Dormice, Slovenian hunters square off, fueled by alcohol

McClatchy Foreign StaffOctober 14, 2013 

— Despite this country’s prolonged economic gloom, tiny Slovenia has one thing to celebrate this October: a bumper crop of dormice, the small tree-loving rodents that for some reason are the traditional quarry of hundreds of hunters in the nation’s south.

By the score, dormice are trapped in their holes or in trees this time of year, then skinned for their pelts, which are sewn into traditional winter hats with ear flaps (it takes about 36 pelts to make a hat), or boiled into a stew that those who’ve eaten it say tastes vaguely like rabbit.

Slovenians compare the small-town festivals that are the highlight of the hunt to Germany’s Oktoberfest, an image that some might say verges on the grandiose. But there’s one aspect the two celebrations share: They both involve imbibing quite a bit of alcohol.

Here in Stari Trg, a settlement of fewer than 1,000 people not far from the border with Croatia, it’s hard to avoid evidence of the good news of a prolific dormouse presence. One man, hailed by a neighbor, reached down into the foot well of his car and pulled out a bundle of a half-dozen dead rodents. He raised them above his head in triumph.

“He is going out hunting again today,” explained the neighbor, Leon Trubacev, who was chatting with a visitor. “Work stops here at dormouse time.”

The precise origin of the dormouse hunt is lost to history. Dormice were considered a delicacy in ancient Rome, and western Slovenia, bordering Italy, was considered part of the Roman Empire. What matters now is that the dormouse hunt in this part of the country is considered part of the essence of being Slovenian. Slovenia is, apparently, the only place where the tradition still lives.

Unusually plentiful nuts and berries this year have meant that dormice are numerous, plump and still actively feeding, rather than snoozing in their holes. Like their hunters, dormice are omnivores, meaning they’ll eat pretty much anything.

They also are partial to hard liquor, which works out well for the hunters, who generally find it essential to go prepared with a hip flask of “rakija,” a homemade fruit brandy, ostensibly to give their bait an enticing kick.

Alcohol is also one of the principal attractions of “Dormouse Night,” which was held last week for the 32nd year on the grounds of nearby Sneznik Castle, which has dominated this valley since the 13th century.

Most of the attendees were there primarily to drink, eat and socialize, and the crowd was clearly larger in the afternoon, before the fog and steady rain drove people away. But when night came, a dozen dormouse hunters, nearly all men, could be found prowling the shadows of the surrounding woods on the scent of a trophy specimen.

Many competitors wore camouflage, though blending into the foliage didn’t seem crucial to the endeavor; one hunter displayed a video on his mobile phone of someone tickling a dormouse on the head as it made its way up a tree.

The dormice are caught with traps placed in their holes or in the trees, baited with fruit or nuts splashed with rakija.

The traps range from homemade contraptions fashioned from plywood, nails and sprung steel to commercially made “humane” ones with armatures that deal swift deathblows to the backs of the poor creatures’ heads. One hunter boasted of bagging 97 the day before with two friends, showing a picture of the operation midway through.

The bigger dormice are more likely to forage on the ground, said one middle-aged hunter who gave his name only as Janez. He reached into his canvas bag and pulled out one of the seven dormice he’d caught. He handed it to a visitor. It was still warm and soft through its dense, gray fur and weighed, perhaps, about as much as a small hamburger. It was still as loose-limbed as a kitten.

“You know how to gut one, don’t you?” Janez asked.

Since the answer was no, the gift was returned.

Despite the apparently prolific cull going on there’s no evidence of decline in dormouse numbers, said Boris Krystufek, a biodiversity expert at the University of Primorska, in Koper, in southwestern Slovenia. The government tracks the hunt by requiring hunters to report the numbers they kill, although the reliability of this monitoring system is unclear.

Hunters also need to get permits and the permission of the hunting club that oversees the area where they plan to hunt.

At 11 p.m. here on Dormouse Night, a bell signaled the end of the hunt and hunters dash out of the woods to show off their best specimens. The winner of the competition was noticeably broader than average, but still smaller than the hand on which it lay.

The excitement surrounding the winner soon evaporated and the focus turned to a raucous group of tipsy teenagers in the beer tent, arm in arm, drowning out the drumming of the rain with Slovenian folk songs sung from lyrics on the screen of a mobile phone.

“I’m not against dormouse hunting,” one said, “but it’s just not something I want to do.”

Cain is a McClatchy special correspondent.

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