 1957, some 192,000 acres had been cleared and 134 farms established.
Today, there are still pigs on KI. The western end of the island is still the main area where the ferals roam the bush. There are rolling hills covered and lush pasture, where crops grow annually, with sheep and cattle feeding contentedly.
Many farms have still got thick patches of scrub nearby. Creeks flow through the land, lined with impenetrable spiny acacia and other vegetation. Hogs use these creeks to access pasture and plough the paddocks with leathery snouts searching for worms, grubs and roots. Farmers curse the swine as cropping time can see a mob of pigs move in and flatten the grain stalks in their quest for food, and lambing season attracts the omnivorous pig. They scavenge on carcasses, and in some cases, will kill a defenceless young lamb. Dam edges are rooted up and pig wallows degrade the clay banks. They are definitely a pest that can affect a farmer’s livelihood. Pigs are also a threat to native wildlife and prey on ground nesting bird. They harbour diseases and degrade wetlands.
Flinders Chase National Park occupies about 300 sq km of the western end of Kangaroo Island. Wild pigs have thrived in the park despite control programmes. Bushfires have reduced numbers but the hardy feral pig can’t be wiped out that easily. Blue gum plantations and some pines harbour hogs, where they breed up and then spread to neighbouring farms.
A sow can breed at six-months-old and at about 25kg. They have an average of six piglets in a litter but are known to have as many as 10 in a good year. Sometimes, the sows can produce two litters in a year. Boars can average about 80-90kg but with plenty of nutrition can grow even larger.
These feral pigs probably don’t look much like the pigs that Baudin let free all those years ago. They revert back to a wild state in a couple of generations. Their necks and forequarters are more muscular because of all the digging that they do. Their backs are narrower and ears smaller than a domestic pig. Tusks and teeth are bigger and their bristles coarser. The colour of the KI hogs is predominantly black, but some have black and white splotches or spots, with some tan thrown in at times. Now and then a white one will turn up but they are much hairier than a tame pig.
These feral pigs are truly wild and they are tuned into their surroundings. Many are nocturnal or only venture out of cover just before dark and head back to the scrub just after dawn. Controlling numbers has been an ongoing battle for many years. Trapping can be effective and many farms have a permanent structure set up in quiet corners frequented by pigs. Shooting and dogging the vermin keeps numbers down. Baiting has been tried, but according to Kangaroo Island Natural Resources Management, the pigs on the island are warier of baits than those on the mainland.
With some of the bush just about impenetrable, with creeks, lagoons and a large area to contend with, containment of feral pigs on KI is the goal, rather than eradication. The hogs have lived on the island for over 200 years and maybe they will be around for a while longer – a reminder of Captain Baudin’s boar.