Hunting High and Low

P1120505On the basis that you can’t run with the hare and hunt with the hounds, we opt to run with the hare. Animal cruelty takes many forms, some disgustingly sordid, others deceptively glamorous. I was once prevailed on to attend the corrida in Madrid, to watch six bulls being slaughtered in two hours – perfectly timed kills, every twenty minutes. Once the picador is on the scene, they never stand a chance.

The hunting of wild mammals (foxes, deer, hares etc.) was banned in the UK in 2004. In France it still thrives, and many English hunt fanatics simply cross the Channel. As in the corrida, a professional huntsman told me that the foxes or deer hardly stand a chance: they are essentially hemmed in. Hunting and bull-fighting would be fair game, in my view, if the hunter or bull-fighter stood an equal chance of being whacked.

Yesterday, there was a choice between a Sunday vide grenier and La Forêt des Livres – the annual book fair in Chanceaux-près-Loches, created by Gonzague Saint-Bris who was sadly killed in a car crash only a fortnight ago, an accident caused by his companion, who was driving, avoiding a wild boar on the road at night and ploughing into a plane tree.

Then a friend offered us free tickets to the Fête de la Chasse et de la Nature at the Montpoupon château and we decided to go, chiefly on the promise of demonstrations of falconry. It was a very hot day and there were thousands of people, hunting shade more than anything else, on a slope overlooking a rural circuit on which huntsmen paraded in their finery – hunting pinks, hats, and so on – on horses and with hounds. In addition there was a beer tent, lunch restaurant, and several stands for manufacturers of hunting horns and hunting garments – many of which came from the UK. Off to one side, one could practise archery, and the Montpoupon château – a hunting museum – was open, as was a tent where hunting paraphernalia was auctioned off.

The public attracted by this kind of event was largely middle-aged and tending towards the obese end of the scale,  so I felt quite at home. Perhaps to display a sense of “belonging”, many people came wearing vaguely huntsmanlike clothes – those little green sleeveless hunting jackets, the hats, the boots, or even shirts, ties and pullovers, in temperatures of around 30 degrees. I confess to having chosen a green short-sleeved shirt myself, and a hunting bag for my camera.

There was constant noise all day long, with the ubiquitous man-with-a-mike commenting on anything and everything – his voice blaring out of loudspeakers that seemed to be placed everywhere on black poles, a forest of noise. In addition, there was the worst oompah band I have ever heard in my life that was also deafening. And everywhere there were packs of beautiful hunting dogs, mostly Anglo-Français Tricolore hounds, slumped, lolling, drooping and sagging in cages, up to 45 to a cage. What happens to these creatures when they’re “retired”?

As for the falconry, if there was a demonstration we never saw it. What we did see was a stand with three very depressed falcons sitting on a makeshift wooden fence right next to the lunatic-asylum oompah band. Occasionally a man did the rounds and spat water into their faces to cool them off.

My own variety of “chasse” is “chasse à l’image”, as I hope the selection of photos below goes to prove. Nobody dies when I shoot, except possibly from embarrassment.

At Montpoupon, there was a certain beauty in seeing the fine attire, the well-groomed horses, the packs of hounds, racing along. It reminded me of scenes in an excellent 1972 British film with Peter O’Toole that nobody seems to watch any more, The Ruling Class. And yes, this kind of hunting is definitely stamped with a certain snooty elitism. You have to have deep pockets just to be able to afford the clothes.

In France, the other kind of hunting is the ordinary man’s shoot, starting in September. I’ve always felt ambivalent towards this. After all, the animals they kill are eaten – I’ve accepted a hare or a pheasant from a hunting friend in the past – and by comparison factory farming is a lot worse, murder on an industrial Gulag scale.

On the whole, this is a rural population of ordinary blokes with very red faces who hit the spirits at sunrise and, for the rest of the day, stagger across the fields with their dogs and consider that they rule the roost. It’s very difficult to walk your own dog when they’re around, and I’ve often been told that to go into this particular forest is putting my life in danger because they’re shooting wild boar with military rifles. Even the other day – long before the open season – a farmer told me to keep clear of my usual dog-walking patch on Saturday morning because they were having an authorised “battage” of foxes. It’s all reminiscent of the genuine British newspaper headline, « Father of 12 shot dead, mistaken for a rabbit ».

Anyway, the Montpoupon day had its highs and lows. The cold beer was nice. The auction was interesting and more fun than eBay. The dogs were sweet. The clothes stunning. The voice of the professional “animateur” and the loud rock music for when he wasn’t speaking left me with a screaming headache.

My personal hunt for images – “le chasseur chassé”, one might say – resulted in the following mixed bag of quarry. In that respect, at least, it was a happy hunting ground.


2 réponses à “Hunting High and Low”

  1. Montpoupon is the chateau on our logo, but in fact we almost never take people there. The hunting museum is a bit of an aquired taste.

    Out in the field, it’s the beat style hunts you have to watch out for. That’s when there are guys with guns on the ground who are astonished when you walk up a lane that they haven’t bothered to put out the hunt signs on. Everybody knows they hunt there on a Thursday or whatever.

    The mounted hunts here aren’t nearly as full of equestrian derring do as they were in England, and of course, do not involve firearms. The dogs have a great time, at any rate, and the prey is eaten.

    The hunts I really object to are the badger hunt associations. I encountered a badger hunt group at a hunt fair such the one you’ve just been to. Their stand was plastered with pictures of all the cruel things you can do to a badger with a spade and a pack of terriers and they were promoting themselves as the ideal country pursuit for young families.

    The other objectionable style of hunting which has made an appearance in the Loire Valley in the last few years is the sort where private hunting estates drive animals across the path of clients paying considerable sums. Even the worst shot usually manages to get something, even if it’s just the delusional thrill of thinking they are a real hunter.

    The truth is that hunting is dying out in France. Hunters are an aging population, and there is less and less interest in hunting here. Not that you’d realise that from the way the authorities pander to the hunting fraternity. Meanwhile, although the roe deer population is stable, the wild boar population is skyrocketing, because of agrainage (the practice of feeding boar in the forest to keep them away from farmers crops). Ironically, this is funded by hunting licences.

  2. If I may be so bold to correct you ….In 2004 hunting any mammals with more than two dogs became illegal in UK. The law does not apply to Northern Ireland. So in fact hunting does still take place in the UK but not the ‘Tally Ho’ kind where people dress up in fancy clothing, except in N Ireland !

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