The story behind the story: my BBC assignment with women bear hunters.

Here's how the story of women hunting bears got from the Canadian forest to the BBC airwaves today on Radio 4's Woman's Hour programme.
I recorded it in one of the most remote areas of Quebec. Once a year a group of women get together to learn how to hunt bear.

Zec Dumoine in Abitibi Temiscamingue - a popular place for bear hunting in Quebec.
We were in Zec Dumoine, a hunting and fishing reserve in Abitibi Temiscamingue, a region only named so that Canadians can correct your pronunciation, which they do every time you say it. Quebec is a big province, three times the size of France, but even I didn't know you could drive five hours south-west from Montreal and still be in Quebec.

I know very little about hunting, am a natural born coward and was more than just a little scared of being out in bear country. I was also afraid I might burst into tears if I saw a bear killed, but I kept all this to myself and toughed it out.
My job was to observe the women hunting. I was recording interviews with them on my digital recorder and also filming them.
Why do we need the red vest? So other hunters can see you. Why do they need to see me? So you don't get shot.

There were a few inescapable facts about my assignment. I was going to have to be out in the bush with a hunter where every possible measure is taken to attract bears. From the laying of bait to the spraying of special scents to encourage them to show up. I imagined hunters walked through the woods stalking their prey. Some might say it would be a lot fairer. But here bait of meat, fruit and molasses is laid for them and the hunter lies in wait in a tree nearby.
Although, like most people I know, I think the idea of killing bears is essentially a cruel one, I became much more worried about my life than the bear's.
What if a bear comes along before we get to the hide, what if the hunter I am with suffers a heart attack and dies, what if we meet a rogue bear which is aggressive? (most run a mile at the slightest sound or movement they are not expecting. That's why they have to bait them of course.) Nevertheless all these thoughts were running through my mind as we were driven and dumped in the middle of bear country at around 5pm.
The hide where we sat for four hours every night while Estelle waited for a bear.
 We had to walk through the dense undergrowth to our hide - a small hut about 15 feet up a tree. Already I'm frightened. We are walking through thick bushes in bear country with all sorts of bear attractants around us. Does the bear know he's supposed to wait for the hunter to get into the hide and load the gun before he turns up? I have never walked through undergrowth so quickly. I was first up the ladder when the hunter handed me her rifle. I've never held a gun in my life and yes, I was scared of touching that too. I propped it up gingerly in the corner of the hide.  I'm not sure I'm cut out for this. Only later do I find out Estelle, the hunter, doesn't load it until she's in the hide. Next she switched on the alleged mosquito killing device and sprayed us with something to eliminate human odours (is fear one of them?)  "Now we wait", she declares followed by "It's a beautiful night for hunting." Is that something like it's a beautiful night for killing something?

Estelle watches the bait and waits.
Once settled in the hide I had been warned I was not to move or make a sound. We probably whispered to each other about once an hour. Otherwise we were sitting in total silence. The rickety nature of the hide and the portable seat I was perched on made it extremely difficult to move without noise. My backside was numb after 30 minutes. We had three and a half hours to go. Strangely, if you forget the reason you are there, sitting in a tree-house as the sun sets in a Canadian forest, listening to the birdsong, is an experience akin to meditation. I certainly needed to transport myself to another world to forget the blood draining out of my lower limbs.
A tree stand. Most of the women were in these. 
I recorded the whole thing over four days in June. Some nights in the hide however were excruciating due to the heat, the thick hunting clothes and the mosquitos. We wore net jackets with sealed-in hoods to keep the blighters out but they worked out my headphones made a great landing pad and had fun biting my ear, which swelled to double its natural size.
The whole time I was in the hide I was nervous. We could check for approaching bears through thin slits cuts into the side of the hut but I almost didn't want to look. Estelle warned me I might hear the beast approaching if it stepped on a branch. Of course every time I heard a branch snap I was frozen. Once Estelle's boot brushed up against mine and I almost leapt off my seat. She thought this was very amusing. "A little nervous are we?" I think I'm being taken for a wimp.

At nightfall we leave. You're not allowed to hunt in the dark. Estelle radios for the driver to come and get us,  but guess what - we have to walk through the bush again to get to the truck. This is the bush with bear bait, bear-attracting chemicals and now the added delight of complete darkness. I suggested we sing to scare away the bears but Estelle tells me we should keep quiet to maintain the integrity of the hunting site. Are you kidding me?

Hunter Renee tells the others how she killed her 300lb bear.
As you heard on Woman's Hour we discovered one of the women had shot a bear when we got back to the camp. The poor beast is spread out on the back of a pick-up truck. It was an absolutely beautiful creature with black fur like velvet. "Can I stroke it," I ask and the hunters look bemused as I touch it. Three bears were killed in total during the hunt - two by women and a third by a male guide.

I ask the women if they consider what they do to be cruel and they all have the same answers. The beast doesn't suffer - a clean shot is not cruel. It is worse to buy cheap meat in a supermarket which has been pumped with chemicals and cruelly reared, they say. They believe hunting is a natural activity and they are getting their own organic meat from the forest.  For many of them this a traditional activity which their families have enjoyed for generations.
Bait is placed in a barrel. The bear puts it's head inside and that's when the hunter pulls the trigger.
It strikes me that hunting is much more of a working class activity in Quebec than in Britain, where the plummy accents somehow seem crueller to my ear.

I was nervous at my reaction to seeing a dead bear but seeing a dead bear being cleaned is a real test of your stomach. I was recording interviews and filming at the time and my previous life as a health correspondent came in handy. I held onto the contents of my stomach, unlike the bear.

If you hate the very idea of hunting you probably could not imagine yourself spending time with hunters. But being a freelance journalist puts you in some strange situations. I spent four days and nights with these women and I found them fascinating. They were extremely generous, liked to laugh and I had to keep reminding myself that they were here to kill bears. (they prefer the word harvest).

To listen to the radio feature in full visit BBC Radio 4's Woman's Hour. It was broadcast on Friday October 8 2010.


  1. Anne I would have wanted to stroke the bear too. I didn't know they ate bear.
    Your orange jacket reminded me of that time at the cottage at Linhope when Sarah told Sophie to put a hat on as she may get mistaken for a pheasant and shot.

  2. Dear Debby
    I actually wanted to cuddle it but that may have crossed the line of jounalistic impartiality.

  3. Would love to see some film footage of your adventures Anne! Did you try any bear meat? I bet it doesn't taste like chicken!


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