The home of Shooting Times and Sporting Gun

Moose hunting in Estonia – accompanying an all-female shoot

Matt Cross visits Estonia for an all-female driven moose hunt and finds the event a masterpiece of organisation

Moose are hunted in various ways in Estonia, and the large animals are a popular quarry

If you want a practical Estonian hunting tip, it is this; don’t go hunting in Estonia in a Volkswagen Polo. It is great for battering up the E67 from Riga in Latvia to Pärnu in Estonia; a little too great if the image of it taken by a speed camera on the border is anything to go by. It’s fine on the smaller roads as you head out toward Viljandi in the dark, but on the gravel forest roads it gets a bit slidey and alarming.

And when you arrive at the hunting lodge and have to park in a field, it will get stuck, slither about and eventually you will reverse it into a small tree. At least that is my experience — and that of Andra, my Estonian contact who was in the passenger seat. 

Estonia is the furthest north of the three Baltic republics; it borders Russia to the east and Latvia to the south. Crossing the Baltic Sea northwards would bring you to Finland, and westwards you would find Sweden. Culturally and linguistically Estonia is much more like Finland than Latvia or Russia, and Estonian has the bouncing intonation of the Nordic languages. 

Estonia has been ruled by Sweden, Denmark, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, the Russian Empire and the German Empire. In 1940, independent Estonia was invaded by the Soviet Union, then in 1941 by the Third Reich. The Soviets returned in 1944 and forcibly amalgamated Estonia into the USSR until 1991 when it became independent again. 

I met Andra at the central bus station in Pärnu early in the morning. It took a while  before I was able to find her, but eventually we ended up on the same side of the station and she braved the passenger seat of the Polo.

We drove out of Pärnu in the predawn darkness, heading for Viljandi County on the border with Latvia. I knew Andra from a previous visit to Estonia and we chatted as Google Maps directed us. 


Annual fixture

The hunt we were heading for has become a fixture of the Estonian hunting calendar. It is an annual all-female moose hunt. Women are the fastest-growing group of hunters in Estonia and they have their own society, the Eesti Naisküttide Selts, or Estonian Women Hunters. It is affiliated to the organisation Andra works for, the Eesti Jahimeeste Selts, or Estonian Hunters Society. 

Moose are hunted in various ways in Estonia; they can be stalked like we stalk deer and during the rut they can be called out of the forest. But we were taking part in a hunt that would be familiar to anyone who has hunted in northern or central Europe: a driven moose hunt. 

Our base was a hunting lodge deep in the forests of southern Estonia. It was a stunning wooden lodge with trophies, taxidermy and a huge wood stove. Our hunt was to take place in an area of privately owned commercial forest. Estonia seems to have avoided the dismal version of commercial forestry we have in the UK; their forests are a mix of Norway spruce, silver birch and Scots pine, and have a feeling of naturalness that our spruce deserts could never match. 

The team of around 30 hunters was spaced out along a forest road. I joined Triin, a human resources manager with a .308 Merkel Helix. Triin was the ideal person to accompany as she is highly experienced and has hunted all of Estonia’s quarry species. Most recently she obtained a licence to shoot a bear that was raiding her beehives. Estonia has abundant large predators and a pragmatic approach to managing them. If a bear causes a problem a licence can be sought and, if granted, the bear can be shot. Wolves are also hunted under licence to keep numbers in check and limit their harm to livestock. 

Hunters line out for the final drive deep in the forest


Beaters and dogs

Triin explained how the hunt would work. Just like on a driven shoot at home, a line of beaters would push through the wood from the far side with dogs working ahead of them. Animals would be flushed over the road and through the line of Guns. Each hunter had an arc on the far side of the road into which they could fire; this ensured that both the hunters on the road and the beaters in the wood were safe. 

The whole event was a masterpiece of good organisation — each hunter had a name tag and information sheet identifying them and the hunt they were taking part in. They also all carried radios with which Anna, the professional hunter running the day, kept everyone informed about what was happening.

Roe deer, red deer, moose and wild boar were all on the quarry list, and further up a single shot sounded as a stag crashed through the line. It was a clean miss. The drive ended with the appearance of the dogs and, a few minutes later, the beaters. Two breeds were out in force. The first was the laika, a stocky dog with pricked-up ears and a tightly curled tail. The rest of the dogs, with the exception of one Russian spaniel, were dachshunds. 

The second drive also passed quietly. But the third delivered the moose. The rain had come on hard, and I was hunkered under a tree when the shot cracked through the forest. Triin paused to listen to her radio, smiled and used her hands to mime moose antlers. When the drive ended, we walked up to see the quarry. The word on the radio was that it was a particularly big moose and all hands were needed to move it. A moose is a very large animal, much bigger than our red deer, and even in a country where bears roam the forest the moose is still king. 

This, however, was not a big moose; the remarks over the radio were a joke that somehow had got lost. The moose was a well-grown calf around the size of a big red hind. The beaters fixed straps round its legs and dragged it up and out of the ditch where it lay. As they gralloched, the hunters gathered to congratulate their successful colleague.

Once the moose had been dealt with, we headed for lunch. The food was just what was needed on a cold, wet day: a meat broth with plenty of potato and barley, served with soured cream and thick slices of fresh black bread. In the lodge, a conference was underway. Maps were out and the team gathered to discuss where to go after lunch and how the last drive should be conducted. I, meanwhile, sidled up to the giant wood stove in an effort to get dry and warm. 

Back in the hunting lodge, the team discuss the last drives of the day during lunch

After lunch I joined the beating team. This was also an impressive undertaking, and every beater and dog had a GPS tracker fitted. The dogs went first, turned out into the forest about 10 minutes before the people went in. We sat in a pickup eating chocolates and waiting. My companion was a regular on the lodge’s team, and as we tramped through the forest he pointed out where moose had slept and showed me how to identify the small thickets used by the wild boar.

The last two drives did not deliver any more moose and the day ended with a single animal in the bag. Back at the lodge, the moose was laid out beside a small fire and the hunters gathered round. Estonians openly admit that they have borrowed many of their hunting traditions from other countries, and the ceremony respecting the moose would have been familiar to Germans or Austrians.  


Estonian culture

Afterwards, the hunters headed for a sauna. In the UK we may associate saunas with the Finns or Swedes, but Estonians claim to be the true inventors of the sauna. They are a vital part of Estonian culture — every hotel, campsite or guest house has one and they follow any major event. 

The final act of the day was dinner and a party. The entire team gathered along an enormous horseshoe-shaped table laden with food and with bottles of vodka spaced along it. There was no sullenness about the relatively light bag and no division between beaters and hunters. Everyone had enjoyed themselves. Around the table, speeches were made and vodka flowed, and as Andra and I slipped out for our return to Pärnu, we left a room filled with talk and laughter.