German hunters kill more than 500,000 foxes annually, and say they're helping the environment by reducing fox numbers. But activists say hunting is an inhumane and ineffective method of regulating the animals.
Fox hunting has a tradition in Germany, but activists say the sport is cruel
Hunter Martin Remmele takes a piece of deer meat from a plastic bag and lays it carefully in the fox bait hole he has prepared, pointing out a few long hairs that have become snagged near the hole.
"Fox hair," he says. "It was here last night, so I think we've got a good chance of getting one later this evening."
Remmele, age 33, is a high school biology teacher and university lecturer. He has a hunting concession for a small patch of forest near the town of Karlsruhe in southwest Germany.
"I like being in the forest and I think it is exciting to be there, to be a part of nature, to shoot an animal, to use it, to bring it into your kitchen," he tells Deutsche Welle as he walks back to his car to collect his rifle and his traditional dark green hunting coat and hat. "Or in the case of the fox, to pull off the skin," he adds.
Half a million killed
Foxes are anything but endangered in Germany, so hunters ask, 'Why not?'
Last year, German hunters shot 512,000 red foxes. The majority were killed in January and February, during the so-called 'fox weeks' or 'Fuchswochen,' when the animals are intensively culled.
Many animal and environmental groups are opposed to the tradition, pointing out the foxes aren't eaten, and their pelts aren't often used. It's little more than the inhumane slaughter of a native animal, they say.
"It's not about denying the right to hunt foxes," Carsten Weber, the Karlsruhe representative of the NABU environmental organization, told Deutsche Welle. "If a fox runs past and the hunter shoots it - well, that's what hunters do. But the targeted measures to kill at all costs as many foxes in this short period... that's twisted."
Hunters like Remmele, though, argue that they shoot the predators primarily for ecological reasons. They say foxes are too plentiful, and that their numbers don't self-regulate because human activity has changed the environment to one where they flourish.
"If the fox eats animals such as grouse or hare for example, and the animals die out or the animal numbers are reduced, the fox numbers won't fall, because there are a lot of other possibilities for the foxes to find food, such as litter in the villages," Remmele says.
Activists say it's cruel to kill an animal without using it
The inability to regulate their numbers through so-called resource competition means foxes jeopardize the existence of ground-dwelling animals and birds, many of whom are endangered, hunting organisations say.
Culling has little effect
Experts, though, say that culling in Germany has surprisingly little effect on fox numbers.
"Population regulation virtually doesn't take place at all as a result of the fox weeks," Andreas König, a fox expert and professor at the Technical University of Munich, told Deutsche Welle.
This is because increased culling can actually cause a short-term increase in the fox population.
Foxes are territorial and live in packs where a mated pair monopolizes breeding. That means only the one pair at the top of the hierarchy produces cubs. If hunters kill one of these dominant animals, this natural pack hierarchy falls apart, which can lead to more of the other foxes breeding, König explained.
Wildlife experts say that if Germany really wanted to have fewer foxes, the culling would have to be enormously increased beyond today's levels to make a dent in the population.
But Carsten Weber from NABU questions if foxes should be culled in the first place.
"Predators such as foxes belong to our ecosystems too, and many of them play an important role," he said.
Despite massive hunts, fox populations have remained high
Tradition and ethics
König, a hunter himself, argues that since the fox weeks have little effect on Germany's thriving fox population, there is also no justification apart from an ethical one to ban the cultural tradition.
The idea of "a meaningful hunt or an ethnically-acceptable hunt" is gaining a foothold in Germany, he said, adding that while many people have nothing against hunting for food, they are often less accepting of hunting as a sport.
"The question every hunter has to ask himself is, 'does this have a purpose, or am I just doing this purely for the joy of hunting?'" he said.
Author: Kate Hairsine
Editor: Gerhard Schneibel