As we cleared the clouds after take-off from Frankfurt, I could see the ragged edge of the Swiss Alps on the horizon to the south. I was as keen as to get to Zurich and meet up with my daughter who has been to Switzerland on five previous occasions and had planned a great itinerary for us. We were to spend a bit over a week exploring and experiencing the Alps in this beautiful country and maybe getting a look at some wildlife while we were there.
Switzerland is a landlocked country bordered by Italy to the south, France to the west, Germany to the north, and Austria and Liechtenstein to the east. It is geographically divided between the Alps, the Swiss Plateau, and the Jura (a sub-alpine mountain range located north of the Western Alps, mainly following the course of the France–Switzerland border). Switzerland has a total area of 41 285 km2. So, putting it in perspective, it is about one sixth the size of Victoria and has about 2.5 million more people living in it!
While the Alps occupy the greater part of Switzerland, the Swiss population of approximately 8.5 million is concentrated mostly on the plateau (which covers about 30 per cent of the area in the country), where the largest cities are located. German, French, Italian and Romansch are the official languages, but most people also speak English, so it is an easy country to travel in. It is amazing how the architecture and land use changes when you through the different areas. One day we had been looking at a typical German type alpine countryside and houses and went through a tunnel and suddenly we were in French countryside, with vineyards, houses that looked quite different and everyone there mainly conversed in French, it is amazing to experience.
Since the 16th century, Switzerland has maintained a strong policy of armed neutrality; it has not fought an international war since 1815 and did not join the United Nations until 2002. Under the country’s militia system, professional soldiers constitute a small part of the military and the rest are conscripts or volunteers aged 19 to 34 (in some cases up to 50). Compulsory military service applies to all male Swiss citizens, with women serving voluntarily.
The regulations of the Swiss militia system stipulate that the soldiers keep their own personal equipment, including all personally assigned weapons, at home (until 2007 this also included ammunition), or in an armoury (just imagine the nightmares the thought of this in Australia would have given Johnnie Howard!). If you keep your eyes open when driving or taking the trains you will see rifle ranges on farms throughout the country. So it appears that they are pretty keen on maintaining their marksmanship for protecting their country ….. and for hunting.
A VISIBLE PART OF THE CULTURE
One afternoon we were quietly wandering up the street in Lauterbrunnen, which is a pretty little alpine town with traditional Swiss Alps houses and buildings. It was straight out of a picture postcard stuff, with the breathtaking backdrop of a steep-sided glacial valley, numerous waterfalls and stunning peaks rearing up at the head of the valley. There were cows everywhere with their Swiss cowbells ringing, it was idyllic and there were quite a few other tourists walking up the road taking it all in like I was. What really got me was that I could hear rifle shots ringing out — it sounded like a .222 or .243 with moderator (I have used them in New Zealand). Better still, as far as I was concerned, I looked around as the shooting was quite close and no-one was batting an eyelid that this was happening.
I stopped outside a lovely boarding house (the sign said ‘Angie’s Hotel’) to take a photograph of a set of European elk (moose) antlers on the wall, when a lady came out the front door and came over to me and introduced herself in German as ‘Angie’. I replied ‘Yeah g’day, nice to meet you’ — she courteously switched to English and in a thick Swiss/German accent asked me ‘You like the antlers, yah? My friend from Norway hunted it. He gives me good head — Yah’. Something was probably lost in the translation, but at this point three things happened: I nearly choked on the coffee I was sipping; my daughter chuckled and my darling wife shot me one of those ‘I know what you are bloody thinking and don’t you bloody dare say anything’ looks; and I wiped off the coffee that was bubbling out my nostrils, recovered and replied that I was very pleased for her and had a chat about hunting in the area.
She said there were chamois and roe deer nearby in the area, but what she really wanted on the house was a steinbock (ibex) head. Angie pointed out a neighbour’s place and explained he was a very keen jaeger (hunter) of roe deer and chamois. I could see there were skull mounts of both species on his front porch. Angie said that he was the one who was doing the shooting just behind his house (this is about 50 m off the main street of the town!). Angie said: ‘It is the middle of the hunting season after all’. I replied: ‘Sounds good to me’.
I asked where I might see chamois or ibex and she gave me some hints on which train to catch out of Interlaken where I was staying (the trains in Switzerland are amazing — where they run and how steep they can climb) and tracks to walk. I thanked Angie for our chat and her information and wandered up the road to a short track that led up to a waterfall behind the town. A little further on I saw the rifle range, 100 m to the right of the track. The shots carried on and I watched people not reacting to it or concerned at all. I stood there and videod it and thought it’s all about culture, not about ‘safety’. While standing there I couldn’t help thinking what a bloody opportunist (and complete prat) John Howard was and the unnecessary fear and loathing about firearms ownership and use he generated in 1996 (and still does today).
HUNTING AS A SOVEREIGN RIGHT!
If you do some research it is interesting to read that in Switzerland, hunting is not considered a privilege but is thought of as a sovereign right! It hasn’t always been this way though, in earlier times, the nobility claimed hunting as a privilege of their own. Anyone who wants to hunt in Switzerland today must complete hunting training in: knowledge about nature and wildlife; legal provisions; hunting practice; handling weapons and ammunition; using the venison; and the use and handling of hunting dogs — it kinda sounds familiar to me, something like the R-Licence eh — maybe we got it right?
One thing I like about the attitude toward hunting in Switzerland is that it is not just seen as shooting or the harvesting of wildlife. Hunters feel responsible for protecting and maintaining the habitat of many animals and mitigating any impacts by game on agriculture and forestry. In addition, they commit themselves to the respectful management and utilisation of wild animals. All worthy attitudes that the ADA itself has in respect to hunting, deer and the environment in Australia.
HUNTING MANAGEMENT IN SWITZERLAND
There are three hunting systems in Switzerland: two out of three belong to the licence-based and one out of three to the renting-based system. In Geneva hunting is prohibited, and it is interesting to note that research indicates that wildlife numbers have declined since hunting was banned in the Geneva canton — preservation is not always a win-win no matter how much the animal rights sector try to promote their dogma.
In 2018 hunters took 42 667 roe deer, 12 459 red deer, 146 sika deer, 11 263 chamois, 1,149 ibex and 7,727 wild boar. In total, 114,28 big and small game animals and 28 067 game birds were harvested in Switzerland — not a bad total for such a small country!
THE CURIOUS HISTORY OF THE IBEX IN SWITZERLAND
The alpine ibex (Capra ibex), also known as the steinbock (German), bouquetin (French), or simply ibex, is a species of wild goat that lives in the mountains of the European Alps. On this trip I was lucky enough to spend time watching them in Switzerland and northern France. They are a great looking animal, about the size of a tahr, but without the mane and the ibex males sport much longer horns. When we were in Europe it was the start of the rut. I saw males in close attendance with females and flehmen (lip-curling) behaviour. The behaviour of the Ibex was very similar to that of tahr.
After being wiped out from most areas in Europe by the 19th century, the alpine ibex was successfully reintroduced to parts of its historical range. All individuals living today descend from the stock in Gran Paradiso National Park in Aosta Valley. This area was formerly reserved for the Italian nobility to hunt. In the early 20th century a couple of enterprising Swiss hunters, snuck in and caught a couple of animals and re-introduced them to Switzerland. This has led to very low genetic diversity in the Swiss ibex herd and the population has dropped from a peak of 17 000 to around 14 000 today — karma’s a bitch eh? But still, in 2018 1,149 Ibex were harvested by hunters in Switzerland.
HINTS FOR VISITING SWITZERLAND
Switzerland is really easy to get around, you can either hire or lease a car or take the trains — we did both. The roads are fantastic and the train system is even better and very cheap. If you are staying in Europe for a month or so, you can purchase a 50 per cent off pass and get your train fares reduced by half! Interlaken is a good place to base yourself for train and walking excursions into the nearby Alps.
If you get away early you can get dropped off and walk 10 to 15 km (mostly downhill) through idyllic mountain country looking for deer, chamois and ibex, stopping at little ski villages for coffee or beautiful venison dishes for lunch. I had roe deer and red deer meals at two restaurants in the Alps while we were there. They were both superb, the roe deer was so tender and tasty– definitely superb-erer! than the red deer venison, which was still damn good. Just look for restaurants or hotels with antlers or images of deer on their signage — there are plenty.
Why don’t you think about spending a week or two in Switzerland when planning your next trip to Europe — you won’t be disappointed, there’s more to that country than Swiss Army knives and damn fine chocolate!
Contributed by Brian Boyle.