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The king's beaters

Hunts and beaters

The king sets off to go hunting in a postcard of the period (PNAM archive).

How did the kings of the House of Savoy hunt? Simple: minimum effort and maximum effect. These were guaranteed by the technique of "beating", where the game (chamois or ibex) was surrounded and pushed forward to an agreed place. The animals were flushed out by the batteurs, the beaters and forced to converge on the hunting hides, where the sovereigns were waiting with their guns ready to open fire.

The beaters, were chosen among the stronger people in the valley and Alpine soldiers on leave. If the hunt itself was to start at daybreak, the beaters' work started at night: they were divided into groups led by a gamekeeper, they climbed to the passes and peaks above the hunters. At the agreed time, like a procession of noisy ants, the beaters came down shouting and firing in the air, to flush the animals out and make them converge on the nobles waiting lower down.

In fact this "beating from above" soon turned out to be inefficient and was replaced by "beating from below". Chamois by nature tend to flee uphill in the face of danger, and in doing this many animals managed to breech the line of beaters effectively escaping the royal bullets. So it was decided to move the hides higher up the mountains and force the chamois up: this way seeking a way out they were running towards the king's guns.

The beaters' task hid insidious perils. Many documents describe hunting in foul weather, rain, snow, wind or poor visibility. The risk of falling, getting lost or hypothermia were everyday hazards, not to mention falling stones dislodged by the runaway herds of animals. In the last twelve years hunting, from 1901 to 1913, three beaters lost their lives and two more were slightly wounded.

In Umberto I's reign, the number of beaters employed per season varied between 120 and 300, according to the number of hunts organised and the area to beat at each drive. They received ten lire per day, around fifty lire per year, excluding the occasions when king Umberto chose to give them double pay for their services. With Vittorio Emanuele III the number of beaters increased considerably: from 1907 for every beat there were 300-350 people. In the summer of 1906 Vittorio Emanuele III took the record for the number of animals bagged: over 400 in a single season!

In 1914 with the end of the chamois hunts the role of beater quickly disappeared. Many in the valley saw an important source of income disappear, as did the labourers working on the yearly upkeep of paths and the traders in the valley, who supplied material and equipment to the royal household: it was the sun setting on a small hunting world.

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