Manfred ‘Mandi’ Hopfer was a professional hunter for almost four decades. During a hunting ground tour in Grundlsee in the Ausseerland-Salzkammergut, he takes a look back at the development of hunting and builds awareness for thoughtful interaction with nature and wild animal habitats.
“Let’s take a short break here. I’ll take a look to see if any wild chamois are moving around up there,” the hunter says and sits down on a bench in front of an old, closed-up alpine hut. As he begins to search along the summit ridge with his binoculars, his dog lies down next to him in the short, brown autumnal grass, following the command to “sit!” The 14-year old Anka, a purebred Tyrolean Hound, and her master are a well-coordinated team. She seems to enjoy the mild temperatures and beautiful serenity of the Gößler Alm meadow. The cattle were driven into the valley a few weeks ago. Not a sound can be heard, not even the twittering of birds. Golden yellow larches gleam in the sunlight. Although the weather is glorious for late October, it’s still clear that winter is not far off. Perhaps this is the reason that warm days in late autumn are so prized. After a few minutes, the hunter states, “nothing to see, but perhaps we’ll have better luck higher up.”
The hike continues upward. Up front leads the long-time professional hunter Manfred Hopfer, known as ‘Mandi’ to his friends. Anka follows his every step. Time and again, she looks around with her big, brown eyes to make sure everyone is there. Mandi has been in retirement for the last three years. The hunting grounds of Schwaiber on Lake Grundlsee was the last station of his almost 40-year career as a professional hunter. Between 2016 and 2016, he was responsible for the area. In the meantime, hunting has become a free-time activity for him. The autumnal hunting ground tour leads from the Kanzlermoos Moor across the alpine meadows of the Gößler Alm towards the Graswand Mountain. During the ascent, Mandi provides information and insight. In this region, he knows every tree, every rock and understands how to describe the complexities of nature in simple, clear terms. He makes a short stop at a prominent edge in the terrain. “Look, from here you have a fantastic view of the Reichenstein Mountain. The rift to the right is the Salzgraben. Next to the rift is the Siniweler. As beautiful as both summits are, in winter there have been far too many dead chamois here.”
Mandi seems worried. You can hear in his voice that the topic is personal for him. For a non-hunter, the question as to the reason is natural. Mandi answers, “In general, the wild chamois doesn’t have it easy in winter. You can see this, for example, from the fact that only 10 to 15 per cent of the chamois kids survive their first winter.” The chamois are adapted to the sparse life in the mountains. In the cold winters, they conserve energy in order to increase the chance of survival. If there is a lot of snow, they must search for food in snow-free locations. There, they can still find some grass. “These spots are usually near the summit and ridges,” Mandi explains. “And that’s where the influence of humans causes the deaths of many animals. For one, the chamois are increasingly driven from the summit areas by the booming sport of ski touring. Also, these peaks – like the Reichenstein and Siniweler – are where helicopters practice landings in deep winter. They come from the northern flatlands. When such a helicopter flies in, the chamois become stressed and flee in panic. Many animals fall when running away. Others become stuck in deep snow, use up their energy reserves and starve.” Mandi tells of several confrontations he has had with those responsible for these helicopter flights. All of these encounters were unsuccessful. A look at the facts is sobering: in the last 15 years, the number of chamois in the Schwaiber territory has decreased by two-thirds. The responsibility does not lie with hunting. The main culprit for this negative development is the unnecessary deaths of chamois during the winter months.
On the way to the Graswand, Mandi pushes aside a mighty larch branch to arrive at a narrow hunting trail. His steps become slower. He whispers, “There might be something up there.” Carefully he surmounts one edge of the terrain after another. Suddenly the hunter halts. Anka also stops. “There, on the ridge! If you’re fast enough, you can take a picture,” Mandi grinningly states. And sure enough: click-click-click! The chamois has already sensed us in the wind, quickly turns its head and runs away. A few minutes after this meeting, the ascent provides a second reward – an impressive panorama view. On a plateau near the Graswand, it’s the perfect time and location for a snack. Pointing to the Vorderer Lahngang Lake, the hunter explains, “to the left of the lake, you see the Salzofen and to the right the Elm. When you look across the lake toward the northeast, you can recognise the distinctive Rotgeschirr Mountain. In the distance is the Großer Priel.” During the snack, Anka snatches a delicious bite or two, and the hunter’s gaze wanders in all directions. From the distant Grimming over the Dachstein Glacier to the seemingly close, local Grundlsee mountain, the Backenstein. It’s a feast for the eyes in late autumn.
Mandi tells several wonderful hunting stories. His recollections indicate how much has changed in the hunting ground in the last few years – especially in autumn and winter. “In the past, hunters were often alone in the alpine meadows for days during the time of the stag rutting in autumn. Today many of the alpine huts are intensively used weekend after weekend by ‘hobby deer hunters’ although their stay is only tolerated in the time after the cattle are driven into the valley.” Another example: in the past, the ski touring season started in March. In the months of November, December, January and February, the wildlife had a rest. “Nowadays, the touring skiers and snowshoe hikers are out and about as soon as the first snow falls.” It’s a sign of how the use of nature has massively increased due to free-time pursuits. More activity also means less rest and significantly more difficult conditions for the hunt.
During the rest, the hunter provides insight into the extensive duties of wildlife management and the complex challenges brought about by change. However, Mandi isn’t one to criticise and point fingers. Instead he searches for solutions – especially those outside the box. To this end, he begins to talk about, among others, the initiative ‘Respect Your Boundaries’ which has its origins in the neighbouring state of Salzburg. This program emphasises respectful interaction with nature and wild animals: not with prohibitions, but with consistent educational work. ‘Respect Your Boundaries’ is based on the fact that most of those causing problems are not even aware of the impact of their actions. “This initiative is a good start. We could still do much more in our region,” Mandi asserts.
The snack is nearing its end. With rucksacks packed, the hike continues toward the valley. The trail winds past the Gößler Alm and heads down a steep hunting trail. Mandi leads the way. Anka follows him and looks around now and again to make sure all members of the hunting ground tour are still accounted for. The hike ends at the Kanzlermoos Moor. Mandi drives back to Grundlsee. Given the wonderfully warm late autumn sun, it’s an easy decision to comfortably end the day with a cool drink on the new terrace of the Murbodenhüttl. A peak at the menu quickly leads the conversation to the topic of food. When asked about his favourite dish, Mandi answers lightning-fast, “Venison is my favourite food!” The hunter values wild game as a purely natural product and like it in every variation. However, his absolute favourite is classic – a whole roast from the oven.