Driving through the countryside the other day – well, we can’t actually go anywhere without driving through the countryside – I spotted a man on the edge of a wood carrying a bow and arrow. The bow was big, modern, and professional-looking, and it reminded me that la chasse is almost upon us.
This is the season when signs appear along roadsides warning you that packs of dogs may erupt at any time from the undergrowth in pursuit of real, or imaginary, prey. There will be men in bright red hats lurking at field entries with large guns in hand, and whole fleets of white vans pulled up at the roadside in the middle of nowhere.
These men will, after the first foray, have gone back to base for a hunt breakfast. This will have involved huge amounts of food and some alcohol, to ward off the cold, and to bolster the spirits of those who will spend the entire time standing around waiting for something to happen.
La chasse is a very well organised event. In order to be allowed out with your gun and your fellow man, you will have a license, and to get that, you will have to pass an exam. This deals with the kind of game you are allowed to hunt, and what it looks like in all its stages of growth. You will be able to identify the right age of your prey, so that you don’t kill off next year’s animals. You will know which bird is edible, and what sex the boar is that is heading towards you bent on head-butting you to death.
All over the country there will be solitary men with guns broken over their arms, strolling through bare autumnal fields with their Breton spaniels racing around and ahead, eager to help bring home the spoils. And every Sunday morning at around 8am, there will be the pop-pop of sportsmen trying to shoot something startled out of its weekend torpor.
There will be stories in the papers about the ones that got away, and the ones that didn’t. One year, the police were called to a road accident involving a boar and a car. When they arrived, there was only a boar-shaped stain on the ground, and no sign of either. I suppose one man on his own couldn’t shift the boar – which is a big, big animal – and so called the authorities. But several men, in passing vehicles, say, who saw his dilemma, could manhandle the beast into a handily open back door, and take it away for later consumption. Boar is very good to eat.
Here in Brittany, it is possible to go hunting with a bow and arrow. It’s how it used to be done, after all; and if a boar stands on your inadvertently abandoned bow, it is not going to be able to shoot you in the leg whilst you hide up a tree (much the best idea). Furthermore, you are less likely to accidentally shoot your colleagues, which happens a little too frequently for comfort.
The thing is that hunting here is about food. Unless it is causing havoc, if you can’t eat it, why go to the lengths of trekking across fields in the cold, consuming a huge breakfast, and standing around for hours trying to kill it? And if there is a problem – as when hares were found to be suffering from a form of leukaemia – the hunt bans the killing of the animals to give them chance to recover. It’s organised; it involves all levels of society; and it means that many households own large guns which are, by and large, responsibly used.
So, if your farmer neighbour invites you to partake of a dinner of civet of wild boar, remember to check his van for big dents as you go in. If there aren’t any, be very polite about the cooking.