Since the ban on hunting live quarry with hounds in 1934, a highly social and enjoyable form of drag hunting has developed across the country, says Will Cursham
Hunting live quarry has been banned in Germany since 1934. With no political will to overturn the ban since, a highly enjoyable and social form of German drag hunting has developed, as Will Cursham discovered.
For another hunting trip to add to the bucket list, read hunting in Ireland: touring three Irish packs. With imposing walls, deep drains, double banks and fast and furious hunting, it is not for the faint hearted.
GERMAN DRAG HUNTING
“You are going hunting where?” asked one of my friends when I told her that I was to visit the Rheinisch-Westfälischer Schleppjagdverein. I could not blame her for being baffled. For a start, the Rheinisch-Westfälischer Schleppjagdverein is the longest and most unpronounceable name for a hunt that I have ever come across. The first part refers to the area that they hunt (Rhineland-Westphalia, in western Germany), while schleppjagd means “drag hunt” and verein means “club”. Not surprisingly, the locals refer to it simply as the “RWS”.
The next thing that my friend couldn’t get over was the fact that there was hunting with hounds in Germany at all. There are, in fact, currently 26 packs of hounds dotted across the country, spread from the shores of the Baltic in the north to the mountains of Bavaria in the south. Whilst some are foxhound packs and others are beagles, all of them are schleppjagd (drag hunts).
And herein lies an interesting story. Hunting live quarry with hounds has been illegal in Germany since the Nazis banned it in 1934. Quite why they did so is something of a mystery. Some say it was at the behest of Air Marshall Hermann Göring, a keen shot who saw hunting as interfering with shooting. Others believe it was intended as political retribution against the aristocratic Junker class. What is certain is that it was an entirely arbitrary move, motivated by politics rather than animal welfare.
For various reasons there has never been the political will to overturn this ban. “Our politicians are too green to allow proper hunting nowadays and, anyway, everywhere is so built-up that we don’t have room,” explains Christian Coenen, Master of the RWS. So, 84 years on, German hunting folk are still keeping their old hunting traditions alive through the schleppjagd.
Until about six months ago I was as much in the dark about all this as my bemused friend. However, that changed following a telephone call from one of my oldest hunting friends, Andrew Sallis, back in June. “Do you fancy coming over to judge at the German National Puppy Show – all expenses paid for and plenty of beer?” he asked me. Despite knowing next to nothing about judging hounds, I was sold.
Random experiences often turn out to be the best and the German National Puppy Show was no exception. A hunting world that I had never heard of descended on the RWS’s headquarters at Schwarzenstein Castle, a handsome old country house that lies about 40 miles to the north of Düsseldorf. More than 20 hunts from every corner of Germany showed their young hounds. There were foxhounds, beagles, staghounds and bloodhounds on show. Virtually all the hounds had English breeding and were shown by Masters and hunt staff in a kaleidoscope of hunt uniforms, from English-type red coats to long, French-style green coats. Some of the lady Masters from Bavaria even wore traditional sidesaddle habits.
Competition was stiff in all classes but the RWS eventually prevailed in the foxhound category, winning the champion of champions class. After the show, Christian Coenen took me for a tour of the RWS kennels, just a few hundred yards from the castle. With evident pride, he showed me the RWS’s 35 couple of hounds. “All these hounds have English blood, from the Beaufort, Tynedale and West Norfolk. Actually, there are four here that we got direct from England: Downton, Daggat, Daring and Garnish,” he told me.
THE NEXT STEP
That evening, the RWS held an enormous party at Schwarzenstein Castle for all those who had attended the puppy show. As I drank beer and shared stories with hunting folk from all parts of Germany, it struck me that the puppy show and my tour of the RWS kennels had piqued my interest in the undiscovered world of German hunting. The next stage, I decided, was to have a day’s hunting.
So, six months later, I found myself once again at Schwarzenstein for one of the RWS’s biggest meets of the year, the “Equipage” meet. Equipage is a word derived from French hunting, meaning “team”, and refers to the core of the hunt: the Masters, huntsman and (amateur) whippers-in. Becoming a member of the equipage is a great privilege as members are allowed to ride up front with hounds. Yet it comes with great responsibility, as the equipage is responsible for the training of the hounds. “Not only do we hunt every Saturday but we also go out on hound exercise on Sundays and once or twice during the week,” explained Franz Dörken, a long-time member of the RWS equipage who also helped to organise my visit.
Members of the equipage were hosting the meet today – and hosting a meet in Germany means much more than giving out a few glasses of port and sausage rolls. Hunting in Germany, as in France, is a social occasion and today there was to be a lunch before the meet and then a three-course dinner afterwards, both for more than 100 people, all provided by the meet hosts.
It can take years to become a member of the equipage but Coenen invited me to join them for the day and so I found myself up-front with Coenen, professional huntsman Heiko Burcard, Dörken, Ute Boss-Hekma, Roland Harting, Chris Gabrielse and 25 couple of hounds as we set off for the first line.
LAND AND CASTLE RENTED
Schwarzenstein is set-up for hunting. “We rent the castle and 250 hectares of land round about, and we have built about 250 fences in the area,” explained Coenen as we hacked through the forest. It wasn’t long before we sampled some of those fences. As we emerged from the forest into the water meadows next to the River Lippe, Burcard laid hounds onto the line and they surged off with a spine-tingling, clear cry. Off we went after them, keeping as close as possible, popping the fences, most of which were made of logs, at a good gallop.
My horse, a lovely Bavarian mare called Concetta, lent to me by Boss-Hekma, was going beautifully and I felt pleased as we pulled up for a “check”, where we were greeted with a fanfare from the Hegering Hünxe, a local group of horn-players. “Every local shoot has its own group and this one plays for the local shoot at Hünxe but they also come to play for us,” Coenen told me. They played a fanfare for us at each check, reminding me of the wonderful fanfares that you hear in the forests of France and of the link between hunting with hounds and what the Germans call “green hunting” (shooting).
There were going to be four lines today, with checks between each, and as one might expect, it was all meticulously organised. A few minutes before each line, the trail layers, Julia Wiesehahn and Arndt Wegert, would set off to lay the trail. For the second line of the day, Dörken and I joined them.
Trail-laying in England is usually done with a smelly old rag but in Germany it is much more high-tech. Two large bottles are attached to the trail-layer’s saddle, with a pipe hanging down to the ground. The trail-layer presses a button at regular intervals, which releases the scent down the pipe to the ground. It is a stomach-churning liquid derived from cow’s innards; as Coenen puts it, “I like them to hunt what they eat.”
“We start laying the trail seven or eight minutes before hounds are set on. Any more and the scent is not too good, any less we get caught,” explained Dörken as we cantered after Wiesehahn and Wegert. I was keen to see how hounds would hunt the scent, so we stopped halfway and waited for hounds to appear. For a while, all was silent. A small herd of deer appeared and crossed the line. A few minutes later, we heard hounds and shortly afterwards they appeared, streaming across the water-meadows in full cry, hunting the line almost exactly where the trail-layers had laid it and totally ignoring the deer. It was impressive stuff but not just a nicety. It reminded me that at the puppy show back in June several packs had to undergo a mounted test to show that they could control their hounds, to persuade the local Westphalian government not to make them put hounds on leads.
I rejoined the equipage for the rest of the day and, with the sun dipping towards the horizon, we hunted the last two lines in the forest, weaving our way through the trees and jumping logs and ditches that suddenly appeared around a corner. At one point we emerged onto an old three-day event course, where we jumped some beautifully kept hedges. Hounds were always in front of us, their voices filling the chill forest air.
By the time we finished, a white frost coated the ground and a cold mist was rising. Hounds provided us with a timeless spectacle as they emerged in full cry from the mist into the grounds of the castle.
The final line ended here, where the day had begun. Hounds were rewarded with a large pile of tripe, whilst the equipage and other members of the hunt cried “Ha la lit!” a French phrase that means “There he lies”, a throwback to the days when hounds hunted and killed live quarry. There were other reminders of those days, too: the huge bonfire that members of the hunt had lit and the small branches of fir, known as bruch, that were handed out to all those who had successfully completed the hunt.
To top the day off, I was presented with a glass of cold German beer. As I sipped it and watched hounds hack back to their kennels in the twilight, I tried to sum up my experience of German hunting. As I pondered the question, the words of one RWS member, Nicole Wolf, struck me as true: “It is like we are doing a cover of hunting,” she had told me. What she meant is that modern German hunting is like a cover version of an original song. From what I had seen at both the puppy show and today, it is a faithful and hugely enjoyable cover.
BEST OF THE REST: SIX TOP GERMAN MEETS
Schleppjagdverein von Bayern at Herrenchiemsee
You will hunt through the historic grounds of Castle Herrenchiemsee, known as the “Bavarian Versailles”, situated on an island in Lake Chiemsee in southern Germany. The day starts with a ferry ride to the island in the small hours of the morning.
Email firstname.lastname@example.org or go to: www.schleppjagd.de
Vogelsberg-Meute at Fulda
Following beagles on horseback over the hills of Hesse’s Rhön area, with the baroque Castle Eichenzell in the background. This pack also visits the Czech Republic in November.
Email Micheal Weiler at email@example.com or go to: www.vogelsberg-meute.de
Hamburger Schleppjagdverein at Jesteburg
This is known as “Cross Country Day with Hounds” for a reason: jumping crazy ditches and banks in Northern Germany.
Email Ulrich Deus at UDeus@t-online.de or go to: www.hsjv.com
Hardt-Meute at Marbach
Here, large French hounds hunt the drag over the wide-open, hilly spaces of the Swabian Alps. The oldest German Stud, Marbach, was founded here 500 years ago.
Email Katja Grimm at firstname.lastname@example.org or go to: www.hardtmeute.de
Mecklenburger Meute at Rügen
The hunt hosts its “Baltic Week” on Germany’s largest island in the Baltic Sea.
Email email@example.com or go to: www.mecklenburger-meute.de
Weser Vale Bloodhounds at Gotha
A very private British “left over” in the Weser Vale area. One of the hunt’s most spectacular hunting grounds in early spring is the former race track of Gotha in Thuringia.
Email Busso Freise at firstname.lastname@example.org or go to: www.rosenkotten.de