CARNIVORE Hunting in Germany Iain Harrison Join the Conversation Old World Traditions from a New World Perspective Photos by Kenda Lenseigne The first rays of light struggled through a hardwood canopy that in just a couple of weeks would be bare, while people milled around, speaking in hushed tones. Dogs ran around excitedly, doing the usual dog things. Blaze orange over muted greens and browns was the preferred palette, in a scene that could have played out anywhere across the Midwest or Northeast USA. It wasn’t until the onlooker paid closer attention to the nuances of vehicles and weapons that certain distinctions were revealed. The complete absence of half-ton pickups was one clue, while the presence of Porsche and Audi SUVs, Blaser and SAUER, rather than Savage and Remington was another. This was my first hunting experience in Germany, and while the differences between this and my adopted country were apparent, the bond formed between those who share the pursuit of wild game proved to be the same across both cultures. Our trip started — as so many good things do — over a beer. Chatting with Walther’s marketing guy at the end of a shooting competition, a plan was hashed out to take a peek behind the curtain at their production facility in Ulm. Checking calendars, a few days were identified in November where there was some overlap, which just happened to coincide with their annual staff hunt. Bags and passports were packed, plane tickets booked, and the anticipation of a new adventure grew with each passing week. A Seriously Strict Tradition Hunting in Germany is a serious business. Unlike the USA with its tradition of rugged individualism, there’s much more emphasis on hunting as a community pursuit, and there are many additional layers of bureaucracy before an aspiring hunter can take to the field. Just qualifying for a hunting license requires almost a year of mandated courses, followed by a rigorous four-hour exam covering everything from forest ecology and plant recognition to carcass care and firearms law. Once you have a hunting license, there’s the small problem of obtaining a firearm with which to hunt. Another license is required to acquire any type of gun, and you must demonstrate a good reason for possession. And no, self-defense isn’t regarded as an adequate justification for owning a weapon — unless, of course, you happen to be a member of the protected class of celebrity or politician. Once the legal niceties are taken care of, finding a place to hunt can be a challenge. If you don’t own a significant chunk of land, then you’ll either need to lease hunting rights for a nine-year stretch or else befriend someone who does. Even if you’ve got a few acres to your name, unless your property is over a certain size, you still don’t own the hunting rights, which instead are managed by local government. Leases, like boats, come with significant costs attached to them over and above the initial investment, so having connections helps. For example, if the leaseholder doesn’t cull the state-mandated number of animals from his leasehold, then he can incur a significant financial penalty. He’s likewise liable for any damage caused to agricultural crops by the animals he’s entitled to hunt, so being able to call in a few buddies to help out with managing populations is a big help. Despite a multitude of barriers erected by the state, the shooting sports in Germany have a long and rich tradition. There’s a saying that in the USA, there are gun owners — but in Germany, there are shooters. The reason for this assertion is that unless you can demonstrate active participation at a recognized range, you’ll forfeit your firearms license in short order. Most communities have a shutzenhalle, which is a combination of indoor range, party venue, and social club. This being Germany, beer and schnapps feature heavily in most gatherings, particularly at the annual shutzenfest, which is a three-day excuse to hang out with the guys, eat traditional fare, shoot a pretty elementary competition, and drink copious amounts of ale. And I can’t think of a single thing wrong with that. So much for the local citizenry. What of the visitor from across the pond? The day after our arrival and while still suffering the effects of jetlag, we headed to a local range to qualify for a temporary hunting license. Supervised by Franz-Joseph Bischoff, one of the Jagermeisters controlling that weekend’s events, we filled out paperwork that allowed us to borrow a rifle. Then we qualified with our loaner from the bench, from offhand, and on a running boar target at 50 meters. Once scores had been tallied, the necessary certificates were awarded, along with a silver lapel pin, indicating that we’d qualified to go afield. Noting my license was missing my date of birth, Franz-Joseph Bischoff tut-tutted and explained in a heavy accent that, “In Germany, all is correct,” admonishing my lack of attention to detail. Once all was indeed correct, it was time for dinner. Our hosts whisked us off to a restaurant that had been in continuous use since its doors opened in the 13th century to serve tired and thirsty pilgrims on their way to Rome. Wild game featured prominently on the menu, and the chef made good use of seasonal ingredients from the local area, one of which was goose fat from birds traditionally slaughtered in late fall. When combined with bacon and salt, it magically transforms into schmaltze, served instead of butter on dense rye bread. Rich, decadent, and utterly delicious. In late 1800s America, the excesses of market gunning resulted in a prohibition on the sale of wild game. Not so in Europe, where it’s a staple in the kind of restaurants where people still dress up to go eat. As a result, we have a sneaking suspicion that there are more people per capita in Germany familiar with the delights of venison and wild boar than there are here — a great shame given the rich variety of our resources. We made it a point to continue the tradition and support the local hunting economy wherever possible — meat sales offset some of the costs of running a hunt. Hunt Day The hunt location in the northern state of Norrhein-Westphalia was a poignant reminder of a different time and another life — years ago, as a freshly minted platoon commander, I was stationed just 12 kilometers down the road. The chance to hunt in the woods surrounding the base never presented itself, so in a world with few second chances, the opportunity to revisit the area was especially treasured. Joining the other 150 or so participants in muted, pre-dawn light, the expectancy of the hunt was palpable. Around 40 beaters were going to push through a mixture of hardwoods and pine forest, driving game toward upward of 70 hunters in tree stands, positioned throughout the hillsides. Dogs of all breeds and sizes accompanied them, dressed in florescent Cordura jackets. Hunters were allocated to small groups by the hunt organizers; after a 15-minute briefing the designated leaders gathered their flocks before heading off to designated areas. Before the assembled throng dispersed, a dozen buglers strode out and, standing shoulder to shoulder, blew the traditional “Gather the Hunter” on their brass jagdhorns. There were to be two drives that day, one in the morning and one in the afternoon. It’s considered exceptionally bad etiquette (not to say dangerous) to leave your allocated stand until after the final hunting horn is sounded, but once it’s heard, everyone congregates for a hearty lunch around a campfire. The idea of lunch occupied my thoughts as the morning sun burned off a light fog. Being too excited to eat, I’d skipped breakfast and my decision was coming back to bite me. A combination of lack of calories and freezing temperatures left me wishing I’d packed warmer boots. My exposed position meant any kind of calisthenics to keep warm was out of the question, so I just soaked in the beauty of the woods around me and shivered. It wasn’t long before movement caught my eye. About 120 yards away, on the other side of a small ravine, a roe doe and fawn nervously emerged from the treeline and crossed a small opening. In Germany, it’s considered the ethical choice to shoot the fawn first — if it escapes after mom bites the dust, its chances of survival are slim and it’ll probably wind up either starving to death or, more likely, being chased down and eaten alive by predators. I took the shot. While dragging what might have been the smallest deer I’ve ever killed back to a dirt road where it would be picked up, our photographer pointed out the spot where she’d seen a large pig make its leisurely way through a stream. Despite frantic waving from an adjacent stand, she’d been unable to attract my attention, and it had escaped, unmolested. Needless to say, comments regarding age, virility, eyesight, powers of observation, and mental acuity weren’t slow in coming … Lunch turned out to be every bit as good as I’d imagined. Cheery frauleins ladled hearty bean soup into bowls, accompanied by huge chunks of fresh bread, while the morning’s haul was brought to the center of camp and hung from an improvised butcher station. Volunteers eld dressed animals as a team, before reverently laying them out on a bed of pine boughs. While my Teutonic language skills are limited to profanity and ordering beer, it was obvious from the amount of laughter and back-slapping that everyone around the various camp res was retelling hunting stories from the past few hours. As soon as everyone had refilled their bellies, we jumped into cars for a short ride to the next stands. Horns signaled the start of the second drive, bolts cycled, and once again eyes scanned the woods for signs of approaching game. Before long, a yearling doe made the poor life decision to run parallel to a line of tree stands and was treated to a 21-gun salute. She ran unscathed past all of them before ducking back into the woods, no doubt considerably wiser for the experience and fortunate that, like in the U.S., magnumitis is endemic in the local hunting population. The most popular caliber carried by members of our party was .300 Win Mag, with several 9.3×62 Mausers and at least one .375 H&H. A big roe deer is around 70 pounds and none of the wild boar seemed bigger than 200, so this would seem to be overkill and probably results in more missed shots due to inching than might otherwise be the case with smaller, more easily managed calibers. An hour or so following the doe’s escape, a dark, hairy form crept up to a tree line to our front and toyed with the idea of breaking cover, before thinking better of it and slinking away. Pigs are notoriously smart. Pigs that have been shot at regularly are smarter still and will circle back through a line of beaters, rather than compliantly run from them. Deer, on the other hand, while faster, don’t quite have the level of smarts their porcine neighbors do. As if to prove it, a couple of minutes after the boar’s non-appearance, a doe emerged from the same spot and stood blinking in the sunlight, unsure what to do next. While she was thinking about it, a 180-grain bullet ended her internal dialogue. This time back at the camp, beer owed freely while our harvest was brought in and embers rode the smoke into a dark evening sky. As the sun set, everyone present assembled around the magnificent tableau we’d created, and the same buglers who’d sent us off into the eld that morning gathered to recognize the game we’d killed. Different species are commemorated by their own tune, with the final salute going to the forest itself for providing food and habitat for both humans and animals alike. Each successful hunter was rewarded with a sprig of pine by the Jagermeister, new initiates to the fellowship wearing it proudly in their lapels. The evening was far from over. Traditional loden jackets replaced utilitarian hunting clothes, and the entire group made its way to the shutzenhalle where a celebratory feast had been prepared for a couple hundred guests. After dinner and speeches, medals were awarded to the king of the woods and each newbie called up on stage for a kind of gameshow/summer camp-style roast, where their shortcomings as hunters were roundly mocked. After agreeing to remedial action involving numerous shots of Jagermeister — the liquor, not the dude; that would be weird — they were knighted with a scary-sharp, short sword and welcomed into the hunting community. Revelers poured out into the chill November air well past a reasonable bedtime, arms around shoulders, swaying slightly. Yes, there’s a strong commitment to the social aspects of hunting. But everyone I spoke to, from guys in their 20s who’d crammed into a minivan for a ve-hour drive to get there, to white-haired elders with equally senior dogs on leather leashes, was filled with a sense of community and the knowledge that they were very much responsible for keeping ancient traditions alive. There are certain aspects of hunting in Germany that we as Americans could learn from. Reforming our laws to permit the sale of in-season game to restaurants would allow more people to become aware of its benefits and further the wild food cause. We have a strong management system in place, and I’m not convinced that poaching would increase, so long as we made the penalties for stealing from our shared resources hurt both the buyer and vendor. And by hurt, I mean jail time, significant fines, and forfeiture of both rearms and hunting rights. The very public way in which their hunting legacy is celebrated is another aspect that would be beneficial. As JR Young points out elsewhere in CARNIVORE, sharing the bounty we’re privileged to harvest is a great way to win friends and influence people. For any of our readers inclined to follow our footsteps through the forest, we recommend using a guide service to negotiate the myriad complexities of German hunting and rearms laws, rather than going the DIY route. We were fortunate to have great hosts who took care of the paperwork, as well as made travel arrangements on both sides of the Atlantic. For that, as well as the genuine warmth and hospitality of the German people, we are grateful. 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