Hunting in the Languedoc: Article
The French idea of hunting is similar to the American one - it involves motor vehicles, rifles and camouflage rather than horses, hounds and scarlet coats. Franco-American hunting is more closely related to what in Britain is called shooting. Where I live, in the Languedoc, the most popular quarry for hunters is sanglier - wild boar, an animal that disappeared from Britain centuries ago. There are plenty of them around here. It's not at all uncommon to see them crossing roads or scurrying across fields into cover. They are a regular pest in the vegetable gardens that flank every village.
Three times a week, from late August to February, sanglier hunters meet in the centre of our village, as they do in all the other villages around here. Perhaps women join the hunt in other parts of France, but here it's men only. They turn up early in the morning, dressed in paramilitary outfits, equipped with hip flasks, dogs and rifles. After a few shots from the hip flask they set off for their chosen location for the day. How they chose the location varies from one day to another. Perhaps a sanglier has been causing damage on a local farm. Perhaps someone saw some fresh tracks. Perhaps someone just has a hunch.
Hunters post themselves at vantage points and hope that the dogs will flush out a sanglier. Most of the morning is spent standing around in small groups emptying those hip flasks and chatting. Hunting dogs here look like fox-hounds but are not well trained and rush around enjoying their day of freedom without any sort of control. Most of these dogs spend their non-hunting days and all of spring and summer in the many small kennels dotted around the village and the surrounding countryside. Being untrained, and unaccustomed to liberty, they often get lost on hunt days. In Britain it is unusual for dogs to go missing on a shoot. Hounds do get lost during fast fox hunts, but in my experience nearly always find their way home. In the Languedoc huge numbers of hopelessly lost dogs wander the wild countryside. They become part of the winter landscape as the season rolls on. Some are saved from starvation by dog lovers. Those without identity tags frequently end up being adopted.
Back at the hunt everything stops for lunch. Usually this takes two hours, but it can take longer, washed down by respectable amounts of local red wine. Then it is back to the hunt. Hunters generally have as much training as their dogs, and are not renowned as good shots. They make up in enthusiasm what they lack in training. Rifles have much greater ranges than shotguns and every year brings an impressive crop not only of boar and deer, but also sheep, cats, ramblers, horses, riders, even motor cars. Hunt dogs, lost or not, are common victims. So are fellow hunters. One from a neighbouring village was shot dead by his friend this year. Such collateral damage is accepted by survivors and relatives with good grace. The high quality of most hunters' paramilitary camouflage makes it difficult to be too critical of an honest mistake. Still, it is not good form to shoot more than one of one's fellow hunters in the same season season. Multiple offenders may have their gun licenses suspended for weeks or even months. Hunters are a powerful lobby here and not to be trifled with. In some villages it is hinted that in the past old scores have been settled by the occasional serendipitous mistake involving a hair trigger. But things are changing slowly, and the modern preoccupation with safety is finally intruding. After this most recent death I notice that hunters in our area all now wear fluorescent orange hats.
Why are French hunters so casual about their dangerous sport? Partially it must be because people here in the South of France are casual about everything. It is one of the delights of living here, a far cry from what is seen as the politically correct Anglo-Saxon culture obsessed with health, safety and litigation. There is another theory about hunters' attitudes, advocated by some of the hunters themselves. Like almost all questions about France, the answer is linked to the French Revolution. Before the Revolution, only nobles were allowed to hunt. According to folk memory it was just about the only thing they knew how to do. One of the profound and popular effects of the Revolution was that everyone suddenly had the right to hunt. The masses took to their new right but apparently did not want to listen to the few remaining nobles still around who understood the finer points of hunting. Enthusiastic but uninformed practices of the post revolutionary hunters became the norm for future generations. Any sort of etiquette, including safety rules, smacked of the practices of the old class enemy. Far fetched? Possibly. But fifteen years ago it was still considered unacceptable in these parts for a horse rider to address a pedestrian while mounted. If one wanted to speak to anyone other than a fellow rider, one was expected to dismount first. To remain was mounted was impolite to the point of being insulting. That was unquestionably a remnant of Revolutionary bitterness left over from over two centuries earlier.
The hunt stops at dusk, a particularly dangerous time for anyone to be roaming the countryside since mistakes are particularly easy to make in the half light and after a heavy day's drinking. Once the hunt is over, surviving hunt dogs are packed back to their kennels. Any dead sanglier are divided up between hunters and on a good day provision will be made for sympathetic land-owners. Fresh wild boar meat is delicious. No one can understand why English hunters chase after inedible foxes. The thought of it is a constant source of amusement here.
Boars' feet are nailed onto the front door of the hunt headquarters as trophies, much as in England foxes' pads are stuck onto wooden plaques and hung on walls. Last season one such door in our neighbouring village sported thirty boar's feet and a leather boot. There is no boot nailed up this season. It's not quite such a good joke at the moment.
JdeSt-F © 2004,2005.
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