EASA 2016 Vortrag Hunting wild animals in Germany

Hunting wild animals in Germany has become a contested field as wildlife management regimes meet ‚traditional‘ hunting practices of ’stewardship‘. At the centre of this conflict we find divergent human-animal relations and divergent conceptions of the ‚wild‘.

Gieser, Thorsten (2016). Hunting wild animals in Germany: Conflicts between wildlife management and ‚traditional‘ practices of Hege and Waidgerechtigkeit. Paper presented at the European Association of Social Anthropologists (EASA) Conference, July 2016, Milan/Italy


  1. Introduction

Almost 400,000 non-professional hunters are supposed to ‚manage‘ wildlife populations in Germany, killing an average of 4.5 million game animals per year in a process officially governed by forestry and conservation agencies. In public discourses, hunters‘ representative bodies often join ecological argumentations on the function of hunting for managing wildlife and ecosystems in order to justify their practice to the (overall) critical mainstream society. On the ground, however, hunters tend to vehemently refuse being labelled ‚managers‘ and instead claim to be engaged in Hege, a particular ‚traditional‘ form of stewardship that defines the hunters and their ‚fair‘ relationship with wild animals (called Waidgerechtigkeit).

In order to understand the source of this conflict, we need to, first, look into the history of wildlife management and its relation to hunting practices and knowledge. Second, we need to acknowledge the influence of the North American idea of wilderness on modern wildlife management practices and the role hunting is assigned to within this discourse. Equipped with these insights, we can move on to consider hunting in Germany and how practices of Hege oppose the model of wilderness and wildlife management on the grounds that hunters claim to be in a special relationship with wild animals. In conclusion, I point out potential negative implications within the agenda of wildlife management for developing an environmental ethics and instead follow the lead of hunters to suggest that we need to think about discussing our relationship with wild animals.

  1. Origins of Wildlife Management

Although it might appear strange, wildlife management has its historical roots in hunting practices (Stahl 1979). With the rise of the nation state in central Europe during the 16th and 17th century came an increasing bureaucratisation and scientification of all areas of public life (see Foucault). Hunting was no exception to this process: we find a number of publications of hunting ‚experts‘ trying to establish standards for proper hunting knowledge, based on scientific knowledge. We also find the introduction of wildlife surveys, measures of population control, proto-sustainable management of populations, hunting quotas, etc. It could be argued that wildlife management had been part of hunting up to the 19th century. And it could also be argued that since then the roles changed and hunting has become part of wildlife management (Bode 2000, Maylein 2010).

  1. The North American Re-Invention of Wildlife Management

In a North American context, this change had to do with a change in attitude. Whereas the view of wildlife as abundant and endless had ceased and been replaced with first pressing signs of massive decline in some species (wolves, bisons, etc) by the end of the 19th century, the establishment of national parks and the introduction of ‚game management‘ by Aldo Leopold and others in the first half of the 20th century had shown that a new understanding of ‚conservation‘ with but also against hunting was necessary. In Leopold’s vision of the new science of wildlife management, hunting was set in a framework that combined scientific theories of ecology and biology with his ‚land ethic‘. His inspiration in this regard came from his forestry training. As Susan Flader (66) has observed: „The forester as technician was concerned chiefly with timber, but the forester in his capacity as land manager, Leopold believed, was responsible for putting the land to its highest use. That involved provision for recreational hunting as well as for the harvesting of timber and the grazing of livestock“. All in all, North American wildlife management combined economic, scientific and cultural ideas to ensure the survival (or re-creation) of what had become labelled ‚wilderness‘ in public discourse. From Leopold’s times onwards, the science of wildlife management has become an increasingly global practice and theory which affects human-animal- relations worldwide.

  1. Ecology and Ecosystem-Wilderness

Although approaches to and definitions of wildlife management are numerous, they all seem to agree on a conception of what Gisela Kangler (2009) calls ecosystem-wilderness (Ökosystem-Wildnis). Similar to Thomas Kirchhoff and Ludwig Trepl (2009), she argues that the science of ecology needs to be understood as a sociocultural construction that unites scientific findings and theory with cultural values, such as ecosystem and wilderness. In other words, ecosystems are supposed to function at their best when ’natural‘ dynamics are left untouched by human impact – or at least, when human influence is reduced to a minimum.

Hunting, in this regard, is considered a form of human impact best to be avoided or at least reduced to its functional essence: killing – and thereby regulating wildlife populations. An example by sociologist Jan Dizard (1999) illustrates this point: in a conflict over managing the local deer population involving a Metropolitan District Commission (MDC) in Massachusetts and the Division of Wildlife and Fisheries, the former party planned to hire sharpshooters instead of hunters to do this job. The environmentalists in the MDC „wanted managers, not sportsmen, loose in the reservation, people who would approach the hunt with the idea of getting a job done, not with the idea of satisfying primal urges or embodying some abstract notion of a sporting ethos“ (1999:122). The effective and efficient administration of death as the execution of management planning was thus the ideal of this type of wildlife management. As I will show next, this conception goes against the core of the hunters‘ ethos – not just in the US, but especially in Germany.

  1. Hunting in Germany

From the early Middle Ages up to the German Revolution of 1848, hunting had increasingly been turned into the legal privilege of the aristocracy and the professional hunters employed in their service (Maylein 2010, Rösner 2004). For centuries, the general population’s only means to hunt was poaching (Girtler 1998). As a consequence, Germany’s hunting ‚tradition‘ today is very much influenced by – and a development of – aristocratic traditions (Theilemann 2004) – even though it has become a pastime of mainly the middle classes during the course of the last 150 years (Hiller 2003).

Becoming a hunter in Germany is quite difficult: one cannot have a criminal record, one has to undergo training (min. 6 months in an informal apprenticeship or three weeks in a hunting school), with several exams that need to be passed. One has to find a hunting district (Revier) and lease it for up to nine years, for several thousands of Euros (depending on the ‚quality‘ of the Revier, i.e. the composition of its game population). Hunters then are responsible for the game population in their Revier, as well as for any damage game might cause to surrounding crops in the fields. In a way, today’s hunter continues the role of professional hunters in earlier days – with the exception that they are not employed by landowners but take on their responsibility voluntarily. In other words, Germany’s game population is managed to a large extent by volunteers. They have paid for their privilege to have responsibility and they see themselves as continuing the (aristocratic) hunting tradition – both factors together make them difficult partners when trying to negotiate how they should manage wildlife.

  1. Hunters and Animals

When discussing the hunters‘ relationship with animals, it is helpful to start with the German notion of ‚game animal‘, i.e. Wild. In contrast to the English term which situates animals as game in a context of the cultural practice of sports (including notions of fairness and sportsmanship, see Dizard 1999), the German term Wild means wild – as in wild animal. However, Wild does not refer to any wild animal but only to hunt-able wild animals. Although they are animals defined by their freedom, they are also defined by their relationship with humans. Hence, their ‚wildness‘ does not include being untouched by humans – as the notion of a wild animal in the common wilderness discourse might suggest.

Today, there are more than 110 species of Wild yet only about 45 of them are actually huntable. The rest have close season all year round but still remain under the management responsibility of hunters. In contrast to Wild, German law recognizes wildlebende Tiere (wild animals) which are under nature protection law (as are some Wild species such as the lynx) and are not to be hunted (including wolves which are no Wild!).

Notwithstanding this peculiar distinction between Wild and wild animals, hunting knowledge ‚traditionally‘ separates wild from domestic animals, as can be seen in a hunters‘ manual from the 18th century, von Flemming’s Der vollkommene Teutsche Jäger [The Perfect German Hunter] (1749). Here, von Flemming elaborates the term Wild by further distinguishing bestiae from animales and raptores (using Latin phrases as was usual in ’scientific‘ works). The bestiae included big, dangerous animals reserved for hunting by a king, from lions and tigers (both non-native in Germany) to bears and aurochs (both extinct now in Germany). Less dangerous but dangerous to both humans and Wild nevertheless were the raptores, i.e. predatory animals (Raubwild) such as wolf, lynx, fox, badger, etc. The most important animals for hunters, however, were the animales proper, i.e. the Wild – subdivided into lower (Niederwild), sometimes middle (Mittelwild), and high (Hochwild) according to the level of aristocracy that was permitted to hunt them.

Today, this model (which dates back to medieval times) is still partially relevant as it explains the hunters‘ negative relation towards predators and their positive relation to Hochwild (mainly deer and wild boar) and Niederwild (roe deer, hares, ducks, geese, etc.). Predatory animals can be either wild or domestic but both are considered primary enemies and main competitors for the Hoch– and Niederwild and therefore have to be controlled through hunting, i.e. killing. On the one hand there are stray cats and dogs that venture into the woods and become threats to the Wild. It is still legal today for hunters to kill stray cats that are further than 200 metres away from a settlement and dogs that are found in pursuit of Wild – an issue which is highly contested in German society as cats and dogs have become cherished pet animals for many people. On the other hand there are the wild predators, with a similar bad reputation among many hunters. Chief among them is, of course, the wolf – a Raubwild formerly hunted to extinction as they were considered the main threat to humans and Wild and who has recently returned to Germany and is spreading rapidly across the country. It comes to no surprise that hunters are among the main opponents to their return (or intentional reintroduction by animal activists, as some hunters believe). If the major hunting magazines are to be believed, a majority of hunters are in favour of re-classifying the wolf legally as Wild so that they can be hunted again and thereby humans, Wild and livestock be protected. Until then there are regular reports of wolves, and lynx, found shot dead – by poachers or hunters turned poachers (as was the case of the ‚Westerwald Wolf‘ who was shot by a hunter who ‚confused‘ it with a dog).

Against this background emerges the hunters‘ rather different relation to Wild which is marked by a strong sense of care and stewardship, the so-called Hege.

  1. The Hunters‘ Hege

„Jeder, der mit der Waffe ins Revier geht, übernimmt also gegenüber Natur, Wild und Menschheit eine große Verantwortung. Für jeden Waidmann gilt daher: Erst Heger – dann Jäger!“ (Blase 1975 [1936]:363)

[Everybody who enters his Revier with a gun takes over responsibility over Nature, Wild and humankind. For every hunter applies: First Heger – then hunter!]

Hunting has always been intimately connected with the practice of Hege. The idea of Hege – as a hunting practice of care or stewardship – derives from the Christian, pastoralist attitude behind God’s imperative for humans ‚to rule over‘ all living beings (Genesis V.1:26 and 1:28). For centuries, this imperative had been embodied by the king and his representatives and thereby found its way into aristocratic hunting practices. It thus involves a curious mix of dominion and care that had defined the aristocratic habitus – both in their relation to their human and non-human subjects (Theilemann 2004, Malinowski 2003). So even if wild animals were defined as wild due to their inherent freedom, i.e. not being in anyone’s possession or under anyone’s dominion, they were still considered under ‚divine dominion‘, exercised on earth by the king.

Further, Hege was connected with the fight against or colonialization of areas of wilderness in central Europe through ‚inforestation‘. Whereas wild animals in the so-called wilderness were free to hunt for everyone up to the early Middle Ages, animals in ‚forests‘ were legally claimed by the crown. And as most areas of wilderness were turned into forests by the 12th to 13th century, most wild animals belonged to the crown from then on. By that time, the crown had also usurped hunting rights over communally owned land nearby settlements and hence hunting became illegal for anyone but the aristocracy and their professional hunters. As a consequence, wild animals not subject to Hege practices effectively (if mainly on paper) ceased to exist (although it can be assumed that there were still large areas of forests so remote from aristocratic influence that wild animals rarely had to deal with hunters).

Etymologically, the word Hege derives from Hag: bushes and shrubs enclosing or fencing off an area of land or the fence itself (made from the shrubs of the Hag). Building a Hag was a common agricultural practice – from the Middle Ages onwards – to protect gardens and fields from cattle and other domesticated animals or could be used to keep these animals inside and thus to protect them from wild predatory animals such as bear, wolf or lynx. However, fields also needed to be protected from other wild animals, mainly red deer and wild boar, which could produce substantial damage to crops. Out in the forest, there were Gehege, fenced off areas of mainly woodland built to keep – otherwise free roaming – Wild in:

„Ein Gehege aber ist gleichsam der Ertract der Wildbahn, da nicht allein das Wildprät zu jagen mit Fleiß verschonet, und Menschen, Hunden und Raubthieren Ruhe und Friede hat, und seine Verhältnisse und Nahrung in Wäldern und Feldern überall ungehindert nehmen kann…“

[A Gehege is an area of game habitat where game is preserved from hunting by humans, dogs and predatory animals and hence enjoys peace and quiet and can feed in woods and fields without restrictions]

Today, Hege is understood as follows:

Was versteht man unter Wildhege? Alle Maßnahmen, die der waidgerechte Jäger zur Pflege, zum Schutze und zur Hebung des Wildbestandes anwendet, damit ein angemessener, artenreicher, kräftiger und gesunder (d.h. dem Biotop angepasster) Wildbestand entsteht und erhalten bleibt. Die Wildhege darf nur in einem solchem Umfange durchgeführt werden, daß Wildschaden in der Land- und Forstwirtschaft und in der Fischerei vermieden werden. Die Biotop-Hege ist zum wichtigsten Teil der Jagd geworden! (Blase 1975 [1936]:373)

[What is Wildhege? All measures taken by the fair hunter to nurture, protect and increase the game population in order to ensure and maintain an adequate level of a biodiverse, strong and healthy population. The Wildhege must only be practiced in a way that prevents damage by game in agriculture, forestry and fishery. The Hege of biotopes has become the most important part of hunting practices!]

Translated into concrete practices, Hege might refer to the so-called Hege mit der Büchse (population control through hunting, ‚with the gun‘), Hege mit dem Futterbeutel (feeding in times of need), closed seasons, protection from poaching, protection from predatory animals (Raubwild), (re)introduction of game species, habitat improvements, and so on. For professional hunters of the past and present, practices of Hege made and still make up the largest part of their hunting. The same can be said for today’s volunteer hunters – at least those with an own Revier. What is most important for our discussion is that Hege exemplifies a felt responsibility towards Wild which is understood in terms of care and stewardship. Over the course of many years hunting in one’s own Revier, hunters build up a connection, a relationship with both the land and its animals which goes far beyond the mere act of killing.

  1. Conclusion

Let me come to some concluding thoughts. Earlier I mentioned the rather unusual idea of American conservationists to employ sharpshooters instead of hunters. In a column of Germany‘ oldest hunting magazine Wild und Hund (founded 1894), hunter Eckhard Fuhr discusses national park management regimes in regard to hunting and concludes:

„Aus Nationalparks ist der traditionelle Heger ausgesperrt, nicht aber unbedingt der Jäger.“ (Wild und Hund, 10/2016, p14)

[National parks exclude the traditional Heger but not necessarily the hunter.]

In other words, Fuhr fears that national parks do not acknowledge the double-role of hunters as hunters and Heger but instead want to separate the sheer killing involved in hunting from everything else, leaving the hunters to be reduced to killers. In his eyes, this is a cold-blooded understanding of hunting which is based in the scientific reasoning behind national park policies:

„Mit einer rein naturwissenschaftlichen Betrachtung, die kühl nur die Biologie der Tier- und Pflanzenarten und die ökologischen Prozesse ins Auge fasst, ist zu keinem Ergebnis zu kommen.“ (Wild und Hund, 10/2016, p14)

[One cannot come to terms with a purely natural scientific perspective which considers coolly only the biology of animal and plant species and of ecological processes.]

With this paper, I wanted to show that this is the crucial difference between conservationists and hunters: it is about how humans in general are supposed to relate, i.e. not relate to wild animals and as a consequence how hunters in particular are supposed to reduce their ‚unnatural‘ relationship with wild animals to killing. I believe this position is both problematic and paradox: it upholds and strengthens the nature-culture divide by promoting non-involvement and non-engagement and thereby cutting wild animals off of shared human-animal histories. We are left with a ‚tourist’s gaze‘ at wild animals from the distance as our only chance at a relationship with wild animals. To put it in the words of David Cronon (1995:90), if „wilderness leaves no place for human beings…it can offer no solution to the environmental and other problems which confront us“. We should never imagine „that we can flee into a mythical wilderness to escape history and the obligation to take responsibility for our own actions“ (ibid.). With this conflict in mind, we might ask: Is there a place for human-animal relationships in public discourses on wild animals?

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