Martin the hunting guide, dressed in the traditional Loden (heavy, felt-like breeks) told us about the area where he had taken us for a recce. The highest peak is 2,000m, and though there are chamois on the lower slopes, they prefer the higher parts, as do the elusive Alpine ibex, of which four or five are shot each year. Mouflon, my quarry for this June trip, also roam these slopes. The rams, living in small groups, are in season from 1 June to 31 January.
The landscape was lovely, with those hills that rise to perfect points, covered in mixed woodland interspersed with clearings. Having driven halfway up the slopes on the south side of the valley, Martin let out Attus, his six-month-old brindle Hanoverian, which he uses for tracking wounded animals. Donning his hat, a leather rucksack and his stick, Martin set off at a gentle pace purely for our benefit, Im sure.
Our path led us through woods on to the edge of a very steep slope. There stood a high seat. Made of weathered pine logs, it overlooked a gulley. The roof was waterproofed and the seat comfortable. There was an adjustable bar for the rifle and two to give steadiness to your arms. During the trip, wediscovered the brilliance of the high seats some had padded seating and sliding windows, some were built in living trees, many were at dizzying heights, and all were practical and gave the Rifle a good view and the chance of a steady shot.
We scrutinised the slopes on the opposite side nothing. We continued to another cliff, and took up our glasses. The sound of cowbells in the distance was constant, and Martin told us that the valley farmers cattle had been let out to pasture the week before, which meant that our quarry would be even more elusive than usual. We sat admiring the view, surrounded by orchids, gentians and other alpines, until a movement caught the stalkers eye. There, he pointed, Do you see? Gams and her baby, three weeks old. Scampering up the rocks was a chamois and her kid. The animals moved with impressive speed and agility. Heading along the cliff top, we made for the end of a meadow where there was a wooden hut. It was furnished simply, with a bunk bed, wood-fed stove and table and benches.
We have two more huts here for hunters, one much bigger, which Ill show you. I love staying in them just surrounded by the mountains, Martin enthused. Getting out a bottle of Marrillen (peach schnapps), Martin filled three glasses. Hold the glass with the left, otherwise you must buy the next drink. And then we say Waidmanns Heil hunters greeting. When you have shot something, you can answer Waidmanns Dank hunters thanks. We drove to a bigger version of the first hut, where six people can sleep. Every year, Martin spends a few days here with friends, No women though! Across the valley he pointed out a huge nature reserve. No shooting there, but amazing Wild (game). There are brown bears. I see them on this side two or three times a year and last year one got into the store of this hut. A water butt collects rainwater for cooking and washing and another cabin houses the long drop.
We headed back down the mountain. Halfway down, Martin decided it was time for me to try his .243 Steyr Mannlicher. Pinning half an A4 piece of paper to a tree stump, he drove us 160m away. Cushioning the rifle with his rucksack and cape, he asked me to try the weight of the trigger. A butterflys touch would have fired it, so Martin adjusted it until I was happy. He looked through his glass as I fired. Good, he said, clapping me on the shoulder. I am happy.
The day before, we had arrived at the Jagdhof Breitenthal, to the south of Linz, in Austria, where Fritz and Eva Schnopfhagen run this sporting hotel in the best of Austrian traditions. Fritz is an enterprising man, with fascinating tales to tell of his years in Kenya and Namibia, where he still runs safaris. He made Breitenthal a commercial venture 44 years ago and knows every part of the stalking there intimately. His wife, Eva, runs the flyfishing, which has beats on the fast-flowing Ybbs and is equally successful, offering numerous and sizeable brown trout and grayling. Breitenthal now has an international reputation, and Fritz has had people from more than 60 nations to stay.
On our arrival, ST photographer Paul Quagliana and I admired trophies of roebuck, stag, chamois (Gams), Alpine ibex and our quarry, mouflon (Muffel). All were mounted on carved shields, some decorated with oak leaves and scrolls, while the oldest of the roe trophies were mounted on beautifully carved wooden heads. I asked Fritz to tell me about the trophies. In Austria, we believe in treating every quarry species with respect, which is why you see not just the best heads on the wall. We get some very good trophies we have chalky soil. Last year we had a 12kg red stag trophy, and that size is becoming frequent now. We have had mouflon trophies of up to 90cm, which is a good size. Nature may have helped with the chalky soil, but Fritzs management has dramatically improved the trophies and quality of quarry.
We culled the animals in the centre of each area and took many old females, because they produce weak offspring. Feeding is vital the winters are harsh, so maize, oats and minerals are scattered. During the summer there are salt licks and we try to ensure that there are enough clearings for grazing. Many people think that the spring and summer dont matter, as there is so much food around, but antlers and horns are a secondary sexual organ. There is nothing complicated about it it is easy to improve the standards of trophies if you do the work. As he spoke, two of his hunters came in. Martin and Rudi are brothers and own some of the land that Fritz manages. Martin will show you the south side of the valley, where we have an area for game, but you will be hunting on the north side of the valley.
A quick descent
The evening after our recce with Martin, we set off to the north side with Rudi. A storm was brewing, but perhaps it would clear away the heat. Driving halfway up the hill on the dirt track, we got out of the car in silence. Just over the brow was a clearing, sheltered from the wind, in which a group of 10 chamois and their kids grazed. We stood watching them, while more joined until there were 25. Spooked by something, they trotted off into the darkness of the forest.
We headed up the hill, struggling slightly to keep up with Rudis gait. The path was narrow and winding, surrounded on both sides by irresistable wild strawberries. Arriving at the top, we found ourselves at another clearing with a low cabin. We clambered into it, opening the windows, for there was not a breath of wind, and I arranged myself and the rifle. I had been warned of two things with mouflon: first, they are shy, wary creatures and rarely stand still, so you must be ready when they appear; second, with even the most perfect heart/lung shot they can run for between 60m and 200m. We waited for our quarry and when we saw a movement in the woods, we all held our breath. A kindergarten, Rudi said, with evident displeasure. Indeed it was. Red hinds with calves, mouflon with lambs and chamois with kids all came wandering out. At 150m, we had a wonderful vantage point. The sky above the mountains grumbled and darkened at an alarming rate. It is not good to be here in a storm, Rudi whispered, but we remained watching and waiting, while at first gently and then with increasing persistence, rain began to pour. The kindergarten headed back under the trees, disappearing into the blackness and the rumbling neared. To our right, the skies lit up.
Lets go. Now, Rudi said urgently. Clambering out of the hut, he took the rifle, for he had a Loden cape to cover it, and we followed him down the hill. Going uphill had been hard work, but the reverse was alarming. Rudi, almost running, stopped to wait for us every 100 yards or so, beckoning with increasing anxiety. The woods were pitch black, the rain streamed down, making the steep path slippery and increasingly treacherous. Every few minutes, the skies were lit by bright yellow forks zig-zagging ever closer. No time for strawberries as we slithered and cursed our way down. As we got to the car, Rudi shoved the rifle into the boot and we jumped in. A flash and crack, too near for comfort, showed him smiling with relief. That was a bit too close. Lets get back.
The following day, we headed out early with Martin, but it was a grey day, and nothing was about. Martin took us out again at 2pm, but with no luck finding anything in the woods, he left us in a high seat overlooking a clearing on the slope below at five. Rudi will come here in a while. If you see a good mouflon, you shoot him. Dont move if you do. I will hear the shot and come and find you, but you must always wait otherwise he may run further. A lonely chamois wandered across the view and a red calf lay sunning itself, occasionally getting up to stretch its legs. Rudi joined us, and we continued to wait. A red hind came to collect her calf and a shot rang out in the distance. Five hours of sitting left us despondent, convinced that the trip would be for nought. Only one full day remained, and though we had seen roebucks, red stags and male chamois, not one mouflon ram had presented itself.
We headed back and met the German whose shot we had heard, a successful one at mouflon. Glass after glass of schnapps was raised to the hunter, the stalker, one horn, the other, the third, and so on. Paul and I eventually snuck out, knowing we had another early start it was our last day, but the success of the German gave us hope.
The following morning, we continued with the routine of stalking and high seats, but it seemed we were out of luck. Returning to the hotel that evening, we found Fritz looking as frustrated as we felt. Tomorrow morning we will go early. And I will come with you, so you will shoot something. We will try a different area with a different hunter, he said with confidence.
The following morning we drove west, meeting Michael and his son Patrick. The terrain was different shockingly steep. Paul went with Fritz, while I went with Michael. I followed Patrick up the path, Michael following behind. I had an operation yesterday, so I am a bit slow, he explained, handing me his 30.06.
The path zig-zagged its way to one side of a gulley, where a high seat was positioned to face a clearing on the other side, 260m away. I readied myself, using my coat as a cushion for the rifle and adjusting the bar to the right height. We sat in silence, enjoying the peace of the valley and watching the sun start to creep over the mountain tops. Wisps of mist threatened to obscure the view. Michael joined us and, not five minutes later he started. We all lifted our glasses. There, on the left of the clearing, five, no six, mouflon headed out in single file. See the one with white on his face, not the last, but the one before, Michael instructed. I took a good look at it through the glasses and got into position with the rifle.
The mouflon wandered on, oblivious to our presence, but not standing still. Then they stopped. I got the white-faced mouflon in my sights and tried to steady myself. Whether it was the pressure I was under or the unexpected chance of a shot, I did not feel happy, and so waited. Soon they were off again. The mouflon seemed to be heading back to the forest and I was sure I had blown it. Just as the first mouflon disappeared from sight, the white-faced one stopped. Standing atop a jutting rock with the mountain as a backdrop, he turned to look back. This time there was no hesitation. I took the shot. The mouflon seemed to stumble and then took off with the rest of the group. I looked round at the hunter. And now we wait, said Michael, reassuring me that the shot was good. They are strong, but he is down, dont worry. I wondered how on earth we would find him. It is too dangerous to go by foot. Patrick will go with the climbing gear and he will abseil the Muffel down. That is normal in this part of the mountain. We wait an hour or so. We waited, and while the mists crept in and were burned off by the sun, another group, with a vast ram, his horns almost lapping themselves, ambled across the clearing, completely unconcerned.
An hour later, we met Paul and Fritz, both looking thrilled at having heard a shot. We were to head back to the hotel to wait, while Patrick went in search of my mouflon. It was a tense few hours, particularly as we had to leave at one, but at 11, Fritz got a call. They have him, he said, to my relief. Soon Michaels 4×4 pulled up and my mouflon was unloaded. Martin appeared, shaking my hand with a Waidmanns Heil, to which I could finally reply, Waidmanns Dank. Up close, he was a fine animal, with the remains of a winter mane and perfectly round horns. Eine ganze Schnecke, said Eva, translating for us, A real snail, we say with nice round horns. ´
For more information on hunting mouflon, chamois, roebuck, red stags, Alpine ibex, capercaillie or fishing at Jagdhof Breitenthal, email firstname.lastname@example.org or tel 07970 900113.