Hunting with a bow requires impressive stealth – but the jury's still out on its acceptability, says Alasdair Mitchell

Is hunting with a bow the ultimate in fair chase fieldsports, or is it a cruel throwback that should be left as a distant memory from the Dark Ages? New legislation is being proposed to allow deer to be hunted with bows in the Italian province of Umbria. This would bring it into line with other Italian regions, such as Tuscany. The issue gained some coverage in the British press because editors calculate they might be able to stoke up controversy among local British expats.

Well, I don’t know much about bow hunting, but I do know a bit about the sort of expats who move to a foreign country because they prefer it to their own, then promptly set about trying to impose their own values on the locals. They are an embarrassment to their home country.

But enough of them. What about hunting with a bow? For once, I don’t really have a firm opinion (amazing, eh?). I have met plenty of bow hunters in Africa and the US, and have watched footage of bow hunting, involving all sorts of quarry up to big game. But I have never actually been on a bow hunt myself.

Anti-hunters are opposed to bow hunting, of course. But so are a proportion of rifle and shotgun hunters. I happen to know one keen deerstalker, for instance, who is really quite vehement about bow hunting. He regards it as cruel, basing his view on his own experience of using a rifle to despatch wounded deer on a ranch in Latin America after some visiting US bow hunters had been let loose.

However, it occurs to me that any hunting sport should not be judged solely by the antics of those who fall below its accepted standards of behaviour. I have little doubt that modern broadhead arrows, if placed correctly, are capable of killing deer just about as quickly and humanely as a centrefire rifle. Yes, we can talk about the hydrostatic shock of a high velocity bullet, but that in itself seldom does the actual killing. I could be persuaded that a three-bladed broadhead, passing through the chest of a deer, will cause a rapid blood loss, leading to unconsciousness and death. Some bow hunters even take on dangerous game, and wouldn’t do that unless they were confident in their skill and equipment (though I sometimes wonder if there is somebody standing by with a big rifle, just in case).

Of course, correct placement of the arrow is necessary, but the same applies to a rifle bullet — at a much greater range. Those hunting with a bow generally have to get to within 25m of their quarry. In many cases, that takes real skill. I have little doubt that a really good bow hunter may be able to move stealthily in a manner that would put the average rifle stalker to shame.

Growing in popularity
There is no denying that bow hunting is popular in many countries. Some, such as Denmark, only allow bows to be used if the archer has passed some pretty stringent skills testing.

In the US and Canada, however, where anybody can go hunting with a bow, it is certainly growing in popularity. Figures compiled by C. J. Winand, a Maryland wildlife biologist, show that more than 3.3million bow hunters in the US and Canada participated in the 2011 deer season, accounting for 1.16million deer. In some US states, more than half the total deer bag was taken with the bow, and overall North American bow hunter numbers have increased by 10 per cent over the past decade.

A point in favour of hunting with a bow rather than a gun is that it is quiet and unobtrusive, and depends on really good camouflage and stealth. And the sight of a bow does not arouse the sort of public reaction that the sight of a firearm might provoke. The debate over bow hunting will go on. As so often with fieldsports, the issues are more complex than they might appear at first sight.