Open season in the Alps
The right to hunt has been legally enshrined in Graubünden since 1526 (Keystone)
The hunting season is a highlight of the year in mountainous Swiss cantons like Graubünden. Although outsiders may see it as a blood sport, there is little conflict between local hunters and nature conservationists.
Rony Frank believes hunting is in his blood. “It’s a disease. A passion. An addiction. It’s three weeks right in the middle of nature,” he tells swissinfo.ch.
He and his brother Röbi come from a hunting family in the Domleschg, the valley through which the lower branch of the young Rhine flows.
“We all hunt,” Röbi says. Their grandfather hunted, and Röbi remembers learning the craft and lore of hunting as a boy while out with his father.
He has been a hunter for 20 years. He works as a floor fitter, and the hunting season takes up almost all his holidays. Rony, a carpenter, has hunted for 21 years.
Both only have the time to do the “high” hunt in September, for bigger game like deer and chamois. (The “low” hunt for small mammals and game birds takes place in October and November.)
Röbi hunts for “recreation, the hunt itself, but also nature, and seeing animals and watching them. And of course the meat”, which they eat at home. Rony tells swissinfo.ch he intends to pass on the love of hunting to his son, who is ten and already goes on the hunt with the family group.
Hunting is a tradition and an institution in Graubünden. The right to hunt has been legally enshrined there since 1526 and the canton’s official position is that hunting is ecologically necessary as the population of deer, for example, increases yearly and if not hunted would cause environmental collapse.
Thousands of hunters are licensed for its annual autumnal hunt. Licence holders have to take a tough exam and do hours of conservation work to get their permit, which then has to be renewed every year.
Herbert Schönhart is another keen hunter. By profession he is a special needs teacher and has lived and worked in Graubünden and St Gallen. An Austrian by birth, he also hunts in game reserves in the Czech Republic and Germany. In Styria, where he comes from, his father was a hunter too. Hunting clearly runs in families.
“Hunting today is so mixed up with the different interests at stake – not only hunting itself, but nature conservation, and also forestry management,” he says.
It is now understood that hunting - or not hunting particular animals - has an effect on other aspects of nature. Wildlife management makes special demands on the hunter. Schönhart says it is tough getting used to shooting female and young animals, as is required in a controlled hunt. “My father only ever shot male animals.”
Short and intense
“Graubünden hunters have got to be the toughest. Because the season is so short, they go out in any kind of weather,” Schönhart explains.
As it is so concentrated, there are a lot of emotions associated with it, he adds. “Hunting and shooting something is a great high. Like when you score a goal in football, or the way a mountain-climber feels when he reaches the top. It also feels like pay day, when you say to yourself ‘now I can feed my family’”.
Just before the hunt, Röbi Frank feels “joyful anticipation – that is perhaps the finest thing”. Then during the season itself, there is the experience of being out in nature, and the suspense. “It is good just to watch the animals, it’s a real experience. And it is a bit of stress too,” he adds.
His brother concurs. Just before the hunt “you can’t sleep, your nerves are up and down”. “There are 6,000 hunters out there too, so the competitive pressure is high. And you do go out to shoot game. Otherwise there would be no point in bringing your rifle, you could just bring a camera!”
He adds: “It’s true, you have killed a living creature, but life goes on, and it makes room for new life.”
Critics of hunting
Animal welfare advocates such as the Swiss association to protect game animals do criticise hunting and urge its abolition - mainly on moral grounds, saying it is inhumane.
They also warn of the danger of people shooting off guns around the countryside. They reject that hunting is necessary to keep down populations of game animals and point out that the canton of Geneva has essentially abolished hunting since 1974.
Mainstream nature conservationists in Graubünden, on the other hand, do not oppose the hunt. They work with the hunters pursuing a common strategy of conservation. One example is the involvement of the Ornithological Working Group of Graubünden, an association of birdwatchers, for conserving stocks of game birds.
“In Graubünden we have a special and, in my view, an ideal situation,” Christoph Meier, president of group, tells swissinfo.ch.
“Some of our members are hunters, and on the other hand we work well together with the [cantonal] department of fish and wildlife. Many game wardens have taken our courses and benefited from our knowledge, and they give us regular data about their observations of birds like raptors and owls. The wardens are out there every day and are very good observers.”
“So basically we have no problem with hunting.”
Rony Frank is active in the local hunting association, so he is aware of the political dimension of the sport. He encounters criticism of hunting and says those who condemn the hunt mostly live in the cities, although there are local opponents of hunting in the Alps too.
The argument in support of hunting used to be that people needed it for subsistence. Now the argument is for the nature conservation work that hunters do.
“People only see the shooting part,” Frank says. “But we have to shoot young animals as well as old, for conservation reasons, to control the population.”