We were woken on Sunday morning and again on Thursday by the sound of barking and the occasional bang in the woods . . . . . ah c’est la saison de la chasse!
The hunting season seems to start earlier each year, although that is an illusion since the regulations surrounding what should more properly be called rough shooting, are very strict. The Préfet of the Ardèche, in collaboration with the National Hunting Federation and its local affiliates, defines the open and close seasons for different types of game, which are extremely specific, and also the manner of hunting, the days of the week and time of day when it is allowed. Each commune, even little old Arlebosc, can negotiate special exemptions or authorisations depending on the local conditions. In addition, a schedule of special hunts or battues is arranged to cull specified quantites of boar and deer each year in attempt to maintain an optimal ecological balance and prevent excessive damage to crops and forestry plantations.
There is a sharp division in rural France between les chasseurs, usually forming one of the most active and influential clubs in the village, and the non-chasseurs, who tend to be vociferously opposed to the whole affair and are apt to tell gruesome stories of what happened to the family cat, who was “mistaken” for a rabbit. But there is no organised anti-hunt movement as in England, and certainly this kind of thing has none of the class connotations of landed gentry, traditional hunting pink, stirrup cups and so on. This is a very down to earth rural affair involving the local farmers and their motley assortment of dogs going after rabbits, hares, pheasant, duck, partridge and such like.
Until recently, hunting days ressembled nothing more than guerilla warfare and you would come across louche looking groups of blokes deep in the forest or a handful of desperadoes circling the edge of a field, armed and accoutred for all the world like resistance fighters from the maquis. They started in the misty dawn, fuelled with black coffee, saucisson and a couple of shots of something warming. As the day wore on and the bottle went round and round, things could get hairy and the papers still report cases every season of hunters being injured or even killed by friendly fire.
However a few years ago, the National Federation went on a serious charm offensive to improve the image of this rural sport and it now seems as though the whole rationale of man against rabbit in a battle of wits has been turned on its head. Where once the late summer market stalls displayed every imaginable kind of drab-coloured garment which was guarranteed to render you invisible to the naked eye, it is now mandatory to wear bright orange fluorescent caps and jackets and even the dogs have green reflective collars. One does wonder what the quarry makes of it! Perhaps animal eyes don’t take in these psychedelic flashes of orange – in which case mankind has got it wrong since the Stone Age!
Self conscious looking youths (usually the newest recruits into the club) are posted, wearing this flashy garb and holding an ostentatiously “broken” gun, at vantage points to warn you, should you be innocently out for a stroll with mushrooms on your mind, that you are in danger of straying into the killing fields. If all hands are required for the current operation a brightly coloured picture of hansome hunters is hung on a tree to warn you that carnage is in progress. The text extolls the beauties of the natural world and the desirablilty of us all living in harmony with it and all but wishes you a nice day.
For Walksweeks we generally schedule routes over open upland areas on hunting days, but we do equip our walkers with orange hats in case they feel anxious. More often they return puzzled by the old shirts and unmentionable bits of underwear they have come across hanging on bushes along the track.
This is all to do with the dogs!
Unlike a well trained and disciplined pack of foxhounds, French hunting dogs are of mixed breed and appearance, ranging from the approximate beagle to the rough coated vague terrier with everything in between.
These animals live for half the year in a fenced enclosure somewhere at the the back of the farm. They spend a great deal of their time standing on the roofs of their kennels and barking themselves hoarse whenever anyone walks past. It is easy to imagine their delirious joy on that blessed first Sunday in late summer when, equipped with a fluorescent collar and a little bell, they are allowed out and encouraged to race hither and yon tracking all those delightful scents which they have been denied for so many months.
Inevitably, at the end of a long and exciting day a good number of them are hopelessly lost, and after a deal of fruitless yelling and listening out for the sound of the bell their master simply goes home without them, leaving behind a personal item carrying his own scent, in the belief that the dog will eventually find it and wait to be picked up, as at a bus stop.
We are not at all convinced that this system works. We have frequent visits at this time of year from ragged, thirsty but extremely cheerful dogs, who are obviously enjoying their few days of living rough. We leave a large bowl of water out for them and suppose that they probably hook up again with their masters on the next hunting day.