Ever fancied shooting wild boar in Germany? What about a walk through the woodlands of Sweden after blackgrouse and capercaillie or some goose shooting on the shores of the Baltic? The sporting opportunities that Europe offers are immense and none of them is more than three or four hours away via a cheap flight from Stansted, Luton or Gatwick volcanic ash clouds permitting.
There are, however, two distinct ways in which you might follow your sporting dream, the most obvious being to track down a suitable outfitter via the Internet or through a sporting agency, get out your credit card, pay the deposit and hope that reality lives up to expectation. The other way is to get yourself invited and do the whole trip for only the price of your airfare.
This second option is not as impossible as it might seem, and it could suddenly have got easier if a new international hunters website lives up to expectations. I have to admit at this point that I am not a natural user of social networking websites. Though I have tapped away happily on a computer keyboard for more than 20 years, you still wont find me on Facebook. So far as I am concerned, a twitter comes from the swallows nest in the cart lodge next to my office and I still think of a blackberry as something you put in a pie with Bramley apples. But a website thats devoted to putting Europes hunters in touch with one another is a different matter entirely; when I heard about it from my old friend Yves Lecocq of the European Hunters Federation (FACE), www.yeswehunt.eu was one site I just had to explore.
The objective is to enable hunters which in Eurospeak approximates to fieldsports enthusiasts of all persuasions to communicate with each other, to find out more about the sporting opportunities that exist in each others countries and hopefully to strike up friendships across the ether. Just as with
some of the excellent UK fieldsports networking sites such as www.thestalkingdirectory.co.uk, theres the option simply to browse for information or to get stuck into the discussion forums and make contact with other hunters who share your views, experiences and expectations. Then, if you fancy that overseas hunting trip, you can offer to host sport on your own patch in return for a visit to somewhere exotic. Perhaps a guest day on your DIY syndicate shoot in return for a day walking-up pheasants with a member of a French hunting club, a weeks wildfowling in exchange for an opportunity to shoot willow grouse over HPRs in the wild country of northern Sweden or an Oxfordshire muntjac traded for an Alpine chamois.
The website also offers a chance to explore the sporting opportunities that exist in an area you may be visiting for other reasons. Thus a two-day business trip might be extended into a long weekend that includes a days stalking or shooting, and if you have neither the time nor inclination to establish personal sporting contacts then there are plenty of local sporting agents that you can click on.
Communication is an obvious stumbling block. While we Brits are exceptionally lucky in that the worlds international language is English which is also the working language of the website its unfair to expect the average European hunter to have fluency in our mother tongue. The toolkit that www.yeswehunt.eu offers includes a multilingual glossary of hunting terminology and even a translation facility, which enables you to type in a short sentence and get it translated into French, German, Spanish or Italian at the click of a mouse.
Hunting, though, is an international language all of its own and once you are engaged in conversation with someone who shares your love of wild creatures and wild places, the barriers quickly melt away. I shall always remember one evening that I spent sitting in a bar on the Lithuanian coast discussing wildfowling with two local hunters. Their English was not too hot, though considerably better than my Lithuanian, but we were able to communicate by using the scientific names of the various waterfowl species, and when that failed, there was no mistaking the whee-oo of a wigeon or the ink-ink of a pinkfoot. We spent the following day together in the reedbeds of the Nemanus delta hunting mallard and eating smoked carp. It was a great trip, with the possible exception of the carp.
Finding a stronger voice
Meeting other sportsmen from across national frontiers, even if only via my computer, is one of the main reasons why I find the prospect of a European hunters website so exciting. We hunters have long been used to regarding ourselves as something of a besieged minority, which in Britain is possibly the case. This, however, is by no means true in other parts of Europe, where the strength of the fieldsports community is greater than it is here. Finland, for instance, has one hunter for every 17 head of population. Across Europe there are seven million hunters, a number that brings considerable political
infl uence if only it can be properly harnessed. At the Brussels level, FACE has turned fi eldsports into a major lobby group, but think how much more combined strength we might have if communications between individual sportsmen and women as opposed to those between our various national associations were to be brought into the 21st century.
Beyond the political benefit is the personal satisfaction that comes from a better understanding of the way in which others do things. Most hunters are innately conservative with a small c. A lot of us live in rural communities where even today life carries on much as it has done for generations, following the pattern imposed upon us by the seasons: the annual cycle of seed time, harvest and bird migration. Our sporting traditions have been learned from our fathers and grandfathers. We hold them dear, we will defend them and rightly so. But often we make the mistake of believing that the only way of hunting is our way. Self-evidently that is not the case.
When I returned from a winter visit to the mountains along the Swedish-Norwegian border having spent a week hunting ptarmigan on a pair of cross-country skis with a .22 rifle on my back, it took a while to convince the other Guns on the farm shoot of which I was a member at the time that it was anything other than unsporting to shoot a bird on the ground with a rifle. Put like that, perhaps it does sound a little odd to British ears, but when placed in the context of sub-arctic snowfields, frozen lakes and temperatures of -15°C, of tough cross-country skiing, keen observation, white camouflage, skilful stalking and the traditions of the indigenous Sami people, a successful
rifl e shot at a ptarmigan on a snowbound mountainside is an unforgettable experience. The same thing is true in reverse, of course, and it was not until I took one of my continental friends out with the local beagle pack that I got him to get his head around the concept of hunting a hare with a pack of hounds.
So, better communications between Europes hunters can mean more than cheap shooting holidays. If they help us to improve our understanding of each other and to break down the boundaries that divide us, they could help fieldsports thrive, both here and across the European Union.