Hunting and Science in Austria—a Symbiotic Relationship
Since the 1970s, in an exemplary cooperation between practical field work and research-based studies, hunters in Austria have worked closely with their country’s scientific institutions.
Austria is a country with 8.3 million inhabitants, covering an area of 83,858 square kilometers (32,378 square miles). Fully 98% of this area is used for hunting by some 130,000 people who hold a mandatory hunting license. They are organized into nine federal state hunting federations, which represent nearly 100% of Austrian hunters1.
The cooperation between hunters and scientific institutions in Austria has steadily improved since the first attempts at collaboration were made in the 1970s. The ensuing mutual dependence led to a symbiotic alliance between hunters and wildlife scientists that has benefitted biodiversity and wildlife management at all levels.
The alliance functions bottom-up: Hunters provide valuable field information to scientists at national institutions, who then work with these hunter-provided data and observations to make wildlife management recommendations—which, ironically, are sometimes difficult for hunters to digest, since they may run contrary to popular or traditional beliefs.
Austria’s hunters are increasingly aware of their responsibilities and many of them show a great interest in raising their standards even further for the benefit of rural landscapes and wildlife. This is true at every level, for amateur hunters, professional hunters, game wardens and office-holders in the hunting associations.
Hunters in Austria have one clear objective: a healthy ecosystem inhabited by sustainable wildlife populations. For this reason, our hunter are very sensitive and acute observers. They are at the environmental front lines and can recognize even subtle ecological changes quickly. They function as an early warning system, often providing key impetus for research.
Austria’s official custodians of hunting—professionals for whom hunting is a paid, full-time vocation and the regional and national officials of the hunting federations—continually strive to improve their knowledge of wildlife management. For ordinary, amateur hunters there is currently no mandatory further education once they have passed the official test for their first hunting license2, but the readiness of hunters to continue their education is increasing.
Austria offers excellent opportunities for such ongoing hunter training and education. For one, the regional hunting associations publish excellent journals, which offer a wide array of scientific and practical articles relating to all aspects of hunting and nature management.
Every year, there are also professional meetings and educational conferences that address wildlife science and hunting. For example, the Jägertagung, or Hunters’ Congress, in Aigen, has been a highlight for wildlife scientists, hunting association officials, field practitioners and hunters for the past 25 years—regularly drawing more than 800 participants. The first Small Game Summit, held recently in Lower Austria, tackled the thorny issues around the conservation of game such as wild hares and partridges—two species that are currently among the losers in increasingly de-naturalized agricultural lands.
Austria has become an international leader in developing the concepts and assessment tools for sustainable natural-resource management for hunting. With broad stakeholder participation, we have been able to define the ecological, economic and socio-cultural principles, criteria and indicators as markers of sustainable hunting. An integrated performance scale enables hunters to self-assess the sustainability of their own individual hunting practices. This in turn provides guidance, and lets hunters monitor the effectiveness of their management and pinpoint deficiencies. These concepts are adaptable to specific regional conditions and hunting systems, and can be applied regionally and nationally3.
Last but not least, Austria is the only country worldwide that offers tertiary academic hunter education. At BOKU, Vienna’s University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences, a hunter can study for what might be called a BH, a Bachelor’s Degree in hunting (in German, the Akademische Jagdwirt). Each year for the past 10 years, 20 men and women have earned this coveted title4. It’s a demanding curriculum: four full semesters of high-quality, innovative academic courses on the complex interplay between hunting and sustainable land use, wildlife biology, economics and socio-political factors, complemented with technical and practical work. The graduates are well equipped to act as influencers and opinion leaders for the future of sustainable hunting.
Hunters, members of the Farmers’ Union (or the Chamber of Agriculture) and public and private forest owners in Austria have one overriding common interest: the wise and sustainable use of nature by the present generation in order to bequeath an intact environment to the next generation. Cooperation to solve controversial issues calls for professionalism and understanding of each other’s priorities, leading to sensible, open-ended discussions of common ground, differences and challenges.
Hot topics in Austria today of course include climate change, but also the return of species (such as the wolf) to our modified landscapes. Another controversial issue is damage by wildlife to agriculture and forestry. Farmers in particular fear the transmission of wildlife diseases, such as African swine fever, to domestic stock. The close cooperation of the wildlife sector is therefore particularly important.
Many wildlife species should (and need to) be hunted, but there are also some game that, due to specific circumstances, sometimes should not be hunted. This is a fluid continuum and may vary depending on regional and local conditions. The best example right now involves the management of our resurgent wolf and other carnivore populations.
When it comes to public relations, however, our hunters and their organizations often fall short of their potential. They should continually strive to improve interactions with the non-hunting public, to better communicate the environmental achievements of hunters and the use of science to support hunters’ actions in the field. This is essential to counter the anti-hunting pressure from some parts of society.
In any case, to ensure that they do not mutate into vicarious agents of the Zeitgeist, hunters have to build more and enduring bridges toward non-hunters. Hunters must offer detailed explanations of what they do, underpinned with clear arguments and data. The hunters’ main objective is the conservation of habitats and wildlife. In a man-made, highly cultural environment—as in Austria and other European states—the most effective tools are regulations that best complement the interest of the agricultural and forestry sectors.
A last word regarding the constant advances in hunting equipment: We should thoroughly weigh the advantages of technical progress against the essence of ethical hunting practices. Hunting, as we know and love it, embodies far more than effective wildlife management. For the overwhelming majority of our hunters, their passion is not rooted in the use of new and sophisticated gear; it comes rather from a deep love for wild spaces and wildlife, from an ever-new and exhilarating participatory experience of nature, and from contributing to habitat and wildlife conservation for generations to come.
Dr. Klaus Hackländer is a wildlife biologist and professor of game management at the University of Natural Resources and Applied Life Sciences in Vienna. Since 2017, he is also the president of the Applied Science Division of the International Council for Game and Wildlife Conservation, CIC.
Banner Image: The cliché of the old male hunter has long since disappeared in Austria. Hunting here is getting decidedly younger and more female. Jagdfakten.at photo