Vive la chasse en France

Hunting across the Channel is provoking an increasing amount of interest from the English but the intricacies of French hunting are decidedly foreign

By Anna Tyzack
Wednesday, November 9 2005

Despite our comparatively sombre attire, the French chasseurs make the three English pretenders feel thoroughly welcome and we leave with light heads and apples in our pockets, which is ironic considering the French 'tombent dans les pommes' when they pass out. Hunting in France is by invitation only so it is a credit to our hostess Jane that we are so readily embraced into the fold. 'Look after yourselves,' Jane says fretfully as we make out way over to the horse lorry. 'Look after them,' she says to Antoine, who has the immense responsibility of looking after the three of us. Whatever is meant by the wide smile and shrugged shoulders seems to consol her.

It is a relief to discover that my horse, despite being named Ivresse (drunkard), looks and feels pretty much like an English hunter and is rather beautiful to boot. There is more horn blowing, the Rallye Varéna's personal 'fanfare' this time, and we're off down the road at a trot.

Trotting is not something naturally associated with hunting. In England it is even acceptable for hunts to canter on the road. But I quickly realise that trotting is the staple pace when hunting in France. This is not because French hunts are slower but because they hunt using trotters rather than thoroughbreds or Thelwell ponies. A 17hh trotter accelerating down the road towards you is an intimidating experience, particularly when it is carrying a 17 year old epingle with thigh-high leather boots and a long whip. But as Ivresse and I pick our way through the woods, ducking and diving to avoid losing an eye, it becomes clear that the sheer power and strength of a trotter make them ideal for hunting in the Dordogne. Chesting branches and small trees, trotters move smoothly through dense woodland with remarkable speed. Even Antoine, a devoted eventer who detests trotters on an everyday basis, admits they are good for La Chasse.

Before long Antoine has led us deep into the forest and we wait amid the dense scrub, listening for horns. There is no field master or whipper-in ' everyone is responsible for reporting back to the master. 'Everyone is a whipper-in,' Bamberger explains to me afterwards, 'Even the foot followers'. Hounds are often cared for by a 'valet de chien' and controlled by the master when hunting. But the Rallye Varéna and Rallye Croquant share the luxury of a full time 'piqueur', a figure who exercises the hounds and with an expert knowledge of the local landscape, leads them while hunting. The role of 'piqueur' is taken very seriously and requires intense training. At just 23-years old, the Rallye Varéna and Rallye Croquants' piqueur, is known as 'Daguet' meaning young stag. Daguet wears a gold band around his hat and a coat with chevrons to signify his position.

Daguet with the hounds
Around four the two masters decide to call it a day. The weather is too warm and damp and there is no scent. French hunting etiquette is very strict. Hunts are licensed to hunt a specific type of animal, usually chevreuil, wild boar or stags. The Rallye Varéna and Rallye Croquant are licensed to hunt chevreuil and it is only legal for them to kill one on a day's hunting. Once this is happened, the masters plays a fanfare and the hunt ends. But today the hunt closes without a kill. The masters apologise profusely to the hunt for the lack of activity and the final fanfare sounds slightly deflated. The only chevreuil we see is on the way back in the car, limping into the undergrowth.

But the fun has really only just started. Three hours later, after washing off Ivresse and diving into the bath, I am back with the Rallye Varéna and Rallye Croquant, enjoying a fabulous three course dinner and more fanfares. The end of each course is marked by a horn recital, expertly performed by Daguet and his team of horn blowers. As coffee arrives, Daguet puts down his horn and with a voice rivalling Pavarotti, leads the hunt through a number of well known French folk songs. When the dulcet tones of the French national anthem have died down Bamberger turns to me with a smile: 'You wouldn't get this at the East Devon'' and I nod my head frantically, wishing I could have recorded the beautiful fanfares.

French hunting and English hunting are totally different. The spirituality, the gastronomy, the attire and of course the fanfares of French hunting are straight from eighteenth century Arcadia. But the essential essence - the love of animals, the countryside and the community is very similar. As the cap was passed round at Rockbeare and crumpled notes were pulled out of jacket pockets, it struck me that the strength of England's hunting fraternity relies on the fact that no invitation is required to join it. Post-ban, British hunting is more about community than ever before, so much so that I wouldn't have flinched if the national anthem had been sung at Rockbeare this weekend.

Hunting weekends in France at Le Bourdil Blanc can be organised through Dordogne Hunting