Chamois stalking in the Austrian Alps
Our sports take us to some remarkable places, says Marcus Janssen who reflects on his first chamois hunt high in the Austrian Alps.
Hunting in the European Alps is pretty special. The scenery is indescribably spectacular, and it is steeped in hunting history and heritage.
But the thing that really struck me was the silence.
For the past hour or so my head had been filled with a hot, incessant whine of a Suzuki Jimny engine in low range as we meandered our way upwards from the valley floor towards the distant snowline.
But as my guide Albert switched off the ignition and we trudged our way further uphill and away from the tick of the cooling engine, my ears were suddenly assaulted by complete, unadulterated silence, possibly for the first time ever.
There was not a breath of wind, no swish of the grass or faint rustle of leaves in the breeze, no birdsong, no voices, no traffic. No white noise. No rumble of aircraft overhead. Nothing.
It was odd in a way, as though my brain didn’t know how to cope with the sudden lack of aural stimulus.
Inadvertently, I found myself holding my breath and straining to hear something. Anything.
Up until that point, any proper conversation had been impossible.
To be fair, I wasn’t all that keen to distract Albert as he casually guided the little truck around hairpin bends and across alarmingly steep scree slopes of loose limestone schist.
On several occasions, he had nonchalantly let go of the steering wheel to refill and relight his pipe, using his knees to keep the truck on the narrow track until sweet-smelling smoke was once again spewing into the tiny cab.
With the best poker face I could muster, I gazed out of the window, pretending to take in the view, which was as spectacular as it was frightening; one misjudged turn and the little tin-can would surely have tumbled all the way to the valley floor, some 500m below. And that would be the end of it.
But I was somewhat reassured when Albert informed me that he has been hunting in this area for more than 25 years – he knew the terrain like the back of his hand, and it showed.
Having grown up and done the majority of my hunting in the hot and arid climes of Southern Africa, it was certainly a novelty to be heading upwards of 2,000m in the Austrian Tyrol with the crunch of six-month-old snow underfoot and towering crags overhead.
And it really was breathtakingly beautiful.
With azure, cloudless skies above and 1,500 hectares of the most incredible Alpine terrain all to ourselves, it was one of those moments when you just have to pinch yourself and thank your lucky stars.
And Carina Schiestl-Swarovski, chairwoman of Swarovski Optik, who had kindly invited me to come and hunt a chamois on the company’s private hunting ground in the Tyrol, a stone’s throw from their factory in the town of Absam near Innsbruck.
Albert Unterberger (55) is my kind of guide.
A man of few words, he just gets on with it, leaving you to soak up the atmosphere and appreciate the tranquility of such spectacular surroundings which even Julie Andrews’ voice couldn’t have enhanced.
And to be fair, not a lot needed to be said. Before we left the truck, Albert had shown me his rifle (a Rößler Titan bolt-action in .270 Win topped with a Swarovski Z6i 2.5-12x50 scope), I had familiarised myself with the safety catch and the very fine set trigger, and I knew that it was zeroed at 150m with 130gr Norma Soft Point ammunition.
As I have a .270 at home, I was familiar with its ballistics. Albert was happy, and so was I.
Accompanied by Otto, Albert’s handsome and incredibly composed Hanover hound, it wasn’t long before we spotted our first three chamois on a rocky ridge high above us in the distance.
But, as is the norm in Austria, we were after a particular animal in accordance with a scientific cull plan that is executed with great discipline.
In the region of 40 chamois are taken each year, so the animals are typically in excellent condition. Albert explained that we were looking for a class III (3–7 years of age) buck, which would fall into the young or ‘non-trophy’ class.
But with an estimated population of 300 chamois on their ground, it wasn’t long before we had spotted what Albert deemed to be a suitable animal among a group of four others.
With a slight breeze in our faces, we began our stalk in earnest, scrambling and leopard-crawling upwards over the rocky ground as the chamois continued to graze their way along a steep slope some 500m away.
The plan was to intercept them as they reached a gulley to our right. Following the natural contours of the slope, we gradually edged closer until, finally, Albert carefully removed his sack from his back and positioned it over a boulder before resting his rifle on top and gesturing for me to come forward.
As I found the chamois in the scope and increased the magnification, I was acutely aware that we were targeting a very specific age-class of animal. I have seen it before, a misunderstanding between PH and client which resulted in a one-year-old gemsbok bull being shot instead of the old veteran to his left.
Holding three fingers up on his right hand and gesturing to his left with his other, Albert signalled that he wanted me to shoot the third animal from the left. But, just to make absolutely certain, I waited until the buck in question raised and turned his head; Albert gave me a thumbs up.
When I was in my teens, veteran African PH James Quin – who is a truly outstanding rifle Shot – once said to me that when you take a shot with a rifle, you should be so intently focused on your quarry that the rest of the world should cease to exist, the shot itself taking you by surprise when it comes.
It is really good advice because, by squeezing the trigger whilst maintaining complete focus on the animal, you automatically prevent yourself from pulling or yanking the trigger or, indeed, flinching – the two most common causes of misses or poor shot placement.
There is always an immediate sense of relief when you realise that your shot has been true and your quarry has been dispatched quickly and cleanly.
And so it was that afternoon high up in the Austrian Alps as my first chamois tumbled forward and came to rest against a boulder some 10m from the spot where he had taken his last breath.
“Weidmansheil,” said Albert gruffly, as he patted me on the shoulder. I think that was the first time he had spoken since we left the truck.
Once we reached my chamois, he wandered a short distance away, slumped against a boulder, and lit his pipe, leaving me to take it all in.
And I certainly did.
Then and for a long time afterwards, that moment stayed with me – the thrill of the hunt, the indescribable scenery, and above all, the silence.
The chamois (Rupicapra spp.) is a goat-antelope species native to the mountains of Europe, including the European Alps, the Pyrenees, the Carpathians, the Tatra Mountains, the Balkans, parts of Turkey, the Caucasus, and the Apennines. They have also been introduced to the South Island of New Zealand.
They live at moderately high altitudes and are adapted to living in precipitous, rugged, rocky terrain.
In Europe, they spend their summers above the tree-line in meadows and glades, and during the winter they tend to move to lower elevations of around 800m, taking refuge in pine forests.
An adult chamois has a shoulder height of 70–80cm, with males weighing between 30–60kg and females 25–45kg.
Both males and females have short, relatively straight horns which curve backwards near the tip. Males’ horns are thicker than females.
During the summer, their fur has a rich brown colour which turns to a light grey in winter.
They can live for up to 17 years in the wild.
Female chamois and their young live in herds of up to 100 individuals and adult males tend to be solitary or live in small bachelor groups for most of the year.
During the rut (late November/early December), males engage in fierce battles for the attention of females.
Chamois eat various types of vegetation, including highland grasses and herbs during the summer and conifer needles and bark in winter.
Primarily diurnal in activity, they often rest in the middle of the day and may actively forage during moonlit nights.