With her dreadlocks and nose piercing, Shanna Reis doesn’t exactly look the part of the camouflage-clad hunter tracking game in the forest.
But the 28-year-old represents a new German generation of enthusiasts concerned about where they get their meat, especially as home cooking sees a resurgence during the pandemic.
Reis was a practising vegetarian for a decade before returning meat to her plate once she got her hunting licence five years ago.
But the only kind that passes her lips these days is fresh game, preferably specimens she’s killed and prepared herself.
“It’s important to me to know where the meat I eat comes from,” she said on the outskirts of her western village Aspisheim near the River Rhine, rifle slung over a shoulder and accompanied by one of her three dogs.
Hunting licences have grown increasingly popular in Germany, where meat makes up a large part of the average diet.
The National Hunting Federation said there were about 390,000 practitioners at the end of 2020, a quarter more than 30 years ago, its spokeswoman Anna Martinsohn told AFP.
That’s far below the number in neighbouring France, estimated at around one million in 2019. But there the figure has fallen by half in the last 40 years.
In Germany, 19,000 people went for their hunting permit last year and four in five of them were successful — “twice as many as 10 years ago”, Martinsohn said.
– ‘Don’t want that meat’ –
Europe’s top economy is the biggest consumer of pork in the EU and its large slaughterhouse industry prepares the meat of more than 55 million pigs and 3.5 million cows for consumption.
However mass meat production has suffered a serious blow to its image after a series of Covid-19 outbreaks at German slaughterhouses, particularly at plants run by market leader Toennies.
Media coverage of the spread of infections zeroed in on scandalous working conditions among subcontractors, many brought in from eastern Europe to toil for low wages on precarious contracts to ensure a supply of discount meat.
“People are saying that in the long run they don’t want to eat that kind of meat,” said Nicole Romig, 47, a high school teacher in Offenbach outside Frankfurt who has taken up hunting.
With the help of a butcher who is a friend of her family, she makes a range of meat dishes using game she has killed including grilled steaks, sausages and liver patties.
Another hunting enthusiast, 55-year-old Ulf Grether, makes his own wild boar sausages and says demand is so strong he manages to sell out “even before I’ve made them”.
– ‘Respecting animal life’ –
Those new to hunting are interested in “understanding the relationship between the forest, the fields and animals”, said Alexander Polfers, the director of a hunting school in Emsland in the northern state of Lower Saxony, which grants 600 licences a year.
Reis said she is interested in cleaning up hunters’ cruel image, also with the help of social media.
“It’s about conserving biotopes, talking to farmers and preserving the forest economy,” said Reis, who has more than 20,000 followers on her Instagram account dedicated to the hunting lifestyle.
The brothers Paul and Gerold Reilmann, aged 25 and 22 and avid hunters, have over 30,000 subscribers on Facebook.
But the snapshots of their trophies don’t only draw admirers, in a country where animal welfare groups are a powerful lobby.
“Killing an animal has nothing to do with respecting its life,” said Sandra Franz, spokeswoman of NGO Animal Rights Watch.
“There is no rational argument for hunting apart from the desire to kill and collect trophies to be displayed.”
Hunters must also abide by regulations on wild animals’ habitats backed by foresters and farmers, who tend to support massive culls to prevent deer eating the shoots of young trees and hordes of wild boar trampling cornfields.
“We are always at war with the forest rangers,” said Grether, because “hunters are happy when there’s a strong animal population”.