Game to eat: The delights and dilemmas of hunting in Flanders

Summary

Though it comes with stringent regulations, wild game’s comeback every winter is a hit among hunters, butchers and consumers

Let the hunt begin

With Autumn nearing an end, you may have noticed the ubiquitous “wild” signs appearing in restaurants and butchers around Belgium. For those who enjoy the strong flavours of wild game, this is the signal that it’s open season for hunting.

“Wild” is a term that covers a range of huntable animals in Belgium such as deer, boar and birds, including partridge, ducks and pheasant. The list is highly regulated to ensure that wildlife is managed sustainably and to prevent damage to land set aside for farming and nature.

“Both aspects require thoughtful and methodical game management,” says Marie-Laure Vanwanseele, communications director at the Agency for Nature and Woodlands (ANB), which supervises hunting in Flanders. “Hunters must have a wildlife management plan that covers the objectives and management measures for wild animals.”

They must also comply with the borders of each individual hunting ground, which can also be part of the so-called game management unit. Game management units are voluntary partnerships between the holders of individual hunting rights in a particular area.

They typically include at least five hunting grounds, covering an area of 1,000 hectares or more, and have regulations designed to keep the wildlife populations in balance.

From forest to plate

Every five years, the Flemish government publishes a calendar that shows when each species can be hunted; the current one expires in 2018. Each hunting season lasts for about three months, though exceptions are made if a wildlife population increases in size, as in the case of the wild boar. Because of its extremely wide distribution, the animal may be hunted year-round.

Only the land owners can grant hunting rights. “They decide whether or not you can hunt in their area, or they can allow someone else to decide for them,” says Vanwanseele. Every land owner must also submit an annual plan to ANB, which then specifies how many animals can be hunted based on the overall size of the population.

Hunters’ activities, in turn, are supervised by ANB. “To hunt in Flanders, you must first prove that you have sufficient knowledge and expertise,” says Vanwanseele. “All prospective hunters must pass a theoretical exam and a practical test.”

The wildlife list is highly regulated to ensure that wildlife is managed sustainably and to prevent damage to land set aside for farming

Butchers obtain wild meat from one of three examination centres in Belgium. “A veterinarian checks the meat to determine its origin,” explains Ellen Van Borre of the Antwerp butchery De Roephal Van de Poel. “They also take samples from the meat to ensure it hasn’t been mislabelled and is fit for consumption.”

Wildlife can be transported and traded as soon as the hunting season begins, and for up to 10 days after it ends. The hunting season for hare, for example, runs until 31 December, but the meat can be sold until 10 January. The only exception are frozen deer, captive-bred wild animals and wildlife obtained legally from outside Flanders.

When hunting season ends, you can still obtain good quality wild meat from reputable butchers like Van de Poel. “There are places in New Zealand and Russia where animals such as deer, boar and pigeons are farmed,” says Van Borre. “We can usually get it throughout the year.”

Wild dishes pop up in restaurants this time of year, too, with stoofpotje made from deer or boar a regional favourite. Some restaurants are well known for their wild menus, including Carte Blanche in Ghent and Augustina in Hasselt. Antwerp has several options, including The Glorious Inn, De Manie and Minerva. Supermarkets Delhaize and AH also sell their own lines of game meat.