Feral pigs, a potential threat to farms and wildlife, are on the loose in southern Gloucester County.

But no one has a confident snout count of these barnyard pigs gone wild.

"One day I counted 40, in the back, where I didn't have nothing planted," said Wayne Biagi, owner of Piney Hollow Nursery in Newfield, not far from Atlantic County.

"One day we shot five," he said. Mixed with deer meat, they made for good sausage.

That was about a decade ago, though, when the White Oaks Country Club was being built, he said.

"I haven't seen one now for a few months," he said. When there's little rain, they stick to woods and wetlands of nearby White Oak Branch Wildlife Management Area, which is protected by the state, he explained.

The refuge is where U.S. Department of Agriculture experts captured three wild hogs in June, as part of a six-month testing program begun in April at the request of the New Jersey Department of Agriculture.

Many states are worried about the fast-breeding mudhole-makers, because they can wreck habitats and crops while potentially carrying diseases that domestic pigs can catch.

In May, Pennsylvania adopted measures, including eased hunting regulations, in the hope of eradicating its wild pigs. The problem is far from Philadelphia - the counties most affected include Cambria, Bedford, Butler and Tioga.

In New Jersey, the focus is on Gloucester County.

"This area has probably the biggest and the longest existing population in the state," said Christopher Boggs, a biologist for the USDA's Wildlife Services. "We don't really know of any others."

How many back-to-nature hogs live thereabouts, he couldn't say.

A group of 80 was reportedly seen once, but that was years ago, he said, adding that hunters have probably helped reduce the numbers.

That could quickly change, however, because the wild pigs can produce a couple of generations a year.

"The potential for growth can be exponential if it's not kept in check," he said.

The White Oaks County Club, down Dutch Mill Road from the nursery in Newfield, has not had any problems for months, said co-owner Arret Dobson.

The worst was in 1999, when new fairways would mysteriously be torn up overnight.

"We were at a loss of what it was at first, because it looked like a rotor tiller came through," Dobson said.

Soon, they figured out the divoting was done by wild hogs, who flipped chunks of grass to eat the tender roots, he said.

Josh Simone, 21, a junior at Rowan University, said yesterday that he spotted the creatures about a year ago in the back of his property, located between the country club and the nursery.

"They were black, and there were probably about a dozen of them. I came out, and they ran into the woods."

Biagi says they look like regular farm hogs, except for the boars - the big males with little tusks. Most are mostly black, but some are mainly pink or white.

He was not sure if they looked hairier than domestic pigs.

Biagi believes hunters have knocked down the numbers in recent years.

Hunters like to put out corn and potatoes to lure deer, but that also attracts the swine, he said.

"The pigs would start eating it and they'd start mowing" - meaning the hunters would start shooting, he said.

Biologist Boggs said feral swine are not likely to attack people or pets.

"I wouldn't think so, unless they were cornered," he said. "They were pretty aggressive when we got closer to them."

The three captured swine, which were euthanized for testing, were checked for swine fever, pseudo rabies and swine brucellosis, three diseases that are easily transmitted to farm pigs. He's still awaiting the swine fever results, but the other two were negative.

In May, the Pennsylvania Game Commission began targeting feral swine for elimination.

"They are exotics. They are not native," said spokesman Jerry Feaser. "We are on an eradication program. We don't want them there because of the habitat degradation, the competition they pose for native wildlife, and the potential for disease they could spread."

Last year, three deaths were linked to California spinach that was contaminated by a strain of E. coli found in the feces of area cattle and wild pigs, as well as river water.

Wildlife also suffers, since the swine eat the eggs of ground-nesting birds, such a wild turkeys, and the mud-wallowing can destroy many kinds of plants, Boggs said.

They didn't bother the nursery's cultivated plants, though, Biagi said.

And they shy away from people, he said.

"If they see you coming, they run the opposite way. They do. They're not crazy."

Still, the county's pocket of porky pests is likely to persist.

"We are not going to be able to eradicate them," said Boggs. "Our funding was very limited. . . . We had about $7,000 for our work, and that funding expires on Sept. 30."