It is November and the landscapes are almost post-apocalyptic, shrouded in blue-grey fog, the fields damp and fallow. Yesterday, we took the dogs on a route that skirts a large forest. I like this walk because one often sees roe deer. It being the weekend, however, the huntsmen were out in fluorescent orange gilets, so that they could be seen by each other, and firing high calibre weapons, clearly targeting deer and wild boar. Their presence makes even the dogs nervous and their weapons are not innocuous. A stray bullet could kill. Also, they notoriously drink heavily in the morning and at lunchtimes, making accidents more likely to happen.
Towards the end of the walk we stopped to chat with a 90-year-old gentleman at the gate of his house. Monsieur Rossignol, it turned out, was born and brought up in our hamlet, so we could exchange a lot of information about what it was and what it had become. The main thing was that back then, in the 1930s when he was a little boy, it had been five independent farms and my house he seemed to recall had been the stables. He had fond memories of harvesting the corn by hand. Over the decades, the smallholdings closed one by one, giving way to large prairie farms, the destruction of copses and hedgerow, and increasing mechanisation. Today the tractors and combine harvesters that crisscross the fields are navigated automatically by GPS as they plough or reap.
In particular, Monsieur Rossignol bewailed the advent of potent pesticides, notably glysophate, and its entry into the food chain. As we know, the jury is out on whether glysophate is carcinogenic for farm workers who handle it and possibly for consumers of treated crops. Most of the people I know in the farming world here are convinced that it is. One farmer told me they had a worker who regularly sprayed glysophates on the fields and wore no mask or gloves, rolling his cigarettes right next to the operational sprays. He died of cancer at the age of 49. Or was it the smoking?
The use of glysophate is of course hotly debated at the moment but some of the repercussions of this chemical revolution are self-evident. It is a herbicide that kills all plants except for the crops it is protecting which have been genetically modified to resist its effects. This means monocultures, dependence on the agro-chemical industries that produce both the pesticides and the genetically modified crops, and the virtual disappearance of wild species of plants. The fields are big lunar plains now, and the roadsides boast very few wild flowers. This, combined with the obliteration of woodland, copses and hedgerow has a colossal impact on the wildlife.
Monsieur Rossignol looked out bleakly across the field in front of his house. “Thirty or forty years ago,” he said, “there was wild game everywhere you looked here. Rabbits, hares, pheasants, grouse, quails, guinea fowl. Today – almost nothing.” The insect populations have also been exterminated, creating an increasingly desolate eco-system. The plight of the bees is only the most publicised.
And of course, what the farmers don’t kill, the hunters will. They are, after all, often the same people. The farmers I know are not proud of their use of pesticides. One of them, whom I’ve known for 43 years, once said to me “If you knew exactly what we put on these fields it would horrify you.” However, they defend their hunting rights aggressively and to the hilt. Why do you kill little animals? “Tradition!”
This afternoon I took Marlowe on his second walk of the day and at a certain point we passed four huntsmen, without dogs, positioning themselves strategically at the four corners of a thicket, clearly waiting to flush something out. I put Marlowe on his lead but he’d already taken an aversion to them, barking manically. When we’d gone past a giant haystack and they were almost out of sight I let him off the lead again. No sooner had I done so than a huge wild boar thundered past us, terrified for its life. The hunters couldn’t take aim and shoot because we would have been in their line of fire, which was considerate of them. Instead, they piled angrily into a white van and tore off in pursuit, racing past us.
I watched as the wild boar stumbled into a ditch, climbed out, and headed for a spinney near a little hamlet. The van drew up, lights flashing, nearby. And for the remaining half hour of our walk I listened out for gunfire. None came. Presumably the wild boar had eluded them.
In general these days, my dog walks involve avoiding hunters and tractors spraying pesticides that the wind can blow in our faces. It is all of course murder and desolation. Take the rich biodiversity of a relatively unspoilt nature and transform it into barrenness and aridity. Nothing is left untouched by the joyless industrialisation of modern life, and all for the sake of unnaturally high yields and money. Then, in the few havens of peace that wild animals can find, they are mercilessly stalked and killed.
It was very sad indeed listening to Monsieur Rossignol remembering the good old days and the abundance of fauna. Clearly it was another world.