Hunting wild boar in the middle of the night, from a raised hide? It’s possible in Alsace. This hunting adventure demands close attention and sends a pleasant shiver down your spine when a dream becomes reality.
It has been snowing continuously for two days. But the forecast is promising: Tonight the sky is supposed to clear for a few hours before the next front approaches. Perfect conditions for a successful wild boar adventure. For over 20 years, hunters from Alsace and Alsace-Moselle have been authorized to practice a special hunting method that is reserved exclusively for chief hunters in the rest of France. In Alsace, when people talk about the other regions of the country, they say “inner France”. This is because Alsace cultivates a certain independence that goes hand-in-hand with specific traditions and privileges – also in terms of hunting. The hunting season, but also hunting methods are linked to the history of the “country within the country” and show some German influences. For example, wild boars are hunted from April 15 to February 1 of the following year. During the “closed” season, a tiny nuance must be observed: night hunting is prohibited. Make of that what you will.
But this does not concern us, because right now it’s January, and everything is permitted. Everything and a little more. In Lower Alsace, night vision devices have been allowed for a few months – with the justification of increasing efficiency and safety. We are invited to hunt from raised hides in Bergbieten, a small village on the wine route, where the delicious liquid is produced that pairs so wonderfully with wild boar cuisine. Our host is Aliette Schaeffer, president of the local wildlife management group. She has invited us to her hunting grounds, where a lot of attention is paid to small game: fallow areas, hedges, and the purchase of species-appropriate space for little fauna… nothing is lacking. “But we don’t want wild boars here!”, Aliette the hunter declares in a determined tone. Strictly speaking, every wild boar sighted this evening must be a dead one shortly afterwards – except for sows with young, but even they may be spooked with a shot if the opportunity presents itself.
The hide assigned to us is named “Cathedral”. It’s not a religious monument, but it is extraordinarily high, offering a 360-degree panoramic view for miles. Tonight we will be very close to the angels… When we get out of the car, the north wind whips our bare cheeks and bites our fingers that seek shelter in the woolen mittens. At least 20 centimeters of powdery snow covers the landscape and swallows every sound. Even the sound of the church bell echoing from the nearby village is practically silenced under this blanket of snow that envelops the vines of the deserted vineyards. Not a single track is to be seen; it stopped snowing barely an hour ago. The sky is gray and low, and seems ready to release more gifts of snow. The predicted brief improvement in the weather promises a magical moment.
Slowly, we approach the Cathedral, surrounded by utter silence. Everything seems to be swallowed up by the snow. The wind has shaped waist-high snow drifts on either side of the hollow paths. The dog is well aware that pushing ahead in this snow is futile, and is content to follow the two-legged snowplow. In the distance, we see the lights of the village, reminding us that our fellow humans are all sitting around fireplaces right now, and we are about to sit on a hide for a few hours. A quick look through the night vision device into the nearby forest reveals three deer resting under an uprooted tree. We have to move on, because night is falling and the hide is waiting.
When we reach the Cathedral, the dog lies down on a mat, and we move into our quarters five meters further up. As promised, we enjoy a panoramic view for miles. In front of us stretches a small valley flanked on both sides by acacias. We are right in the middle of a plain that separates two large forested areas. A place where wild boar often cross, moving from one forest to the next, often taking time to do some crop damage on the plain. Thanks to this immaculate snow cover, the black boars should be easy to spot. We don’t have to wait long and the first hares can be seen, racing each other across the snow. When the cloud cover – completely unexpectedly – tears open, we see the Vosges mountains briefly bathed in evening light. Then the curtain falls. It is night. But not too dark: we can observe various representatives of the animal world and their activities.
A hen harrier reaches its nest to our left at the last moment before darkness falls, while a long-eared owl sings the melancholy stanzas of its courtship song. Love seems to stimulate its appetite, because suddenly it flies to a pheasant feeder, where the trampled snow makes it possible to catch some rodents. And there are other lovers that evening: foxes in rutting season, whose cheerful barking pierces the night. Obviously two males are courting a vixen: a situation that is settled “between men”. And, as is typical for foxes, always acting with caution. Finally, three other actors enter the stage: three roe deer. They certainly noticed the biped and his dog long ago, then waited until the coast seemed clear, to forage in the snow for food.
Hidden behind our blind, we witness an unusual spectacle. Our gaze falls on the dog lying down at the end of the ladder. He is obviously also enjoying the moment and has understood that he must not make a move, now that a doe and a fawn break out of the thicket not far away. The doe is nervous, turns away and barks to express her dissatisfaction. Their sudden flight cannot be attributed to a random walker, it is already past 6 p.m. and pandemic curfew is in effect. Only hunters enjoy a special permit because they are on duty for the good of the public. We feel like the only people on the planet. Sometimes a misfortune is also good for something…
The two deer leap through the snow and make their getaway, after casting an uneasy glance at the dog. We track them with the night vision device, which allows us to see into another world. Even at a distance of several hundred meters, we can observe hares, foxes, and even thrushes resting in their nests. Unbelievable.
Thanks to our layers of perfect clothing, the cold can’t harm us. And observing the animals makes time fly by. Around 8 p.m., the crack of a twig snaps us out of our doze. A look down to the ladder leaves no doubt: The dog is sitting upright and has lifted his nose high into the wind. Something is coming our way. The night vision attachment is put on the scope, the carabiner is shouldered. Shortly thereafter, three silhouettes stand out at the edge of the forest: wild boars.
The boars are cautious in view of the snowy surface and still hesitate to enter the plain. But after 15 minutes they venture out and approach the pheasant feeder, which, however, is built to withstand hungry wild boars. Now one of the three boars moves away from the others and puts its shoulder right in front of our shotgun. Thanks to the silencer and the snow, the shot is barely audible and the other two boars remain motionless, watching for the third animal that seems to have vanished. However, they are alarmed and the sound of the cylinder head preceding the shot does not give us a second chance.
We signal to Aliette. She is a few hundred meters away from us and has not heard anything. As we descend the ladder of the hide, we are surprised by a snowstorm that almost completely blinds us. We have to hurry to leave the area. We also have to find our boar quickly, because the situation could quickly turn to our disadvantage. Thanks to the night vision device, we quickly make out the still warm carcass. It is a small boar, which is quickly broken open to ensure optimum meat quality. In Alsace, hunters value game highly. In this case, we give it to a farmer living in the village, who will provide fallow land in the coming year.
Because we were so close to the angels in this white hell, the hunters’ patron, Saint Hubert, was kind to us. Here, where you can find traces of ancient hunting traditions in every furrow and behind every tree. And now this hunt is done with modern means, which – we hope – will help strengthen the bonds between the individual participants.