On 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.