Elevated decorum in the forests of Central Europe.
Passion and pursuit: Arrival
“Ahoj (hello) Professor!” was the enthusiastic greeting my smiling host and hunting guide Tomas Hercik called out as he vigorously shook my hand. Tomas had an interesting way of making a person feel welcome, even when leaving! He would say in English, “Hello” whenever we departed. We were meeting for the first time in the lobby of hotel NaFarme (On the Farm) in the small village of Chotovice’, Bohemia, Czech Republic to discuss our coming hunt.
Being of European descent and an avid hunter, my interest was partly due to stories family and friends conveyed about uniquely European hunting traditions. St. Hubertus, patron saint of hunters, hunting dogs, and woodsmen is part of the story as well… just take a look at the label on a bottle of Jägermeister (Translation: Master Hunter). Heck, my dog is even named Jager! As a visiting Fulbright professor, it was hoped some of my time in the Czech Republic (don’t ever say Czechoslovakia) would be spent pursuing roe deer (Capreolus capreolus), red stag (Cervus elaphus), or mouflon ram (Ovis aries).
My favorite European tradition (dating back centuries) for big game hunting takes place after the kill. Once a hunter brings down large game, the guide will take tree sprigs (typically evergreen, but any vegetation will do), brushing the animal’s body, followed by placing it into the animal’s mouth. The remaining sprig follows the same process, then is formally given to the hunter. Weapons set aside, hats removed, followed by a hand shake; the sprig is then placed in the brim or band of the hunter’s hat. Broad smiles, and velmi dobrie! (very good) all around. I for one would love to see this tradition cross the pond to the U.S.
Another obvious difference/tradition in European big-game hunting is the total lack of camo used by hunters. They dress more like country gentlemen, with dark forest green vest, coat, or half-zip fleece or wool pullover, topped off with a Fedora-style hat. Some say hunters give the appearance of dressing for a formal event or woodsmen preparing for a royal feast. They definitely dress more stylish compared to our head-to-toe camo military look! Admittedly, I joined the locals by purchasing and wearing a forest green vest and traditional Czech felt hat.
The area hunted consisted of a historic estate (17th Century) game reserve (700 hectares high- fence) and free-range forest (8000 hectares). The same noble family possessed the lands until present day, with the exception of the communist period when the former Soviet Union occupied the land. After the Velvet Revolution in 1989, the property reverted back to the original family. Traditionally, it was the nobles that hunted big game, while the average citizen did not. These lands are currently managed for big-game hunting by paying customers (typically priced by size/trophy taken).
Methods: Czech Traditional Big Game hunting/stalking
Traditional big-game hunting methods include stalking, stand hunting from ground or elevated blinds, and driven hunts. Many hunters come to either the Czech Republic or Slovakia since they contain more areas open to hunting and abundant game. Wild boar in particular are considered nuisance animals, with local farmers begging for more to be taken. Historically, gamekeepers, when not hunting boar, predators, badgers, and foxes, spent much of their time chasing poachers… area citizens seeking a cheap meal.
Unlike the U.S., historic land of aristocrats is now leased and hunted by visitors from around the world. Historically, hunting centered around noblemen, standing in field or forest, awaiting drivers/flushers (lines of walkers) to push animals for a clear shot. Use of dogs was also employed. Driven hunts, as they are called, are very popular since boar, deer, and other game are usually running wildly past posted hunters. Also, spot and stalk is employed, along with the more typical (in the U.S.) stand or elevated blind hunt. Much depends on the type of game being hunted and/or hunter’s preference.
Today, the most commonly taken deer in Europe is the small roe deer, due to its wide range and delicious taste. The majestic red stag (red deer), is also a sought-after trophy.
History and Beer Culture
The region hunted is known as Bohemia, boasting Baroque chateaus and Medieval castles. For many centuries, the area has attracted painters, writers, artists, and dreamers of all kinds… thus the Bohemian lifestyle.
Another benefit of this region is beer, or pivo in Czech. Czechs pride themselves on their beer production and consumption. They consume more beer per capita than any other country. They have literally invented some types of beer we all know. A good example is Pilsner, created in 1842 in the town of Plzen (Pilsen in German) and sold as Pilsner Urquell. It was the world’s first pale lager and has been copied worldwide (sold as Pils, Pilsner, or Pilsener). Every pivo I sampled, and there were many, were excellent. My favorite was first brewed in the 1300s. A traditional pivo toast after a successful hunt, or even an unsuccessful hunt, is to state loudly: Na zdravi! (cheers). Gastro delights abound as well. Don’t be on a diet when visiting!
So, raise a pint of pivo, say Na zdravi! …and Good hunting (dobry’ lov) everyone!
The Story of Saint Hubertus, the Christian patron saint of hunters.
St. Hubertus’ wife died giving birth to their son, and he withdrew into the forest and gave himself up entirely to hunting. However, soon he would have a vision. On Good Friday morning, when the faithful were crowding the churches, Hubertus instead was hunting.
As he was pursuing a magnificent stag, the animal turned and, as the legend says, he was astounded at perceiving a crucifix standing between its antlers, while he heard a voice saying: “Hubertus, unless thou turnest to the Lord, and leadest a holy life, thou shalt quickly go down into hell.” Also during his vision, the stag is said to have lectured Hubertus into holding animals in higher regard and having compassion for them as God’s creatures with a value in their own right. For example, the hunter ought to only shoot when a humane, clean, and quick kill is assured. He ought to shoot only old stags past their prime breeding years and to relinquish a much-anticipated shot on a trophy to instead euthanize a sick or injured animal that might appear on the scene. Further, one ought never shoot a female with young in tow to assure the young deer have a mother to guide them to food during the winter.
After his vision, Hubertus renounced his royal titles, gave his wealth to the poor, and returned to faith.
Today, Saint Hubertus is honored among sport-hunters as the originator of ethical hunting behavior. The legacy of Hubertus is still taught today and held in high regard in the extensive and rigorous German and Austrian hunter education courses.
Also, you may be more familiar with St. Hubertus than you know (or remember…). His vision is represented as the logo on Jägermeister bottles.