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, the world 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.