Sunday, September 28, 2008


It always seems to be like this. The last Sunday of September, or the first one of October, and it's the most ravishingly beautiful morning of the year: autumn sun burning through a silky mist, the world a gossamer fairyland, fragile and ephemeral, hanging in a moment of equinoctal, yearning balance. And then it is all broken and bruised, and we are under siege.

If you asked me what I really disliked about living in France, la chasse would be top of the list, perhaps really the only thing, at least that has impinged on me directly, and it's one reason why I wouldn't want to live deeper into the country. It's relatively low-key here, partly because the countryside is more heavily developed, there is more housing and intensive farming and less habitat for wild creatures to live in, which is otherwise a shame, and also the people are somehow less entrenchedly, aggressively France profonde, which isn't.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not a hard-line bunny hugger. I appreciate that we, humankind, have buggered up the natural order so that intervention is sometimes necessary to control certain species. I am not a vegetarian and am party to the killing of animals for food - as I would be even if I were a vegetarian. I'm even quite partial to a slice of pigeon pie (pigeons which I have bought imported and frozen from the UK, I've never seen wild pigeon on sale here and wouldn't buy it if I had...), and consider that perhaps creatures living wild and wary then killed suddenly might be better off than domesticated ones who either live stressful and unhappy lives - as do wild animals - or, if treated with kindness, are then shamefully betrayed and killed by us. I try not to think of the pigeons which, like poor Tess's pheasants, are shot but not killed.

In general, I find the idea of pursuing and killing an animal for fun repellent, however one tries to justify it, but my hatred of la chasse is not only based on animal-loving sentimentality. It is the whole cult of hunting I detest, its arrogance and arrogation, its invasive aggression, its sheer bloody noisiness. It exemplifies to me how the coarse and loud and invasive will always oppress and walk all over the quiet and peaceable.

The first Sunday of the season is possibly the worst. It's essentially a big party of banging, crashing, shouting, barking and baying, sounds a little like a football match with dogs and firearms. The dogs are kept penned up and half-starved for half the year, and are often ill-trained and out of control, the men bawl and jeer and bellow at them unceasingly, in between random-sounding bursts of gunshot, then frequently lose them so they wander forlornly around the roads and fields over the following days. Our neighbour once lost his whole small flock of chickens to a rogue stray hunters' dog.

The mornings are noisy, the afternoons, in some areas at least, often dangerous. The doughty Nimrods gather together and get drunk, so their driving and shooting become increasingly haphazard. In truth, I don't actually remember seeing any hunters actually with any shot game, though we have found the bloodied corpses of a pair of collared doves left on the ground, presumably not considered worth the plucking. They're probably either making too much racket or are too drunk to get anywhere near them.

However, as I say, it's comparitively not so bad here. The rules, guns must be broken within 100 metres of habitation, no shooting in hours of darkness, two hours off at lunchtime, are broadly if not universally observed, though we've had occasion to complain about a shower of lead that flew over Tom's head and clattered on the lean-to roof as he was on a ladder at the hedge. They generally stick to Sundays and Thursdays, which is a shame if you've a young family, for example, and want to take them for a promenade in the country of a Sunday, but it's usually quiet on other days, unless they're after foxes. It is mainly abundant or nuisance species (yes, I know that term is loaded and arguable) such as pigeons or rabbits, or those which are specially stocked and released, such as pheasants or partridge. Many of the latter, especially, survive and breed, and the sight of a pair of partridge with a brood of chicks in the spring or summer is an occasional pleasure. Elsewhere, rare species of wildlife are targetted and caught in the crossfire, and those people who attempt to confront and stop this have a difficult time of it.

Here, you can put up signs and keep hunters off your land, they'll assume the right to come on it if you don't. In other parts of the country the chasseurs have automatic access to your property whether you like it or not. You can register your patch as a reserve with ASPAS, as we have, which gives you a legal right to ban them, but this is often seen as direct provocation which elicits threats and violent reprisals, including vandalism, arson, killing and wounding of domestic animals, and sometimes actual aggression to persons. The ASPAS magazine, as well as reporting more positive actions and alliances towards ecology and conservation, contains a litany of these kind of barbarisms. They are well documented there and elsewhere, and this rant could become overlong, but a notable example are the conservationist and ornithologist in the Brière marshland reserve a few years ago, who had set up a public observation facility, but had his hides and boats persistently attacked and burned out and finally, reluctantly left, driven out.

Where the conservation initiative involves protecting or reintroducing larger predator species, such as wolves or brown bears, the reaction is even more darkly, weirdly violent. A town in the Pyrenees with an ecologically-minded mayor and council, near to where a family of brown bears had been reintroduced, was seeking to establish itself as a centre for eco-tourism. The town was invaded by an armed mob, who graffitied the mairie, the primary school and the road surface with abusive language and the message 'We're going to kill the bears!' They then, almost ritually and to the cheers of the surrounding men, doused a beautiful life-sized commissioned sculpture of a brown bear in the town square with petrol and burned it.

The rationalisation for this animus, which is perhaps quite interesting from an anthropological point of view but less so if you're a bear or otherwise on the receiving end of it, is that the predators kill sheep and other livestock. Sheep farming in mountain regions is economically precarious, bears or no bears, but the numbers of sheep killed by a family or two of bears or even wolves are few compared with those killed by stray dogs, many of which are hunters' dogs, and the farmers are fully compensated above the market value. There is a programme to train and supply the shepherds with the beautiful patou, the Pyreneen mountain dog, who live with and guard the flock and are big and strong enough to deter the bears and wolves. Lately some of these dogs have been deliberately poisoned. The speculation is that this has been done by people hostile to any measures favourable to the reintroduction of the predator species.

I am aware that we may appear as typical townie/foreigner incomers who try to interfere ignorantly in local ways and customs. The first autumn we arrived here the situation was a shock to us. We had no garden, fences or hedges and everyone, hunters included, had been in the habit of using our land as an access and through-way, and as we were still scrambling around on our half-finished roof in the October of that year, we could always see when there were hunters on the field. Run-ins with them were tediously frequent, but we found we had more quiet sympathy round about than we might have expected. The people we chased off and argued with were not our neighbours; Victor's son comes down from St Brieuc to shoot sometimes, but is generally quiet about it, alone with a couple of dogs. We approached him politely the first winter, fussed his dogs and said we preferred not to have hunting on our land, and he has always respected this. To hear the politicised hunting lobby talk, you would think that everyone in France did it or loved those who did, but though they are numerous and powerful, the chasseurs are not so well-respected as they make out. However, they are loud, aggressive and intimidating. The story goes that the common man reclaimed the right to hunt where he wished after the Revolution, having been denied this means to supplement the pot of his hungry family by the wicked aristos, and no one will now take it from him, but really it seems that one kind of bullying and corrupt political power has taken over from another.

Now we are less confrontational. Our hedges have grown up and we skulk behind them. Molly and I stick to the roads and the lunchtime window for our walks, or drive to the plan d'eau, where hunting isn't allowed. Our ASPAS sign has been torn down, presumably deliberately, and I'm afraid we haven't replaced it. What the eye don't see... We go on paying our ASPAS subscription out of solidarity with the courageous people who go on taking a stand in parts of the country where to do so is to put yourself at serious risk. There are perhaps fewer hunters hereabouts than there were, the licenses and guns are expensive, and the younger men have perhaps found other things to do, like tearing up the countryside on quad bikes, which is scarcely better, I suppose.


Crafty Green Poet said...

excellent post, i agree with your views a lot and its interestign to read detail about your local situation

vicki johnson said...

Spot on, your compatriots might say.

My beloved niece...terrific, wonderful person...married a man who loves to kill for "trophies" to put on his walls. Im afraid in our wild west, it is still acceptable embrace of our barbaric instincts if you ask me. He actually built their house around a room just for them which all visitors are subjected to upon walking through the front door--impossible to visit them and not face all of those once beautiful animals. Yes, he and his children (a daughter included) kill for the table as well, but the heads on the wall are overwhelming to me. Gratefully, I rarely visit (we live thousands of miles apart) and it has taken me many years to see the man separate from his "trophies."

The gun lobby here in the states is one of the most powerful special interest groups we've got...disheartening to say the least. Especially since a majority of them say they must arm themselves against one of 2 types of invasions:
from the government they can't trust
or radical religious groups!!!
Talk about pot calling kettle black!!

Quite frankly, in my opinion, it's simply blood lust wrapped up in rhetoric. And many of them consider themselves devout Christians. Go figure.

Roderick Robinson said...

You've said it all. But let me add - since my gender entitles me to do so - that this is a predominantly male activity and I am deeply ashamed that it is. Also it is as if these barbarians had emerged out of a sort of virtual ghetto in a country where there is so much more to admire. But please, don't try and antagonise them. There is nothing so irrational as a man with a gun in his hand.

jzr said...

I'm with you Lucy. The only hunting I respect is that done for food. There is a program here in Virginia that allows hunters to take more deer. It is then butchered and donated to the hungry. We have a too large deer population here and this could be a helpful program if more hunters took part in it.

You are lucky though that you don't have a certain VP candidate who hunts wolves from planes in the state she currently governs.

Anonymous said...

Interesting to learn another side to life in France! Interesting comments as well, and I agree with it all. I think it's shocking that hunting is allowed close to residences! Hunting for food, with strict limits and licenses, far away from residential areas is the only thing I can accept. Here in Canada there are guide companies that make a living flying wealthy American trophy hunters into the northern wilderness for game - that I don't agree with, even if it's a living for the guides.

Zhoen said...

I once did the phone "hunt survey" in this western state. The bow hunters were the most intelligent and pleasant group of men I have ever spoken to, and they didn't much care if they got a deer or elk or anything at all.

The rifle hunters were a bunch of chuckleheads.

Julia said...

It's a tricky issue, isn't it? Rationally I know that deer populations often need to be thinned, but I find the groups of guys with guns and alcohol who hunt them down appalling. My family's farm is a refuge of sort for deer, with no hunting allowed. Poachers used to sneak on to the more obscure parts of it and set out corn as bait. It was a family game for the younger generation to try to discover it and remove it as well as we could. The hunters couldn't complain because they knew they were trespassing - a big difference from the rules of the hunt in France.

Lee said...

I'm with you. I've never understood the hunting mentality.

Bee said...

Very interesting description of La Chasse. Before, my only knowledge of it was from Diane Johnson's "Le Mariage" . . . so this added quite a lot to my understanding. It sounds quite bestial -- and I refer to the hunters!

As Zephyr points out, the NRA in the States are equally vocal (and vituperative) about their right to "bear arms." I'm not sure how owning guns makes us all safer . . .

Lucy said...

Thanks all. As you may have gathered, my account is fairly polarised!

It was particualrly the control of deer populations I was thinking of as a necessity, which also provides useful and high quality protein. Ostensibly it's for food here, but often that means luxury items, such as larks, thrushes (again, not round here as far as I know) and ortolans, small, rare songbirds which are tucked into by rich folk wearing damask napkins quaffing Armagnac. The food value or necessity of eating these seems dubious.

There are a small number I understand who hunt with crossbows here. I guess this takes more thought, skill and quietness. The indulgence in firearms certainly doesn't do much for some people... though I don't know what the incidence of gun-related crime is here compared to elswhere. Apart from hunting-related accidents, I don't get the impression people turn the guns on each other very often, or that they are seen as defensive weapons in the way they are in the US. Each culture has its own quirks, I suppose.

The trophy thing is not particularly strong here, perhaps because it's about shooting bigger animals, of which there aren't so many, and anyway, why stuff it when you can make pate out of it? However, one of my former students invited us once, and when we walked in it was like a hunting museum, dead things stuffed and hanging about everywhere. They were very bourgeois rich doctors and her husband was completely obsessed with hunting. It was a very uncomfortable afternoon! I managed to talk to him about Thorburn and other wildlife painters, whom he loved, but presumably with a view to killing the objects depicted rather than watching them.

meggie said...

I come from a long line of family, who beieved hungting was OK. Where did I come from! I hate it, & can not understand it at all. I would certaily never eat anything that was shot, or captured.
I really despair the arrognace of man, with his selfish dominion over the 'lower' species.

meggie said...

"Hungting"!! No I am not Chinese.
Hunting is what I meant...

Anonymous said...

I don't have strong feelings about hunting mostly because I have never lived anywhere that it intruded on my life. I suppose I have always felt that countryside traditions should be protected and despite my green credentials, I am not a vegetarian. However, I think that if I did come across it like you have I would soon change my view. I think it is the arrogance and the noise and the invasion of my privacy and quietitude that would upset me.

I had no idea that hunting was a such a big thing in French rural culture.

And yes, it was a beautiful morning. We were on the road very early driving to a ski race and my sons were captivated by the sun breaking through the early morning mists over the fields.

annie said...

Lately some of these dogs have been deliberately poisoned. The speculation is that this has been done by people hostile to any measures favourable to the reintroduction of the predator species.

Among other stomach churning things (ie: burning the bear sculpture), that was what stuck out to me as the most logic-backwards event.

Hooligans. *snort*

Lady Prism said...

This is all so fascinating to me, just so fascinating! I Am both awed and mortified just imagining the sounds and sight of all those armed men with their fierce dogs. I don't believe I've read any other post or book that has so effectively made me understand the motives behind this type of hunting.

Anonymous said...

Hmm. I never understand why we humans (especially we over-educated humans) can't understand that a certain category of person has infinite variation. I happen to be married to a man who hunts. He also quilts, carves, writes, and has more creative hobbies than I can remember. He loved training his dog, a chocolate lab famous in our area for long retrievals. Often he knocks about in the woods all day, observes animals, and comes home with interesting stories. Sometimes he comes home with pheasant and duck or more. We have elk and antelope and venison in the freezer, though we've given more away than we've kept, as I'm not a big meat eater.

I see a lot of joy in these outings, which take him very far from his daily job, and I find the sort of close observation of nature that one would have to look far to find. It's not something that I want to do, but I don't object to what he does.

Because of our setting, we have a lot of professionals in the area who like to hunt. But they often enjoy hunting with people who grew up right here in the boondocks. There's no elite politically correct barrier between the two, and I also find that something of interest and value.

Oh, I sympathize with zephyr's stuffed-head remarks. I ought to tell her that we have an antelope head... My daughter says that he looks as though he crashed through the front of the house and got stuck. I'm afraid that I am not properly respectful and so dress him up for birthdays and Christmas and Halloween.

Lucy said...

Thanks again.

In reply to RB and Marly's more mitigating comments, I don't pretend to be anything but one-sidedly opinionated on this. Though I broadly objected to hunting when we lived in the UK, I can't truthfully say I felt very strongly about it, as it didn't really impinge much on my life or experience, and my dislike was really only theoretical. We sometimes bought pheasant and venison and enjoyed it. It is because of my direct experience here that I have become so polarised.

I do feel that there is something particular about the French hunting scene, with its mix of entitlement to trespass and aggress the rights and property of non-hunters, and apparent animus towards certain hunted species, that is uniquely objectionable, though the Italian penchant for massacring songbirds may come close. I accept that in the wide open spaces of America, for example, it may be possible to pursue the activity with less obnoxiousness.

Of course all hunters are not the same, and I know that as individual human beings they may well have many redeeming features. Our garagiste, with whom we maintain a perfectly cordial relationship, is a president of the local hunting club, and I can enjoy talking about other countryside matters, about which he is thoughtful and well-informed, very amicably with him. They conduct a census of hares and perhaps attempt to regulate and conduct the matter as responsibly as possible. The elderly doctor I spoke about earlier is a gentle and courteous man, very strong on using the countryside respectfully and responsibly etc, who loves his dogs and beautiful wildlife paintings, even if his conversation will always lead back to the one subject. I am not attacking every hunter personally.

But all this does not, I'm afraid, suffice to mollify me about the practice overall, or make good the abuses. When push comes to shove, these good hunters do not, to my knowledge, come out against the bad ones, but rather tend to close ranks with them.

But, as I say, I am completely biased.