Hunting is, in its most general sense, the pursuit of a target. It is most commonly applied to the practice of pursuing animals to capture or kill them for food, sport, or trade in their products. Beasts so hunted are referred to as game animals. Hunting is also done to control varmint populations or as wildlife management to reduce animal populations which have exceeded the capacity of their range or when individual animals have become a danger to humans.
In ancient societies, before the widespread domestication of animals, hunting was generally vital for survival. Even when domestication became relatively commonplace, hunting was usually a significant contributor to the food supply available to a population. In addition, animal parts such as hides and horns were utilized in clothing and tools, and not all of these products could be provided from the domestication of animals. The importance of hunting in ancient societies can be seen in common religious figures such as the Horned God.
As hunting moved from a strictly necessary activity for survival to one of many staples of society, two trends emerged. One was that of the specialist hunter - a position previously held by just about every able-bodied male (usually) in the society. As domesticated farming and herding took hold, hunting became one of many trades to be pursued by those with the necessary training.
The other trend was the emergence of hunting as a sport. As game became more of a luxury than a necessity, the pursuit of it could equally well be considered a luxury pursuit. In medieval Europe, it was common for upper-class families to claim the sole rights to hunt in certain areas of territory. Game in these areas was certainly used as a source of food and furs, often provided via professional huntsmen; but it was also expected to provide a form of recreation for the aristocracy. The importance of this proprietary view of game can be seen in the Robin Hood legends, in which one of the primary charges against the outlaws is that they "hunt the King's deer".
In later times, this aristocratic type of hunting lost its roots as a source of food and supplies, while retaining its nature as a sport. The practice of English fox hunting is a case in point; the fox is not eaten, and the skin is rarely preserved in any usable form. Fox hunting originally developed as a means of varmint control to protect livestock. It later became a sport of the upper classes.
In the 1800s hunters often pursued game only for a trophy, usually the head or pelt of an animal, to be displayed as a sign of prowess. The rest of the animal was often wasted. The safari method of hunting was a development of sport hunting that saw elaborate travel in Africa, India and other places in pursuit of trophies. In modern times, trophy hunting persists, but is frowned upon when it involves rare or endangered species of animal. Other people also object to trophy hunting in general because it is seen as a useless act of killing another living being for fun.
In the United States, hunting is generally not associated with the upper classes, but rather with rural lower classes. The stereotype of an American hunter is a southern redneck with a gun rack in his pickup truck. American hunters usually see themselves as more in tune with nature and often seem themselves as environmentalists. Hunting in the United States has been associated with the issue of gun control. One spokeman for this form of hunting has been the former rock star Ted Nugent.
Varmint hunting is the killing of animals seen as a nuisance. Often no use is made of the carcass after killing. Which species this includes depends on the circumstances of the area involved. Varmint species are often reponsible for detrimental effects on crops, livestock, landscaping, infrastructure and pets. Rabbits are varmints in Australia but game in other countries. Common varmints include coyotes, crows, foxes, and prairie dogs. Laws concerning hunting nuisance animals are often more liberal than those concerning game animals. Some animals once considered varmints are now protected such as wolves.
Animal management authorities sometimes rely on hunting to control certain animal populations. These hunts are sometimes carried out by professional hunters although other hunts include amateurs. Overpopulations of deer in urban parks and bears which have attacked humans might be hunted by animal management authorities.
Hunting also means the oscillation of natural and manufactured systems which utilize feedback.