Finally, just before Christmas, the weather turned cold. Heavy grayish-yellow clouds heralded the first snow, which came down as sleet at home, but covered our hunting grounds with a fluffy white blanket. We were delighted: The season’s first snow is always very special.
At first, the game reacts very cautiously to the unfamiliar white splendor and the brighter light conditions at night and only leaves its protective stands late. Wild boars are particularly secretive and sometimes do not show themselves at all. The sows seek out cozy spots in spruce groves or bramble hedges, where it is warm and dry, and literally let themselves be snowed in. Only when their hunger becomes too great do they leave their warm shelter. After a few days, however, the animals have become accustomed to the new weather conditions and return to their usual areas. It had been cold that night. An icy wind swept across the fields and hardened the snow. The weather only calmed down towards morning. Soon, pale sunshine would seep through the last clouds and spread a little warmth. In the afternoon, I want to go for a walk through the hunting ground and check out the tracks. Wrapped up warm, I take my old setter dog Abby with me. Now nearly 13, she has gone gray and her eyesight is no longer the best. But her old bones are still in good shape and she really enjoys going on walks through the forest with me.
I take my gun along, but I don’t get my hopes up. From the hunting cabin, which is right on the edge of the forest in our hunting ground, we have a fantastic view over the fields. The snow glistens in the low sun, and in some places deer have scratched through the snow to reach the frozen grasses below. On the crop garden, which we planted this year in collaboration with the farmer, the faded sunflowers are hanging their heads. Everything is brown and dried up, and yet such areas still provide cover and food for game, especially in winter.
The sun is already sinking. It won’t be long now before dusk sets in. I turn left and check the meadows below the cabin – nothing to see. I let Abby off the leash. In her usual manner, she systematically searches the meadows in large loops, a little slower than before, but still elegant and dedicated. With a high nose and big leaps, she takes one loop after the other, and it’s a real joy to see how much fun she is having. I am about to whistle her back to me when she stops abruptly near an old fence post. The grass is a little higher here, and there must be something there, otherwise she wouldn’t be motionless. I move closer, and suddenly a hare runs off. Abby just looks after it – another advantage of her age. In the past, she would probably have chased after it and I would have had to whistle her back, but now she is so mature and experienced that she no longer wastes energy on a race which she would lose anyway.
I put Abby on the leash and take a snow-covered lane. It’s a little more sheltered here, a high embankment keeps the wind out and, with a bit of luck, the roe deer might already be out. I slow down and become more cautious, the crunching of the hardened snow under my feet sounds overly loud in my ears, but I have exerted myself for nothing. The meadow is empty. Then I stop for a moment. I can make out a few darker dots in the hollow in the middle of the field. A quick look through the binoculars is all it takes: It’s a string of partridges looking for food under the snow. We haven’t seen any partridges in our area for the past two years, so I’m all the more pleased to see them. Although the partridge is a huntable species, it is voluntarily spared by the hunting community, as the population is still in sharp decline. Whether it is our conservation efforts or whether the weather conditions are simply proving more favorable for the partridge this year, I don’t know. I’m just happy that this rare guest is back in the area.
My path leads me towards the edge of the forest. The last rays of sunlight bathe the snow in a golden light when I hear a rustling to my right. I stop abruptly. My hand reaches for the binoculars, but I can’t make out anything in the young beech trees. Have I imagined it? I’m just about to move on when a fox crosses my path and slinks across the meadow. Before I can react, it has disappeared into the trees.
I walk further into the forest. My footsteps seem so loud that I think you could hear them down in the village, but I keep going. This walk through the wintry forest is too beautiful. The wind picks up again and brushes my face – and the cold slowly creeps up my legs. Just around the next corner and I’ll be on my way home. I stop, rooted to the spot. Less than 100 meters ahead of me, a doe is standing at the edge of the path, munching on blackberry leaves. She hasn’t caught my scent – the wind is in my favor. Abby points her nose, sniffing, and her body freezes. Her teeth chatter softly, and it’s definitely not because she’s cold. Can she see anything? I don’t know. Does she smell anything? I’m sure she does. Perhaps she also senses my tense posture. I think feverishly to find a good shooting position. There’s an old woodpile to my right, on the edge of the path: I could get behind it and rest my rifle on it. Carefully, very carefully, I approach the woodpile. The doe casts a quick glance in my direction and I remain frozen in my uncomfortable position. I barely dare to breathe, but then she continues to graze and I manage to get halfway comfortable for a safe shot. Just as I take aim, a young buck suddenly appears and stands in front of the young doe. The two stand side by side for another two or three seconds, then the situation has passed. In high leaps, buck and roe disappear into the adjacent forest. I can hear their hooves on the hard snow for a long time, quieter and quieter, finally fading away completely. I pet my dog fondly. What a wonderful day’s hunting!