ESTONIA – Europe’s “New” Hunting Destination

estonia-hunt-tudu-sign-011617I say “new” with tongue in cheek. The little town of Tudu, which is near where I successfully took a brown bear and moose in 2015, dates back to the year 1241, according to the lawn sign in the city square. It is an ancient destination for European hunters, yet little known in America.

Lying on the southern coast of the Baltic Sea, it is the Eastern most of the three Baltic republics and borders Russia on the east. It is a very flat country; the highest elevation only 1,043 feet. Roughly half the country is forest, the remainder mostly agricultural. Forests are both publicly and privately owned and superbly managed for forest product production of both lumber and paper products. It occupies 45,000 square kilometers, twice as big as the state of New Jersey, and is inhabited by 1.3 million citizens, or basically the population of New Hampshire. Of them, 16,000 are active hunters.

My wife, Margaret, was born in Estonia and escaped with her mother and sister from the Russians toward the conclusion of World War II and subsequently immigrated to the U.S. Although Margaret had close relatives in Estonia, her mother was dead set against any travel plans to that country during the Soviet era, fearing that she would be detained. Our first visit to Estonia was in 1995, four years following independence from the USSR.

That was a family visit, but I did squeeze in two unsuccessful days of hunting roebuck, though I did manage to shoot a small cervine antlered moose. More recently, I spoke with a Weatherby Award aspirant who recently hunted Estonia and, after checking some additional references, decided to book with the outfitter Timo Tipp of Wild Hunt in Estonia.

estonia-hunt-field-011617Big game species available include European moose (locally called elk). They come in two types, both cervine and palmated antlers. The cervine moose, a genetic trait, have forking antlers whereas the remainder of the bulls show standard palmated antlers as we think of in North America. Species also include European red deer, European roebuck, European wild boar and European brown bear. Wolf, lynx, raccoon dog, badgers, foxes, beaver, martin and pole cats round out the mammalian species.

As a destination hunt, the prime species in my mind are moose and brown bear. The annual harvest of moose is approximately 7,000 and the population is growing. Open season on moose runs from September 15 to December 15. Early in the season during the rut, they are hunted by calling. Later when the leaves have fallen, the moose are hunted from high seats.

The other major game animal is the European brown bear. The population is healthy and expanding and now number between 700 to 800 animals. Last season, 49 bear were taken. The season runs from August 1 through October 31. Early in the season, bear can be hunted from high seats as they come to the green fields in the early evening. They also feed on strategically placed baits, usually at night. Red deer are not widely distributed and the annual take is 1,200. Roe deer, once very plentiful, were decimated by two severe winters in succession a few years back and are now rebounding rapidly. More than 6,000 were taken last year. The season runs from June 1 to year’s end.

Wild boar historically have been plentiful with 32,000 taken last year, however, the populations are dropping due to an infestation of African swine fever that is expected to substantially reduce the population.

The European lynx, always difficult quarry, is hunted with dogs from October 1 through the end of February. The hunt is very weather dependent, and the annual take quite variable. With the recovering roe deer population, the lynx population is on the upswing. The usual take is about 100 per year. Raccoon dogs are a unique species native to Northern European countries and can be taken anytime. Badger are numerous and around 200 per year are taken.

estonia-hunt-goose-hunters-011617Estonia is also a major destination for waterfowl hunters, particularly goose hunters. It lies directly in the migration path as the birds come down from Northern Russia. Many Europeans, including Italians, Spaniards, Frenchman, Greeks and even Arabs converge in September/October on the farmland of Northern Estonia.

Estonia has no provision in its laws for outfitters, so any Estonian can take anyone he wants hunting if he has a lease and a place to hunt. The firearm permits are readily obtained, but one must show evidence of proficiency, hunter safety certificate, etc. There are only four or five people in business as outfitters, and daily rates are pleasantly fairly low. Trophy fees are far lower than in most European countries.

My hunt began when Timo (both outfitter and guide) met us at our nephew’s home and drove me to the lodge he utilizes for his hunts. The lodge is a remodeled ancient home with rough-hewn timbers and peg construction but with modern amenities added. Early in the season, Timo also hunts geese quite successfully to the North and his lodge is sited midway between the goose hunting grounds and the forest concessions he leases for hunting moose and bear. He has a quota of 55 moose, determined by the foresters and biologists, with specific as to how many calves, cows and bulls must be taken. If he does not meet his quota for the year and the foresters determine excessive tree damage, he receives a financial penalty.

estonia-hunt-bear-011617Bear hunting is done entirely at night in well-constructed high seats with roofs. Unfortunately, they are not large enough to accommodate more than two or perhaps three hunters seated in vertical chairs. Once you have stayed up from an hour before dark until dawn a couple of nights in a row, the term “all nighter” takes on a whole new perspective.

Estonia is a high tech-oriented society and all the latest trail cameras are placed at virtually all the baits. The very best bear hunting is early season in August when the bears come heavily and dependably to the baits. Unfortunately, their fur is not prime at that time, so it is a trade off. As the season progresses, the bait activity diminishes right up to the time of denning, which is usually mid October.

In that the moose season opens mid-September, I thought it prudent to combine the bear hunt with a moose hunt and as it worked out, the hunting gods smiled upon me. Timo had been targeting two particular baits where big bear were coming in nightly on the trail cameras but, upon our arrival, the Forestry Department had moved heavy machinery into the region, started some harvesting and these bears were never seen again.

At daylight, we would leave the bear blind and hunt moose for the first couple of hours of daylight. We were there during the beginning of the rut, but the weather was unseasonably warm during the hunt and we simply did not hear any amorous bulls calling.

On the fourth night in the blind, we got a phone call from one of his assistant guides who had a photo of a bear on a bait at a different site several kilometers away. He came to our blind and drove us to that bait. We had to walk about 500 yards along this road in total darkness, no lights and hopefully no sounds. The bears are especially spooky and have excellent noses and hearing.

estonia-hunt-field-011617In the end, we were successful taking a beautifully furred bear that weighed 465 pounds on the scales. Bear meat is quite valuable (up to 50 Euro/kilogram) but, unfortunately some bears harbor trichinosis. One of the first things done following skinning is taking of muscle samples for histological, microscopic sampling and the bear is deemed fit for human consumption or not. Unfortunately, my bear tested positive, which dropped its value to Timo by a couple thousand dollars.

We hunted moose morning and evening, again in the heat, with no success, but the forecast was for dropping temperatures. The next day was our last and it was the first frost of the year. We drove to within a few kilometers of the bear stand and stopped the car within sight of a moose crossing sign. We got out, took to the forest, and in the predawn blackness, Timo put on some electronic ear amplifiers and began making cow calls.

Almost immediately, he heard a bull’s faint guttural grunt. I could not hear it. He called a few more times and he got very excited, pointing toward where he heard the bull approaching. The bull came, but I could not perceive it without binoculars even though it was only 40 meters away. He was encouraging me to shoot and when I could faintly see well enough through the scope to make out the shoulder, I touched off a shot with his .30-06 rifle.

estonia-hunt-keeshond-011617It felt like a good shot and I could not imagine missing at that range, but after twenty minutes of searching in the dim light, we elected to go back to town, pick up the dogs, and returned to the spot where the moose had been standing. One of the dogs was a classical Norwegian elkhound that Timo placed on a leash. Within five minutes and fewer than 50 yards from where he had been standing, we came upon the dead moose, but amazingly, still no blood. The moose was a cervine specimen, estimated four years of age and very much appreciated on the last morning hunt.

estonia-hunt-cervine-moose-011617I also was successful in taking a very nice European badger. There are not that many countries where they are on license or from which they can be exported. We also took a very nice raccoon dog, completing the hunt. After two days of sightseeing with the family, we were homeward bound.–Gerald L. Warnock, M.D.

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