Time to meet some hunters. For this one, I got up at ludicrously early on a freezing January morning. I have to admit though, it was good fun in the end.
The hunting, shooting and fishing lobby, have come in for much criticism over the past few years, not all of it justified. They also suffer from a negative public image. Members of the hunting lobby are often caricatured as drunken, welly-wearing, gun toting “Sunday soldiers.”
Weekend warriors, or real guardians of France’s ecological riches? We spent a day in the forest of the Sologne with the members of the “Chasse de Longueboile et des Bruyères,” to find out.
Thick slices of “pain de campagne” spread with boar pâté. A large plate of piping hot omelette – “bien baveuse,” as only the French know how. A selection of local cheeses – crottin de Chavignol and a Valençay, all washed down with a very nice red Menetou. There are worse ways to spend a Monday morning, it’s only just gone eight, and breakfast is still heavy on the stomach.
“Allez. Un p’tit coup de prune et ça ira ben mieux,” roars my host as he taps me on the back. Into a rather dirty looking glass, he pours a “finger” of strong-smelling alcohol. Not just any “prune” though. This one was made by “papie” or grandad, on his very own still, in his very own house, back when that sort of thing was still legal. This “prune” has got legs on, and it certainly gets me back on mine. The effect is electric. I’m on my feet, and ready to face the ardours of a day’s shooting in the Sologne.
Our “frugal” pre-shoot meal is known as a “casse croute” in local hunting jargon. It’s supposed to be copious, because there will be nothing else to eat until tonight – at least this what my host for the day – Guy Gérard (also known as « Gégé », an affectionate sobriquet derived from his initials), has told me. However, judging by the huge bags of “leftovers” being loaded into the SUV’s, we will not go too hungry, if we feel just a little peckish.
Time to get kitted out. Green over-trousers, thick wax jacket, several pairs of socks, a pair of « industrial strength » wellingtons and the all ,important headgear. This year in the Sologne, the well-coiffed hunter is wearing a leather « cowboy » style hat, either a Broswell or Stetson.
Several bottles of « prune » disappear into the back of one SUV. The hunt master turns a blind eye. He is delivering his safety lecture. It all boils down to one thing – how not to get shot.
Gégé had briefed me at the apéritif the night before. In-between a couple of « pastagas » we had gone through the basic safety rules and the horn calls.
With an air of biblical solemnity, Gégé handed down the first commandment for novice beaters. « Always stay behind the shooters. » He waited as I took it in. Presently Gégé delivered the second commandment : «Always stay out of the line of fire. »
« Beaters might bring the game up from behind and try to drive it into the firing line, but boar and deer are unpredictable. » He explained. «Very often, they will get « hit » then in fright, do a quick U-turn and run back towards the beaters, some of who are also armed. When this happens, the armed beaters become shooters, they « finish off » the wounded beasts. »
« Don’t the dogs do that ? » I queried
« We’re here to bring back some game, not make mincemeat of it. »
Just to make sure that the Sologne doesn’t become the Somme, hunters use a series of horn calls to communicate. Hunting horns, aren’t just nice decorative items that you might pick up at a « brocante » They are essential tools of the trade.
«Time to get horny Gégé ? » quips the novice.
The look on Guy’s face is rebuke enough. This is no laughing matter. Guy resumes.
« Right, imagine we are in the forest .One long blast from the master beater. The beat begins. All the beaters move off in one long line of roughly twenty beaters, each placed at ten metre intervals. The line moves diagonally. Now imagine you hear one long horn blast followed by four shorter blasts. That means we have sighted a boar and are driving him up into the firing line. As soon as the beast gets in front of the shooters, they can fire. The shooters in the firing line can only shoot when the animal is in front. Now imagine, you hear two long blasts. This means that the animal has turned and is running back to the beaters.
The beaters reform their line and try to send the animal back towards the shooters. If the animal is badly wounded, the armed beaters can finish him off. When this happens, the unarmed beaters have to pull back. Okay ?»
« If we bag the boar, you will hear four short blasts, followed by a series of very short blasts (tayautés). At this point, the head beater will blow three long blasts to announce the end of the beat. » This is alot to take in. How long is a long blast and jut how short is a very short blast compared to a short blast ?
Monday morning, 11 o’clock. The hunt is about get get underway. We are twenty beaters and fifteen shooters. The latter have been in position for over an hour.
The beaters take up position. We’re standing in dense, damp forest. Silver birch, oak, small firs and conifers The sandy ground underfoot is gorged with water. It has been raining the past few days. Suddenly, a long low horn blast breaks the silence. The blast is taken up like a clarion call all the way along the line. We’re off.
Brambles, gorse and dead wood make the going tough. It was nicve of Gégé to give me this metal pole, it makes a great walking stick, though it’s not for that.
« Beat the thickets » screamed the man on my left. « That’s where the boar hide. » Thick layers of dead fern covering prickly holly and thorn bushes that seemed to grow out the forest floor like barbed wire. How could a boar possibly hide in that ?. I started thwacking around, a great way to get rid of latent aggression. I spent so long thwacking, that I lost sight of the line. Suddenly two black shapes darted past me. My heart did a triple summersault and I froze. A couple of charging boar ?
« Atlas, Achilles ! » bellowed someone far away. It was only a pair of dogs,. The boar however, was not far behind. A turbo charged blob of grey greased lightning shot out of the jagged undergrowth. My heart did some more complicated gymnastics. I fumbled around for my hunting horn. It’s useless, I’m quivering with shock and the boar is long gone.
Four horn blasts echoed across the forest. Someone had seen my boar. Guns started popping off in the distance. « Get behind the shooters. Get behind the firing line » Where was the firing line ? Two blasts. The boar had turned, it was coming back my way. The sound of gunfire drew closer. Three horn calls to my left – a deer. More gunnfire. Two more horn calls, the deer or the boar had turned again. Now guns were going off all around. A camouflaged figure in a baseball cap suddenly popped up from the undergrowth. The man yelled at me to get back. He took out his hunting horn and blew seven times. The ground around me started to reverberate with the sound of hooves.
« Stag » screamed the man. A huge beast with antlers like TV aerials thundered towards me. « I’m dead. » A gloved hand appeared from nowhere and yanked me out of the stag’s path. It was my camouflaged friend. He yelled a stream of expletives at me.
There were more horn calls, more gunfire. Shouting and screaming. My friend ran off. I followed him. We found the source of the screams. A pack of dogs was savaging a baby boar. Dogs suddenly appeared from everywhere to join the pack Beaters poured from every corner of the forest. The dogs had scented blood and had become uncontrollable. Beaters waged into the pack and began pulling dogs off. Spaniels and terriers seemed to fly in all directions, but they came back for more. Eventually one beater managed to extricate the boar from the bloodthirsty pack. He took the bloody beast up in his arms and carried it off to safety.
Three horn blasts. The gunfire, the shouting, the screaming ceased instantly. The forest fell silent. It was over. It was eery. The hounds stopped yelping and snarling. Before the horn call, they had nearly ripped a baby boar to shreds. As if by magic, their primeval hunting instinct disappeared, they barked and trotted back to their owners as if they were out on a Sunday morning walk in the park.
We headed back through the forest, up to the track where the vehicles were parked.. In the back of a jeep, lay the bloodied carcasses of two deer and a boar.
Emerging from the forest felt like emerging from the Vietnam jungle. I could now understand the blind panic of soldiers caught up in a firefight with an unseen enemy.
A glass of Sancerre helped steady the nevrves. As the alcohol went down, I felt my whole body melt. Taught muscles turned to jelly and I felt glad to be alive.
There’s no let up in this game. A quick « cassedale», and we’re off again. Gégé has gone up ahead with the shooters. I’m now in the capable hands of Serge, and his two Breton spaniels : « Atlas » and Achilles » Serge is a sixtysomething « ecolo .»
« I don’t really approve of blood sports, » he confides. « I only do this for the exercise. The dogs like it too, it gives them a good run. » I suspect also that Serg is out to check on the hunters. Not all shoots are well-policed affairs and occasionally things get shot that shouldn’t (cows, dogs or other hunters.)
At four, three horn blasts announce the end of the hunt. Not a bad day, I’ve walked so far that my legs have sprouted legs, and I’ve nearly been impailed by a charging stag. I reckon I deserve another glass of « prune ». It was a good tally too. Three deer and two boars.
Back at HQ – a former game keeper’s lodge. We stand in the main room around a roaring fire sharing tall tales and a very decent single malt .
Outside It’s time to share out the booty. The animal carcasses are removed from the jeep and slammed onto trestle tables. Two guys in leather aprons appear brandishing very sharp knives.. Very carefully, the « butchers » cut and peel the skin away from the carcasses. Steam rises from the still-warm bodies of the beasts.
Next to the back kitchen in the « labo », the deer are hoisted up on huge metal hooks. They are weighed, measured and photographed for the archives, before being skinned.
All hunts have to keep meticulous records of what they shoot. This is not the slaughter that anti-hunt protesters would have you believe. Each hunt has a precise quota of what can be shot. It is respected religiously. It’s common sense. If the hunters of the Sologne indulge in mass slaughter, there will be nothing left to shoot.
Heads, fur, entrails are all bagged up to be properly disposed of, and the share out begins. Gégé gets a leg of deer and some boar meat. Just enough for a couple of roasts and Gégé’s speciality – boar pâté flavoured with Armagnac.
Tired but happy, we drive back home. The radio news bulletin reminds us of the real world. As we leave the forest. The first luirid lights of « civilisation » burn in the distance. I’ve spent the day in another world, the hunting world, where camaraderie and mutual silent respect reign supreme. Ill be back for more. For tthe moment, all I want is a warm bed and perhaps some of Gégé’s boar pâté.