It is raining hard and almost dark as Walter Rienzner, perched on a raised shooting platform, drops the bombshell in a whisper: Women might be better hunters than men.
“They have respect for the animal,” says the grizzled 48-year-old, part of a group of mainly Austrian, mostly female hunters on a recent weekend over the border in Hungary.
“They make sure that the meat, the fur and the fat are not wasted ... And when it comes to shooting, they are much more precise. They don’t just start blasting away,” he said.
More women in Austria are choosing to spend their free time in undergrowth or stalking through forests, gun in hand and dog at side, hunting for food, fun and companionship. In doing so, Austria’s 11,000 registered female hunters are helping to improve the traditionally male-dominated hobby’s image. They are also keeping some old huntsmen’s traditions alive and — perhaps — making the men better behaved.
“I think women have improved hunting, made it more elegant,” says Joerg Deutschmann, 49, who has driven from Germany, rifle in the boot of his Audi, to bag some of Hungary’s plentiful red deer and boar with the group.
“Things are less boisterous afterwards. Not all hunters like it though, particularly some old ones,” he added.
One example is Petra Schneeweiss, 48. Her passion is such that she launched together with her daughter Elia, 28, a magazine called Die Jaegerin (“The Huntress”).
Women are less interested in hunting just for “trophies” to hang on the wall, she says. Instead they primarily hunt for food, camaraderie and because of their love for nature.
“After I have shot something I do need a few moments of peace,” she tells reporters, puffing on a cigarette in her baggy green hunting clothes.
“I have respect for these animals. When it’s just bang, bang, one here, one there, I don’t like it,” she added.
And she is passionate about maintaining old hunting customs such as the “last bite,” the practice of placing a sprig of vegetation in an animal’s mouth after it has been shot.
“The hunter also puts a piece in his hat, on the right,” Schneeweiss says. “When it’s worn on the left it’s for ceremonies, for example at a hunter’s funeral.”
Such rites are something that Evelin Grubelnig, 38, tip-toeing down a muddy track at dawn the next day, gun in hand, had to learn when she got her hunting licence two years ago.
“It took a year. You learn about the animals, forestry, ecology, the different hunting dogs, ballistics, the regulations,” the schoolteacher mother-of-two says. “I have done a lot of exams, but this was the hardest.”
The hobby also requires money — her rifle alone cost 5,000 euros (US$7,000) — time and patience. More often than not, as was the case this weekend, all the hunters get is wet and muddy.
Grubelnig says it is worth it. Meat tastes better, she says, when you have shot it yourself, and it is a lot healthier — and less cruel to the animals — than the supermarket stuff.
“It’s the excitement, the experience, the switching off, forgetting all about the daily grind,” says Grubelnig, whose tally of four animals in two years is about par for the course.
“Your main concern is shooting the animal cleanly, you don’t want it to suffer,” she says.
“I don’t feel sorry for the animal really. You learn in the course about why you are shooting things,” she said.
Her husband, 40-year-old master builder Herbert, says that unlike in the past when his father used to go away hunting for several days, hunting is something that couples nowadays can do together.
“Before it tended to be men and very few women, but in the last 10 to 15 years it has changed and now 15 to 20 percent are women,” he says as he pilots their four-by-four back to the hunting lodge for breakfast.
“They are a real asset... When women are there the men maybe speak more nicely, you watch what you are saying a bit more,” he said.
There is just one problem, says Evelin Grubelnig’s twin sister Ingrid, currently doing a hunting course and who tagged along with her sister, brother-in-law and faithful hunting dog Cosmo.
“For women hunters, there are very few clothes available. It’s a real gap in the market. Getting trousers that fit is tough, they feel like you’re wearing a sack,” she says.
“For dedicated female hunters, there is hardly anything. Often we have to get men’s clothes in small sizes,” she added.