I have been visiting Slovenia for almost ten years, and have met many interesting characters in that time.
One of the intriguing things I had read about Slovenia, was that they still practice the ‘sport’ of Dormouse hunting. Although almost all of my Slovenian friends starred at me blankly when I mentioned this, the hunting and eating of dormice (‘polh’ in Slovene) does indeed go on, mainly in the south of the country, and I wanted to learn more about it. So I hunted down a real, live, Slovenian Dormouse Hunter and here’s what happened.
Within two minutes of entering the Dormouse Hunter’s den, I was sipping on pure dormouse oil. The viscous liquid was the colour of pale whisky and had a slight nutty taste. According to The Hunter, it was ‘very good for the skin’, but as he watched me uncork the small bottle and tip it to my lips, his wry smile betrayed the fact that downing dormouse oil was probably not a local habit. This unexpected offer was The Hunter’s reply to the miniature bottle of Macallan 10 year old Whisky I had presented him as a gift. In terms of taste, I think he got the better deal.
Aleš Truden, the Dormouse Hunter, had arrived at Snežnik Castle, on his off-road quad-bike. Deeply tanned with dark hair and wary eyes, his handshake was firm but brief. His office was decorated with his hunting trophies: stuffed dormice. One was re-enacting the moment of its death, head stuck in a trap; another was perched on a branch, eating a nut. Two live dormice lived in a cage in the corner of his office, but being nocturnal creatures, they were curled up out of view.
Aleš had invited his assistant Ola, a middle aged women to help with translation and they led me out of his office, to a small outbuilding with two rooms. The first housed stuffed versions of Slovenia’s major mammals; dear, boar, weasels, stoats, wolves, lynx and fox. The second was all about the dormice.
To the laymen, the edible dormouse (Latin name: Glis glis) looks a lot like the grey squirrel. Though it lacks the bushy tail, its grey body is a similar size, and it lives a life in the trees eating nuts and fruit. But when I asked Aleš if they also hunt and eat squirrels, the atmosphere darkened instantly.
It was as if I’d just asked him if Slovenians hunt and eat baby humans. Aleš eyed Ola as if to say “who IS this English idiot?”. Fearing my innocent question may have offended The Great Hunter of Dormice and All That He Stood For, I quickly changed course, and sheepishly asked him about the origins of Dormouse hunting instead.
The practice of trapping dormice originally began because it was the only animal that peasants were permitted to hunt (the larger animals of the forest being reserved for wealthy landowners).
Thus these small animals were a welcome source of seasonal protein in days gone by. Although it’s known that the Romans were keen on a dormouse snack, the practice of eating them has died out almost everywhere else in the world apart from Slovenia, where people like Aleš keep the traditional alive.
“Last season I caught about 400. That was a good year.” He explained.
“It all depends on the beech nut.”
Dormice love nothing more than nibbling on beech nuts, so the population on any given year is directly related to the beech nut yield.
“This season will be a bad year, beech nut levels are down”.
“Why do you still hunt the dormice?” I asked. The days of needing the meat to survive had long passed, and they wouldn’t appear to make the greatest hunting trophies.
“There is much more to a dormouse hunt than hunting. It’s a gathering. We go into the forest just before dark and set the traps in the trees. Then we build a fire and wait. We check the traps two or three times during the night – one trap can catch a second or third mouse. When you go trapping, you feel the forest. The sound, the smells. Most people don’t spend time in the forest these days – but the hunt takes us there.”
Truden’s words resonated with me. I too have felt the same primeval pleasure of sleeping in forests, by the fireside. As I boy, I spent many summers fishing, until one day I went fishing but by sundown, had not even cast my line in to the water. I realised it was no longer hooking fish that I enjoyed. Simply being surrounded by nature, sitting by a fire was the real reason I was there.
Truden laughs when I suggest he may have caught 10,000 or more dormouse in his lifetime. But he stresses that the hunters don’t take more than they need. And those that do are chastised by the dormouse hunting community.
“Last season, someone was boasting on Facebook about catching 1000 dormice. That’s too many. Nobody can use that much mouse.” He said, shaking his head.
Truden explained that the greedy mouse hunter was shunned and shamed by the community.
Traditionally, the meat was eaten and the pelt used to make hats (it takes about 30 to construct the traditional hat), and, as I was soon to discover, you can still eat dormice dishes at a number of restaurants in Slovenia. (That’s another story I will tell at some point).
Truden talked me through the hunting process. The traps, which are made from wood and wire, are baited with nuts, apples, or amazingly, schnapps! When the mouse pops its head into the box to sample the snack, it triggers a spring which snaps down on its neck, breaking it and also holding it in the trap.
The tradition of trapping is not dying out. Truden’s father took him, and he takes his own children; it’s a family affair, although more popular with men, he says.
I read a plaque about the oil being a natural medicine and good for skin.
“I should have very healthy skin, then!” I said, alluding to my earlier swig. Truden laughed, suggesting he may not have been entirely truthful about the best method of application.
One day I hope to return and join the hunt and maybe make my very own dormouse fur hat. Until then, I still have my bottle of dormouse oil, which still sits on a shelf in my home to this day. Tastings are welcome.