Defending Europe’s hunting traditions
Centuries of skill and practice are under threat from animal-rights activists, environmentalists, disease and crowd-pleasing politicians
Jack Knott outlines the threats
The story of European hunting is a rich one. The continent provides a wealth of world-class sporting opportunities, shaped over the years by traditional practices. From the moors of Scotland and imperial forests of central Europe to the Alpine meadows and plains of Hungary, the landscape has been crafted by hunting for hunting.
Hunting in its widest sense is deeply connected with rural communities. Generations of employment, recreation and skills mean traditions run thick and feelings are strong. However, many of these traditions are increasingly under pressure as urban life encroaches on rural ways, the animalrights agenda gathers momentum, social media rules over scientific debate, and governments’ kneejerk reactions inform policy. The fight to stop our traditions being ground down has never presented itself so strongly in what has seemingly become an ever more fragmented and fragile political landscape.
One such example of urban attrition has been witnessed in the state of North Rhinewestphalia in Germany. The hunters in the region live and breathe their sport, their knowledge of hunting, expertise and commitment to conservation being among the strongest in Europe. It was, therefore, a shock to see their way of life being undermined through legislation that includes changes to quarry species and open seasons, and restrictions to sporting opportunities. Such is their passion, the locals have been quick to point a finger at those responsible.
At an environmental committee hearing earlier this year, Hans-jürgen Thies, vice president of the Land es jagdverband NRW (the state hunting association), voiced his opinions strongly calling the new regulations unconstitutional, undemocratic, reactionary and impractical. Those responsible were outed as “the Red-green State Government”, whose aims are to “exemplify the eco-romantic notion of urban milieus”.
The pressure on their sport is so strong that there was little surprise when an estimated 15,000 hunters from the region took to the streets en masse, joining together to march against the continuing restrictions being applied to their way of life. Friedrich von Massow, legal advisor to the Deutscher Jagdverband (a German hunters’ association), explained: “The main problem is that changes in the hunting laws are not based on facts but driven by feelings or an urban majority which does not consider the consequences for conservation or animal welfare.”
RESTRICTIONS IN POLAND
The Polish Senate has taken things a step further, making wholesale changes to hunting traditions, culture and methods through the introduction of its newly enacted Hunting Act. The Act has been rammed through parliament with no obvious consideration of its likely consequences or attention to the uproar generated by hunters and their families.
Within this new Act, the largest restriction to hunting is the increase of the participation age to 18. The lack of evidence provided to support this has given rise to the most outrage, leaving the hunters with no choice but to head to the streets in protest. Whilst the hunting associations prepare a Human Rights case against the Hunting Act, thousands joined in mutual anger to raise their voices outside the Polish parliament.
Also included in the Polish Hunting Act is a measure that allows the Polish Minister of the Environment to appoint the president of the Hunting Association – a particularly sinister development at a time when the political nature of Europe is increasingly fragile. These are not minor variations to practices but wholescale changes to the very principle of hunting in Poland.
These examples are a timely reminder of the potential threat to fieldsports in the UK if we are faced with a government that is disinterested in or actively opposed to them. We have been forced to march before when faced with a government determined to restrict our traditions so we should be under no illusion that this may be repeated. Restrictions are not always politically
motivated. Sometimes a kneejerk reaction threatens our sport. In this fast-paced world of social media, dramatic change can take place with frightening speed. Just a few weeks after the horrific terrorist attacks in Paris in November 2015, the European Commission released a set of proposals to restrict the acquisition and trade of firearms. Its aim: to close legal loopholes that had the potential to allow the activation of de-activated firearms. It was, of course, welcomed. However, in the Commission’s rush it managed to push through legislation that affected nearly two million legal gunowners. The Directive may have been passed but a number of countries continue to fight it, including the Czech Republic, which has filed a lawsuit with the European Court of Justice against the Directive.
At the time, the then minister of the interior, Milan Chovanec, said “such a massive punishment of decent arms holders is unacceptable because banning legally held weapons has no connection with the fight against terrorism”. Rightly or wrongly, the European Firearms Directive was another restriction to our way of life, which has amounted to little more than “slippage” on the hunter’s ability to use and possess certain firearms.
The UK has some of the strictest regulations when it comes to firearms control yet this does not absolve us from spontaneous reactions. This is currently being witnessed in the form of the Offensive Weapons Bill. Arising off the back of last year’s shocking shooting at a music festival in Las Vegas, the Bill seeks to restrict the use of large-calibre weapons, amongst other things. Again, this fast-paced, result-driven Bill currently has the potential to ban large-calibre rifles used for target shooting and big-game hunting for no reason other than their potential danger to public safety. This raises the question: what will be restricted next?
While the animal-rights movement has been simmering under the surface for a number of years, the rise of social media, click-bait stories and fake news has aided the movement’s rise to the fore. Whilst the front line in the UK has for many years been firmly fixed on fox hunting and the badger cull, across Europe and the rest of the world the wars being waged are multifaceted.
conservation v farming
The battle across northern Europe comes in the form of large carnivores and the conflict that ensues between conservation and farming. In the southern reaches of Europe, in particularly the Mediterranean countries, the fight is more focused on spring hunting. These are the pinch points, where the conservation charities see potential weaknesses in our evidence and methods; instant if only temporary public interest; and, most importantly, fundraising opportunities. The shock and awe tactic of dramatic pictures being shared on social media and sent to politicians has been shown to be far more effective than providing scientific evidence and lobbying in the traditional form.
There is little better example than that of Cecil the Lion, the killing of which, according to the secretary general of the European Federation of Associations for Hunting and Conservation (FACE), Ludwig Willnegger, “proved to be a turning point in the discussion on trophy hunting”. Although proven in court that the hunt was legal, “the stories and images shared by anti-hunting organisations went viral on social media. The consequences were grave, resulting in some countries banning the import of certain hunting trophies into, for example, France and the Netherlands.” The campaigners’ claimed victory before moving onto the next topical issue. Never has one hunt done so much political and press damage.
For those politicians dealing with these matters it is taking up an increasing amount of time. The petition to bring about justice for Cecil was signed by more than 1.3 million people. It is easy to see why politicians find it easier and less time consuming to agree with the banning argument rather than fighting for hunting’s continuation. The mass bombardment with emails, letters, including plenty of rhetoric and shock pictures, and petitions is not easy to take, even for the more
hardened parliamentarians. “The arguments needed to defend what we do are often more complex than the emotional campaigns used by the antis. It is also difficult to compete with the five biggest animal-rights organisations, which have almost ¤50 million at their disposal,” says Willnegger.
Alongside the animal-rights movement is the green lobby, which in Europe is far more organised and supported than our Green Party. Through the green platform we are seeing a slow and calculated attack on the edges of our values, a creep tactic that aims to restrict our practices. This can be seen with the use of glyphosate and neonicotinoids in farming, and lead ammunition and trapping standards, amongst others, in hunting.
bans and fads
There has certainly been an increase in the use of the word “ban” in the past 10 years, and together with the new fad, “rewilding” (which was only coined in the 1990s), the movement has its agenda set for the coming generations.
These organisations, which are growing in support annually, are efficient at telling the politicians, press and their members what they do not like and what they would like to see banned, but never what management they would like to see instead. They wish to see lead ammunition banned but have little care for the efficiency or suitability of the alternatives. It is the job of our shooting organisations to get these facts over – to fight each fight with the backing of scientific evidence and reason. For once you dig down to the bones it is obvious that these eco-warriors have little care for animals; around Europe and the world they are slowly and meticulously influencing organisations and parliaments to spread their class beliefs, before turning their attention and resources to the next issue. Never has it been more vital to put across the science behind and environmental benefits of our practices.
There’s another element that could lead to restrictions: animal disease. The main threats, for the time being, are avian influenza and African swine fever. Both diseases appear to be spreading in both ferocity and range, and have the capability to change our practices rapidly. The annual influx of avian influenza, brought to our shores by overwintering wildfowl, appears to be lingering ever longer into the warmer months. If the disease hangs on until autumn, the release of gamebirds could be restricted through prevention zones. Meanwhile, lethal African swine fever is spreading through European wild boar populations; from Russia to Germany the disease is having an impact.
Following on from these diseases, and the largest threat of the lot, is Transmissible Spongiform Encephalopathy (TSE), or Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD). Fatal for any deer that contracts it, its spread is dreaded by every stalker in the world. It has already had irreparable consequences in Northern America, causing a loss of millions to the rural economy, and in March 2016 the first case of CWD was reported in reindeer in Europe, with a case in Norway. The country is now on heightened alert – as should the rest of Europe be. If CWD were to breach our shores the damage it could do to our deer population, both wild and farmed, is untold.
While the spread of these diseases is mostly out of our control, if any were to take hold, our hunting practices, traditions and rural economy could be altered significantly.
The threats are out there and made even more real by the fact that the UK has devolved many of the aforementioned powers away from a central government. If, for example, the Scottish Parliament was to tighten the screws, Westminster, the Sennedd and/or Stormont could follow suit. The pressure is not just on keeping a grip on one ruling political party but four. Scotland introduced vicarious liability around four years ago; calls for its introduction in England have been growing ever since.
This is not to say that are world is collapsing in around us – there have been victories and strengthening of our practices in recent years. The appointment of falconry as a UNESCO cultural tangible heritage is one. Finland’s reintroduction of bow hunting and a closely fought victory, through a countrywide referendum, to continue spring hunting in Malta are just a few other examples. Even in the UK the numbers of firearms certificates and therefore participants are at their highest levels since the 1980s. Yet we have to acknowledge the attacks will not stop, the threat to the UK is not make believe. Traditions vary greatly between countries in Europe, but as the UK makes its slow transition away from the EU, it would be wise to keep our links and lines of communication open, not least to discover what practices might be under threat next.
Avian influenza is brought to our shores by overwintering wildfowl
Sounding the hunting horn (left) and sitting in a high seat (above) while boar hunting in Germany
Hunting grouse on the tundra in Norway; the country has been the first in Europe to have a confirmed case of Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) in deer
Red deer in Scotland; if CWD were to breach our shores, it could do untold damage to the deer population, both farmed and wild