There are deer camps, and then there are deer camps. Before Christmas, I had the somewhat surreal experience of hunting whitetails from a camp in Kansas for five days and then, one day after returning home, boarding a plane for Germany to take part in a traditional driven big-game hunt.
There were many contrasts between the two events, but a few stick out in my memory. Kansas involved about a dozen hunters all told, from as far east as Ohio and as far west as Arizona. Some knew each other, but most did not. There was a father and son (40 and 12, roughly) and another father and son 75 and 45, as well as a group of five (three adults, two kids.) Each of us was assigned a stand, shown where it was, and left to our own devices to get to it before dawn each morning. What we shot was left up to us, depending on our tags.
In Germany, however, we were all part of a traditional annual event with roots going back a thousand years. It involved 40 guns, an army of beaters with dogs, gamekeepers and assistants, and all the people of the town who benefited from the results. We shot 127 animals in two days, and the townspeople appreciated it. Each evening, there was a torchlight ceremony in the courtyard of a castle, to celebrate the day’s accomplishments and honor the dead animals. There have been smaller productions of Die Meistersinger.
The quarry included red stag, roe deer, wild boar, and mouflon, as well as harmful beasts like foxes, raccoons, and coon dogs.
The funny thing about this was the reaction of a good friend of mine, with whom I kept in touch during both events. The Kansas trip was acceptable, but Germany was dismissed as “interesting, I guess, but it’s not really hunting, is it?”
That posed a question I had lots of time to contemplate, sitting in my assigned stand in the German forest, reflecting on why I was there, and what we were trying to do.
The American impression of driven big-game hunting is much the same as our impression of driven birds: That it’s somehow unsporting, because the animals present such “easy” targets. One is reminded of an elderly bird lover, many years ago, who wrote to The Field, in England, condemning driven shoots as “the poor pheasants being herded up to the butts to be shot.” Even after 75 years, this evokes a vivid image, which remains, long after you have explained that, in reality, it’s nothing like that.
Driven shoots take different forms. The German model we saw is not that different from the deer hunting I grew up with in Ontario, where we had deer camps scattered miles apart through the Crown forest. There were maybe a dozen men in each, and most had deer hounds. There were trails through the woods, and places where hunters would post to watch for animals. The hounds were released for the purpose of getting on a spoor and moving the deer around. Otherwise, the deer would hole up in the swamps, undisturbed and snoozing away the day, while the hunters sat in the woods, shivering.
The historically minded will recognize the similarity between what we were doing, and North Carolina deer hunting in the 1920s, described by Robert Ruark in “Mr. Howard was a Real Gent.”
In Germany, the drivers performed the same function — the main difference being that there were more species, and they could come at you from any direction, at any speed from a meandering walk to a flat out run. Mostly, they were flat out.
The shooter, placed in a high seat, had to be constantly watchful, and always thinking. Unlike whitetail hunting, where the big questions are “Does it have antlers?” and “Are they big enough?”, the hunter in Germany needs to instantly identify species, sex, sometimes (but not always) antler size, and even (in the case of wild boar and roe deer, mainly) the hierarchy of the animals in a group. Because these hunts are primarily game-management tools, the gamekeeper sets rules based on what he needs shot, and what he does not want shot. This is all in the interests of the balance of nature and population control.
For those who are wondering, I shot a roe deer and a wild boar on day one, and another boar on day two, and felt immensely proud of the accomplishment.
Not really hunting? I beg to disagree.–Terry Wieland