GB No. 9, autumn 1992


It so happens that hunters have to defend animals.

We hunters support the cause of game with all our hearts, says Janusz Malawski, Master Huntsman of the Cracow province.

Can the killers be friends of the killed? And yet, Mr Malawski should be believed. Matters have come to such a point that hunters have to protect deer, elk and roe deer living in Polish forests against officials from the Ministry of Environmental Protection, Natural resources and Forestry. The latter accuse hunters of being slow in shooting. The forestry people raise the alarm: too many feeding places and not enough cartridges! Game is so rife it s causing enormous losses in standing timber! But the hunters will have no part in butchery.

The roots of the conflict lie deep in the past and in divergent views of the functions of the forest. Then there is also politics looming in the background, and finally, when no one knows what it is all about, it must be about money.

Since 1975 game management has been the responsibility of the Polish Hunting Union. Ninety-five per cent of all hunting grounds are held on lease by the Union s local clubs. The hunters tasks include the raising and care of wild animals; shooting takes second place, and then it must be conducted according to a plan and within reasonable limits.

Since we took over game management, says Mr Malawski, not a single species of game has become extinct in this country.

In the 1970s everybody had a well-defined role assigned to him. State-owned deer and roe deer roamed state-owned forests. Man took aim and God guided the shot. The state foreign trade company exported venison. The hunter had a right to keep his trophies and perhaps also to buy a dead hare now and then. The state-owned ORBIS company arranged hunting parties for foreigners, who freely took with them antlers and memories of the taste of bison vodka, leaving behind invaluable hard currency.

Society at large regarded hunting as a luxurious pastime of the privileged few. It was indeed very fashionable among party bigwigs, generals, high officials of the state administration, etc. They enjoyed trust and ... shooting licenses. Hunting clubs themselves sought to recruit well-placed members, believing, not without reason, that VIP influence might for instance get them a better hunt. There are stories circulating to this day of the exploits of rifle-toting dignitaries and their mighty guests from the brother communist countries. But Mr Tadeusz Uhl, member of the Chief Hunting Council, thinks that was marginal, more of a pose and a ritual than real hunting.

In those days, the problem of damage to the forest done by game did not exist. Indemnities for any damage to peasants crops were paid out by the state. The amount of loss was estimated by foresters, who would then urge hunters to increase their kill of boars, which plundered the fields. The result was that in the Beskidy Mountains, for instance, the species disappeared almost completely.

In the next decade, in a drive to make hunting more democratic, the ranks of the Polish Hunting Union increased from 60,000 to 100,000 members. In the eyes of the chairman, Mr Jacek Tomaszewski, too many people were admitted at random; some were merely excited at the though of experiencing "manly adventure", but remained quite indifferent to the biological and economic significance of hunting. The rule of no stock-raising, no shooting was broken. At the same time (and the question of money comes up here again) the monopoly of ORBIS came to an end. Anyone who wanted to was now free to arrange hunting parties for foreigners. The hunting clubs were making much more money than they had ever done before.

Some people think that if it had not been for that vision of a fast convertible buck for every hit we would have had none of today s conflicts; nor would there have been any attempts to subordinate hunting to forestry. Mr Stanisław Widz, deputy director of the Cracow office of the State Forestry Enterprise, disagrees. He reminds us that according to the law every penny earned on hunting in forests within his institution s jurisdiction must be spent on forest protection.

Since 1989 the hunters have been paying out of their own pockets for any damage to agricultural crops caused by game. The amounts paid shrank immediately by two-thirds. Then, the problem of damage to forests appeared. In areas within Cracow s jurisdiction it has been assessed at an average of 58,866 cubic metres per year, that is, one-sixth of the total annual output (data as of 30 May 1990, supplied by the Cracow branch of the Office of Forest Management and Forest Surveying; no newer data are available). According to information from the Ministry of Environmental Protection, deer of all species have consumed 380,000 hectares of forest this year.

These figures are terrifying, but are they reliable? The Polish Hunting Union s specialists criticize the methods of damage assessment. They do admit that elk and deer nibble off young shoots and tree bark (roe deer eat only the former), but they say that this can be dangerous only to otherwise weakened or deseased forests such as those in the Sudety Mountains. The expert opinion is that the forestry staff care only about increasing immediate forest productivity while neglecting protection of trees against animals. It is possible for example to fence young plantations or repel invading quadrupeds with foul-smelling substances. But shot is cheaper than fencing.

"Costs accounting" accords excellently with the views of vice-minister Bogusław Mozga, in charge of forestry. He has publicly defined the forest as a timber plantation. In his opinion, the right places for animals are national parks, reserves and zoos.

No wonder that Mr Mozga s boss, Minister Zygmunt Hortmanowicz, has signed the infamous instruction aimed at "reducing the number of elk to zero stock". He then proceeded to allow the shooting of deer during close season, which in practice meant the execution of suckling hinds. Three days after the publication of the instruction "concerning the stock-control shooting of the European deer", the instruction was amended by the addition of the word "male". In this way the ministerial regulation called into being a new species of mammal, the European male. There was no other choice but a shameful retreat. After another seven days a circular came out cancelling the previous two.

The ministry's view are also reflected in the new forestry law. It includes a point stating that in the event that game causes severe damage to the forest the forest inspector must order stock-control shooting. But what does "severe" mean?

The consequences of today s decisions will be felt in 20 to 30 years, warns Mr Uhl.

Stock-control shooting without prior orientation as to the age and sex structure of the animal population may be self-defeating; damage in the forest will increase if the average age of the population is lowered by shooting the older specimens, argues Mr Malawski.

Meanwhile, we do not even know exactly how many ungulates there are living in our forests. Last winter, members of the Polish Hunting Union did a head count of deer and roe deer in the Beskidy from a helicopter. In most cases, however, estimates are formed intuitively, in conversations with foresters. The margin of error may be as high as 300 per cent. There certainly are areas where the numbers of animals are too high. This is true for instance of localities which were closed to the public until recently, such as the former government holiday centre in Arłamów. But we must not over generalize in ordering stock-control shooting for the country as a whole.

Nobody knows how many animals there are, or how many there should be. According to German standards, 1,000 hectares of forest can easily support forty deer. In the Bieszczady Mountains at present their number is not more than thirty. This year s plan envisages shooting seventeen animals for every 1,000 hectares.

"There are fears that the deer population may soon become so depleted that even in areas where the deer are still a factor in economic and hunting terms, they will be reduced to the status of a rare embellishment to the forest." The quotation comes from a pamphlet on "Quantitative and structural changes in the deer sub population; an estimate based on stock-taking in the Beskidy Mountains".

What do we see as we take a bird s eye view of the forest?

The Minister for Environmental Protection who has no qualms about signing a death sentence on thousands of animals. His subordinates, the "timber planters". A Managing Board of the State Forestry Enterprise that sees as its main goal a thorough personnel exchanges at the top levels of forestry administration, commonly referred to as a purge. Ranged against them we see hunters, who from being "murderers of innocent roe deer" have suddenly turned into the principal allies of the forest s four-legged inhabitants. And the Polish Hunting Union, which now shows itself as an ecological body while trying at the same time to shed its image as a shelter for the party old guard.

Finally, we can see parliamentarians locked in an endless discussion of a new game bill that includes several controversial points. Such as: the breaking of the Polish Hunting Union s monopoly by permitting the creation of rival new hunting organizations; marginalization of animal raising and ecology in favour of an instrumentally conceived forest protection and a commercial approach to hunting; and the introduction of the principle that game is not state property, but the property of the person(s) on whose land it is found.

Foresters, hunters, quarrels, idiotic regulations, personnel purges, an uncertain law. And amid all this mess, directly in the firing line are the deer and roe deer. They have plenty to be afraid of.

Adam Rymont
"Dziennik Polski" 16.10.92
transl. by Sigillum Ltd.

GB No. 9, autumn 1992 | Contents