When you compare the way we hunt here in the States to the way they do it in Europe, it’s almost like we’re living on different planets. How can that be? I mean, hunting is hunting, no? How can the way they do it be so different from the way we do it? Well, it’s not so much the way they hunt — though there are definite differences; it’s more the tradition and ceremony with which they do it.
I have been fortunate to have had the opportunity to hunt in Europe many times — Norway, Sweden, Finland, Russia, Spain, Germany, Austria, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria and Hungary. My most recent experience was a driven boar hunt in Poland this past October with about a dozen other gun/hunting writers from across Europe. It’s an annual gathering organized by Norma of Sweden, and its sister company, RWS of Germany, both of which manufacture superb ammunition of all types, but alas, are far better known throughout the rest of the world than here in the States. Both companies are members of the RUAG aerospace group based in Switzerland. RUAG is a lot like our Alliant Techystems, an aerospace company based in Anoka, MN whose ATK Sporting Group Division owns Federal Cartridge, CCI, Bushnell and Savage Arms.
Anyway, the American contingent was represented by yours truly, and my friend and colleague, Bryce Towsley. We flew into Berlin, where we were met by Ron Petty, who heads up Norma USA, and then bused westward to a delightful chalet about 50 miles inside Poland. Named Bielen, it’s one of several hunting lodges represented by Chassorbis Polska, a hunt booking agent representing outfitters all across Europe, Africa, Asia and South America.
The methodology of driven hunts in Europe isn’t that different from the way we do it here. Once the shooters are posted along a line — usually at the edge of a field, a road, fire break, or any open area that could afford a decent shot…if for no more than a second or two, the hunt is on. The beaters, who can number anywhere from a mere handful to as many as 15 or 20, also form a line several hundred yards and roughly parallel to the posted hunters. Then, on signal, the beaters and their dogs begin making their way through the cover towards the posted shooters. The whole idea is to chase to critters out of the cover that deep woods and thick underbrush provides, towards the posted shooters. Naturally, most of the beaters are awash in fluorescent clothing, and those who are not are insane. Typically, the shooters will have only a few seconds as the quarry breaks into the open. Shots at anything but critters running flat out are rare.
Depending on place and circumstance driven hunts can be for one specie, or a mixed bag affair, which was the case with our hunt. Boar was the primary game and there was no limit on the number we could take of either sex, but among the dozen of us we were also allowed to take a total of two Red deer stags, and no limit on Roe, Red and Fallow deer does; no bucks, spikes or otherwise. Fox, too, are also fair game.
What complicates things, however, is that there is no communication between hunters, so there’s no way of telling if on one drive (there are several per day), more than two Red stags were shot. We weren’t told what the consequences were if, say, four stags were taken on one drive by four separate hunters, so as a result, I just didn’t want to take the chance and chose not to shoot at any stag. And I did have a couple of chances.
It’s the same story with shooting a Roe or Fallow buck. It’s pretty hard to tell a spike when an animal is running flat out through a small open area where you have but a few seconds to identify the target and decide to shoot. So again, to be safe, I just refused to shoot anything but boars. And there are rules there, too. If a sow with piglets shows up, or a Red, Roe or Fallow doe with fawns, you’re supposed to shoot the youngsters first — like you’ve got time to blast all of `em before taking aim at the adult! Once on a moose hunt in Sweden I shot a cow and a calf in the wrong order and was ostracized for the rest of the hunt.
These hunts are highly organized primarily for safety sake, but also to ensure that each hunter gets to socialize with every other member of the hunting partly over the course of a day. There’s a lot of logistics involved in keeping track of 15 hunters and to know where they are at any given time. Toward that end, each hunter is given a card in the morning which assigns him to a different vehicle and group every time a new drive is begun.
So, yes, there are certain rules that apply to driven hunts in Europe which we may consider too structured, but believe me when I say it hardly detracts from the overall enjoyment of the experience. And not all driven hunts over there are so disciplined. I’ve been on the Spanish equivalent, which is called a Monteria, where there were more than 300 dogs of questionable ancestry creating an incredible cacophony as they winnowed through the brush scaring the crap out of every living thing in front of them. Anything, and I mean anything, that crossed the phalanx of shooters posted along the clearing was fair game — stags, hinds, does, bucks, fawns, boars, sows, rabbits, fox…whatever. To me, Monterias simply reflect the more flamboyant nature of the Spanish psyche.
Though customs and ceremony may differ slightly from country to country, there is a thread of commonality, and that is the reverence for hunting traditions, ceremony, and the nobility of the magnificent creatures that make it all possible. When an animal is taken — the size of the trophy doesn’t matter, whether it’s a spindly spike or a Gold Medal monster — the jaeger puts a pine bough in the mouth of the fallen, and presents the hunter with a blooded pine bough for his hat.
In the evening when the day’s hunt is over, the game taken that day is laid on pine boughs, each species in its own line according to hierarchy — Red deer, boar, Roe deer, Fallow and Fox. This is all done at night with fires illuminating the fallen game. The first ceremony is the awarding of medals to the most successful hunters, then with a special horn, the head jaeger blows musical tribute to the fallen. Each species has its own song celebrating its life… and its death. It’s a very moving experience…almost like being in church.
Historically, hunting in Europe has always been a sport of the wealthy and privileged, but that is slowly changing. However, in most countries it’s still not likely you’ll meet Joe Average in a typical hunting camp. Though here in the States a typical camp is a small cabin, tent, or RV, we also have some pretty luxurious places as well, particularly out west. But here, too, luxury hunting camps come at luxury prices, so again, you’re not likely to meet the average American hunter in those venues either.
In every “camp” I’ve been in over there dressing for dinner was the norm, and the fare was prepared by a cook or chef, complete with wines and proper stemware. It’s just the way it’s done over there and I for one, having crawled out of many a sleeping bag in ice-cold tents in the dark, enjoy every moment!
While you can bring your own rifle, it’s so much easier to borrow one, thus saving what can be a lot of expense and red tape. For all
the other fellows in camp, Europeans all, bringing their own guns was no problem. I had the use of a Blaser R8 Professional Success model in .30-06; that’s the one with the highly stylized synthetic thumbhole stock with leather grip inserts. It’s quite a departure from the normally conservative looks of a European rifle and not everyone’s cup of tea, but it is highly functional, distinctive, and I like it. Bryce was using a Merkel RX Helix. Among the sales of new rifles, the R8 and Helix are the two most in demand by European hunters. Both are vastly different and much more sophisticated design-wise than our mainstream bolt action rifles, but then they cost three to five times as much.
One of the reasons for this particular hunt was to kick off Norma’s European introduction of a special boar load called the Tipstrike. We had the opportunity of using the new load in the field for the first time. Frankly, I’m not sure what makes a dedicated boar load; I mean, what makes it better suited to pigs than, say, deer? All I know is that among 14 shooters we bagged 34 wild boar in three days of hunting, with only two being hit and not recovered. Pretty good ammo performance I’d say. I really didn’t do my share in that the only decent shot I got was in the last 10 minutes of shooting light on the last day. It was just an average boar. Bryce, on the other hand, managed to collect three very good ones, including the very largest taken by the group which weighed nearly 250 lbs.
A high point for me was that on the last morning I was posted in an elevated stand not 15 feet from a 38-mile stretch of dragons’ teeth — concrete anti-tank obstructions from WWII. It was eerie to see those moss covered flat-topped pyramids jutting up from the forest floor like so many sentinels, five rows deep, winding through the pencil-straight pines as far as I could see in either direction. I couldn’t get a definite answer as to who constructed them — the Poles to keep the Germans out, or the Germans to keep the Soviets out. In any case, being somewhat of a World War II buff, I was thrilled to be there. In fact, I’m always thrilled to have the opportunity to hunt in Europe; it’s an experience I highly recommend.– Jon R. Sundra