The View From Across La Manche #11 – From our own correspondent

Hunting the heart of winter.

Bon Hiver! Though I don’t think I can see that catching on as a greeting. I hope everyone had an enjoyable holiday period. Some may have noticed there was no ‘View From’ for December – as this column typically goes out at the end of the month, and AUK was closed between the 23rd December and 3rd of January I took the opportunity to be idle; something I always look forward to. Now it’s a New Year and we’re back with a… well, we’re back, let’s leave it at that.

I’m a bit of a Grinch when it comes to the Christmas period, so a Christmas in France suits me very well, as it’s a much lower profile holiday here than in the UK. The main event, as in much of continental Europe, takes place on New year’s Eve when families get together for a big dinner. The Christmas holiday consists of a single day – Christmas Day, and as that fell on a Sunday this time round, most people here didn’t get any additional time off work (the French don’t do Lieu days, which is a little ironic!). All in all, I found the holiday a lot more bearable than I would back in the UK – and I’ve now gone three consecutive Christmases without having to listen to Slade or Wizzard! Worth the cost of the move alone.

Now we find ourselves in deepest winter and it has been pretty deep. We do get the odd day of snow down here in southwest France at this time of year but it’s usually little more than a dusting of the white stuff. Last week we had more than a few centimetres of it and, though the bulk of it had gone the following day, the last vestiges of it have hung around for about a week. I know for a fact that we even had snow as far down as Beziers, towards the Mediterranean; something that friends hadn’t seen in over ten years of living there. It seems that climate change is steadily becoming more apparent. I can’t help but wonder what this summer will bring…

One of the reasons for writing this column was to compare life in my adopted country with life back in the UK and one aspect of life in both countries has made the news in recent weeks – hunting. I saw that, in the UK, police instigated one of the largest ever investigations into fox hunting, with six men arrested and 22 dogs taken into custody as they look to crack down on illegal hunting. Here in France, hunting is also in the news, but in this case it’s about new regulations and a forthcoming app to track hunting activity. I’m not a fan of hunting, and especially not hunting with dogs, which terrorises wildlife and dangerously over-excites the dogs, but hunting is a big part of rural French life. Here ‘La Chasse’, as it is known, has no interest in small, rust-coloured canines these days, it’s nearly all about hunting deer and boar. France has a large wild deer and boar population and they are a sizeable problem in some areas. Deer will damage young trees to the point of destruction and boar will damage just about anything and everything. You haven’t seen large-scale destruction until you’ve seen what a group of boar can do to a smallholding if they get into it! With a lack of large carnivores (though wolves are making quite a comeback in some regions, possibly a subject for a later column) something has to be done to control deer and boar populations and that’s where La Chasse comes in. All hunting is licenced and you can’t hold a hunting licence unless you’re part of a recognised Hunt Association. There are a lot of Hunt Associations. Our commune, with a population of around 650, has three Hunt Associations that I know of. These associations will be allocated, by the government ministry involved (The Department of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment), a quota of animals they must kill in order to retain their licence as a Hunt Association. The quotas are often a matter of some contention but it’s an issue that everyone takes quite seriously. Just a couple of years ago the Hunt Associations refused to meet their quotas, saying that they were too high given the difficult winter that the animals had gone through and that the population numbers didn’t justify the quotas set by the ministry. So, there are some associations that take conservation very seriously and see themselves as maintaining an important balance within nature.

Then there are the other types of Hunt Associations that are glorified drinking clubs and full of people that just want to run around killing things – not unlike the fox hunters we recognise from the UK. This is why hunting is in the news here in France. There have always been hunting accidents here, many of them fatal and sometimes involving the general public, but the tide of public opinion seems to be turning against La Chasse in a lot of places and the government is under increasing pressure to limit hunt activity. The hunting season here starts in September and, in most places, ends on the last day of February. During that time, any hunt could operate 7 days a week if it wanted to. This is something that is increasingly being questioned and a number of politicians have now got behind a call for limiting the number of days of the week the hunts can operate. This is being fiercely opposed by the hunts themselves, with political support from the more ‘traditionally’ minded parties. The hunt lobby here is a strong one, not dissimilar in some ways to the gun lobby in the U.S. In order to stave off a restriction on the number of days they can operate, the government has instigated a number of new rules for hunters. It seems that the public increasingly favour a minimum of one day a week, usually suggested as Sunday, when the hunts can’t operate. Macron, already worried about his lack of support in rural areas, is still fighting off any hunting ban and hopes his new rules will placate a public already annoyed at his proposed pension reforms. Junior environment minister, Berangere Couillard, recently announced that hunting under the influence would be banned, training and safety rules for hunters strengthened and digital systems developed to warn other countryside users away from active hunting zones. Between 1999 and 2020 the number of fatal accidents associated with hunting dropped from 39 to 11 per year, but the last season saw a small surge in hunting accidents, with several members of the general public hurt and some fatalities. With less than 10% of the French population now declaring themselves active hunters it seems likely that they will be fighting a rear guard action in the coming years.

I’m not opposed to hunting when it comes to keeping the environment in balance. Without the hunts here the deer and boar populations would get out of control, with detrimental impact on the animals themselves, as well as the environment. But I am opposed to hunting with dogs, a dangerous and cruel thing, and it is difficult to walk in the countryside without worrying about stumbling into an active hunt. It’s possible that the planned app to advise of hunt activity in your local area will improve the stats on hunting accidents – but no one seems particularly confident. Like the U.K, the time may well be approaching when hunting, in this form, is recognised for the savage practice it is.

That’s Winter for you; it’s a season that seems to make us all a little reflective about life, the universe, and everything. So, to the music and, like many of us here at Americana UK, I’ve been spending some time with the music of David Crosby over the last few days. The Byrds were a big musical influence for me and Crosby, Stills & Nash even more so. Crosby’s voice was always something special and hearing of his death on the 18th of the month was a real shock to the system, even though we all know he was lucky to have lasted so long, given some of his life choices, and we were lucky to have him come back from the lost years and bless us with some great music again. It’s inevitable that some of the key influences from our musical pasts will be leaving us in the coming years but it is sometimes hard to take knowing that a favourite band will never play together again in their original form.

David Crosby’s passing is the most difficult musical loss for me since Tom Petty, another favourite of mine, so it seemed telling that I was able to find a clip of them playing together to bring this column to a close. May the music always be with us.

Less ruminating and more musical matters next time.

À bientôt.

About Rick Bayles 354 Articles
Now living the life of a political émigré in rural France and dreaming of the day I'll be able to sing those Cajun lyrics with an authentic accent!
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