KISBUCSA, HUNGARY – It is raining hard and almost dark as Walter Rienzner, perched on a raised shooting platform, drops the bombshell in a whisper: Women might be better hunters than men.
“They have respect for the animal,” said the grizzled 48-year-old, part of a group of mainly Austrian, mostly female hunters on a recent weekend over the border in Hungary.
“They make sure that the meat, the fur and the fat are not wasted. . . . And when it comes to shooting, they are much more precise. They don’t just start blasting away.”
More and more women in Austria are choosing to spend their free time in undergrowth or stalking through forests, gun in hand and dog at side, hunting for food, fun and companionship.
In doing so, Austria’s 11,000 registered female hunters are helping to improve the traditionally male-dominated hobby’s image.
They are also keeping some old huntsmen’s traditions alive and — perhaps — making the men better behaved.
“I think women have improved hunting, made it more elegant,” said Joerg Deutschmann, 49, who has driven from Germany, rifle in the boot of his Audi, to bag some of Hungary’s plentiful red deer and boar with the group. “Things are less boisterous afterward. Not all hunters like it though, particularly some old ones.”
One example is Petra Schneeweiss, 48. Her passion is such that together with her daughter Elia, 28, she launched a magazine called Die Jaegerin (The Huntress).
Women are less interested in hunting just for “trophies” to hang on the wall, she said. Instead, they primarily hunt for food, camaraderie and because of their love for nature.
“After I have shot something I do need a few moments of peace,” she said, puffing on a cigarette in her baggy green hunting clothes.
“I have respect for these animals. When it’s just bang, bang, one here, one there, I don’t like it.”
And she is passionate about maintaining old hunting customs such as the “last bite,” the practice of placing a sprig of vegetation in an animal’s mouth after it has been shot.
“The hunter also puts a piece in his hat, on the right,” Schneeweiss earnestly explains. “When it’s worn on the left it’s for ceremonies, for example at a hunter’s funeral.”
Such rites are something that Evelin Grubelnig, 38, tip-toeing down a muddy track at dawn the next day, gun in hand, had to learn when she got her hunting license two years ago.
“It took a year. You learn about the animals, forestry, ecology, the different hunting dogs, ballistics, the regulations,” the schoolteacher mother-of-two recalled. “I have done a lot of exams but this was the hardest.”
The hobby also requires money — her rifle alone cost €5,000 ($7,000) — time and patience. More often than not, as was the case this weekend, all the hunters get is wet and muddy.
But Grubelnig says it is worth it. Meat tastes better, she says, when you have shot it yourself, and it is a lot healthier — and less cruel to the animals — than the supermarket stuff.
“It’s the excitement, the experience, the switching off, forgetting all about the daily grind,” said Grubelnig, whose tally of four animals in two years is about par for the course. “Your main concern is shooting the animal cleanly; you don’t want it to suffer,” she said. “I don’t feel sorry for the animal, really. You learn in the course about why you are shooting things.”
Her husband, 40-year-old master builder Herbert, says that unlike in the past, when his father used to go away hunting for several days, hunting is something that couples nowadays can do together.