The killing fields: Europe's hunting season begins

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As Brad and Angelina have discovered to their cost, Europe's hills and forests will soon be echoing to the sound of gunfire, as hunting season begins. John Walsh takes aim


It's one of those tiny details that the estate agent or the surveyor omits to tell you, like the fact that there's a ghost in the drawing-room or a septic tank in the next field. For Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, it was worse than either.

The couple and their four children recently moved into a new home in France, to await the arrival of their twins. Their new residence is a 17th-century chateau in Aix-en-Provence, leased from the US millionaire Tom Bove. Since Brad and Ange are keen supporters of environmental causes, they were shocked to learn that the castle's grounds are traditionally used by locals to hunt wild boar every summer. The season starts on 15 August.

Could Hollywood's golden couple do something? Should they risk irritating their new neighbours by trying to ban a traditional French pastime? As they didn't own the land, the moment passed. The president of the boar hunt told France Dimanche that the chateau estate was fair game: "We have a written agreement to hunt on the estate, which doesn't expire until at least 30 August," he said. So the Jolie-Pitts will have to put up with spilt boar-guts in their backyard, along with the other signs of Provence en fête.

The extent to which such things go on in our European backyard is startling. Home-grown hunters and bloodthirsty tourists wipe out livestock in 20 countries – some very close to home. Deluded hunter-gatherers flock to Scotland every year to take pot-shots at hundreds of thousands of male deer. You don't need a licence to kill them. You can just roll up with your mates. Yes, stag-party stag-hunts have become popular – even if it seems a lot of trouble (and mayhem) to go to, for the sake of a pun. Bear-fanciers visited Romania in droves over the past 15 years for a simple reason: under communist rule, bear-shooting was banned (unless you were a Communist party official). The bear population grew until it was the largest in Europe outside Russia – and after the fall of the USSR, and the rescinding of the ban, the door was open for European hunters to visit, paying €8,000 (£6,000) to hunt bear in the Carpathian mountains.

In Ireland, fox hunting with hounds is still perfectly legal, and traditional hunts such as the Galway Blazers, the Black and Tans and the Golden Vale still thunder across meadows in search of their prey. In France, as Brad and Angelina discovered, hunting holidays are organised around chateaux. In the Loire valley, the count and master of hounds dress up their guests (for $5,000/£2,500 to $6,000 per person) in 18th-century livery, with velvet-collared coats and tricorn hats, and ride to battle with fox, stag, roebuck and hare while listening to uniformed flunkeys blowing huge circular hunting horns. In Austria and Switzerland, ibex and chamois deer are slaughtered by annual visitors to the mountains; but there's a contrast between their approaches. Austria offers holidaymakers "big-game hunting" before revealing that the big game in question will be "sub-species of deer, chamois and sheep". Sheep? When were they big game?) Tour operators offer a five-day hunt in a 14,000-hectare game reserve and promises "top world-level trophies" without requiring any documentation from the shooter.

In Switzerland, you must apply a year in advance for a licence to hunt ibex or chamois, pay $2,000 – and there's no guarantee you'll get one. If successful, you're allowed two days to stalk the deer, but you can't use a car; you have to stalk on foot. And they'll steer you towards the older and more clapped-out animals, so you don't shoot the young ones. In Spain, hunting ibex and chamois is allowed on private hunting grounds in national wildlife reserves. Hunters need a licence, a permit, gun clearance and personal insurance. Throwbacks who prefer stalking living animals with a bow and arrow for pleasure, as their Neanderthal ancestors did from necessity, can go on bow hunts, in which red stag, fallow deer, sheep and wild boar are drawn towards "tree stands", "ground blinds" and "productive meadows", to guarantee a clear shot for the humans in the hunting lodges. Depending on season and duration, prices can go up to $200,000.

The Czech Republic became a Mecca for huntsmen after the fall of communism, but hunting was always big in Czechoslovakia: stags, roe deer and wild boar have been bred to be blown away for five centuries, and new species have been introduced – fallow deer, sika deer and mouflon sheep – in the interests of variety. You need a valid hunting licence from your country of origin, before you can apply for a Czech one. The boar season runs from 1 August to 15 January, though the good news is that enthusiasts can blast away at piglets and yearlings all year round.

In Italy, fox hunting has been replaced by drag hunting with hounds – but wild boar hunting is enthusiastically pursued by locals. Foreigners, according to the law, can hunt deer and boar only in private hunting grounds, usually found near major cities, and pay £600 a day. They need a hunting licence, permit and insurance.

And England? Surely, since the fox-hunting ban in 2004, we are exempt from any taint of hunting and blood sports? Nope. It's easy to find websites cheerily offering "Exotic Deers [sic] Hunting in England" and promises a rich haul of carcasses from the "autochthonous" (native) deer population. The organisers explain that, due to the insanely complicated gun laws in the UK, they can't rent you guns – they'll just lend you the things and you pay for the ammunition. The season is September-December, the quarry is muntjac and fallow deer and soay sheep, and they charge a cool £470 per diem. It's still legal to hunt deer with guns in England, you see – but not with bows and arrows or with a pack of hounds.

So there you have it – a veritable blitzkrieg of wildlife right across Europe on every day of the season; some of it goes on all year round. Different countries have different approaches to the subject. Is it perhaps time they were standardised? In October 2006, the European parliament declared that "improved animal protection is a permanent obligation of the Community" and MEPs endorsed a resolution on the Community Action Plan on the Protection and Welfare of Animals 2006-2010. It has a dry, bureaucratic, rather hollow ring, and will continue to, until Europe starts to allow its wildlife the most basic welfare protection of all – not having men shoot it for their idle pleasure.

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