Cut To La Chasse

To prove the mettle of British dogs, Jeremy Clarke sent a small terrier called Tonto to join a boar hunt in Languedoc - a year on, he went back to see whether honour had been satisfied
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
TWO AUTUMNS AGO I went boar-hunting in the Languedoc region of France with four of the blokes I watch West Ham with. We went down for the weekend when West Ham were away to Newcastle.

The hunt was based in Sylvanes, a tiny hamlet in the hills outside Millau. They used cross-bred griffons (lean, rangy, soft-coated, flop-eared dogs), and a couple of heavy, low-slung basset hound types, to sniff out the boars and harry them towards the line of waiting guns. One man, chef de la chasse Guy Espitalier, limped along behind the dogs (more like a zoo than a pack) while the rest of the equipe, about a dozen armed men, spread out across the countryside in a loose firing line, hoping to ambush the fleeing boars as they came by. The equipe shot and killed three boars on the day we spent with them, a good result apparently.

Afterwards we had a piss-up in their cabin. Aflame with rough, metallic- tasting red wine, I boasted (in my mangled, lunatic French) to the good men of Sylvanes that, in terms of sheer gameness, our British dogs - especially our terriers - were far superior to theirs. After several more glasses and some pastis, I said our terriers would have their dogs for petit dejeuner. And, putting my money where my mouth was, I said I'd send them one down to prove it.

The next day we drove back to England with a life-threatening hangover each; an open invitation from chef Guy, to go boar-hunting with them whenever we were in the area; and a bristly haunch of freshly butchered boar on the back seat - which startled an inquisitive customs officer at Calais.

As soon as I got home I rang around some terriermen I knew, asking if they had any good working dogs for sale. "I've just the thing you're looking for," said Eddie, who digs out foxes for an Essex hunt. "Hard as nails. Heart of a lion. Sired by one of Jack Gold's dogs."

"Jack Gold?" I said.

"Never heard of Jack Gold from the West Midlands whose terriers sell for up to pounds 1,000 apiece?"

"I'm afraid not."

"Well, Jack enters all his dogs to fox when they are six months old and if they don't perform he gets rid of them there and then. I took a bitch up there last winter and put it to his stud dog, Badger."

"Who was the bitch?"

"My old Gripper. Best foxing bitch I've ever had. Any offspring of Gripper and Jack Gold's Badger is more or less guaranteed to be dead game to anything from a bumble bee to an elephant. I swear. Too hard if anything. And this here pup is no exception. Once he latches on to anything you'll have to get him by the throat and choke him off. "

I couldn't wait.

"So what's in him, then?"

"Jack Russell mostly. But pepped up with a bit of bull terrier and possibly Bedlington. Some bullock in there somewhere too, I reckon. If you want, I can let you have him for pounds 120, which is giving him away. He's six months old and ready to work. They're early starters, see, Jack Gold's dogs. You should see the jaws on this one. Teeth like a crocodile. Good-looking dog, too, if you were thinking of showing him."

"Why are you selling him?"

"Well, to be honest, he keeps trying to kill my other dogs."

"Do you think he'd be any use on a boar hunt?"

"A boar hunt?" exclaimed Eddie, trying not to sound too surprised and failing. "Oh, he'll latch hold of the boar all right. Boar, fox, badger - he won't care either way what it is. Tonto, we've called him."

"Tonto?" I said.

"Yeah. Tonto."

As I was putting the prestige of the British hunt terrier at stake, I had to press him on this point. Did he really think, I asked him, that Tonto would give a good account of himself on a boar hunt? If he didn't, I told Eddie, I would be severely embarrassed, and it would reflect badly on him as well.

"Don't you worry," said Eddie, "he'll latch hold. Getting him off the boar is going to be your worst problem. So when can you come and get him?"

Before I could send Tonto to France, there was some paperwork to complete for MAAF. This took six weeks - and during that time I kept him at home. Tonto was a delightful, handsome and, above all, intelligent animal. Two thousand years of breeding for ability rather than looks had made all the difference. His dazzling white coat and build reminded me of Snowy from the Tin-Tin comic strip.

Admittedly he tried to kill my ferrets the moment he clapped eyes on them, but apart from that he didn't seem half as thuggish as Eddie had made him out to be. Around the house he was mostly a quiet, well-mannered, honest chap who thrived on affection, and who could become utterly demoralised by a single stern word. With other dogs he was friendly but self-contained, and he was treated with respect by all but the most hare-brained or maladjusted dogs; even with those, he only had to make it clear that he wasn't to be trifled with and they kept their distance. And still only six months old.

I would have loved to keep him, but it was out of the question. With a heavy heart I took him up to London, where I left him with friends who were driving down to Cannes the following week for their honeymoon, and had volunteered to stop off in Sylvanes and hand Tonto over to the boar- hunters.

My sister and my son cried the day he went. Tonto seemed to have this effect on people. And on his return my friend reported that after leaving Tonto with the boar-hunters, his marriage had got off to an unhappy start because his wife hadn't been able to stop crying for days. He also told me that the first thing the hunters did when they saw Tonto was take a stuffed boar's head off the wall of the local bar and thrust it at him. Without thinking twice, Tonto savaged it, much to the hunters' approval - so that at least boded well for his future. Owing to a breakdown in communication, however, or because they have a higher level of culture over there, the hunters called him "Tolstoy" and bore him triumphantly off to the kennels.

That was in the spring of '97. Last November - again, funnily enough, when West Ham were away to Newcastle - three of us drove down to Languedoc to take up the hunters' open invitation to join them whenever we could for a boar hunt. We were looking forward to seeing Tonto again, and speculated about how he had been getting on with the boars.

We drew up outside the hunters' cabin in Sylvanes early on the Saturday morning, just as they were clambering aboard their muddy pick-ups, about to set off for a day's hunting. We shook hands all round and they looked genuinely glad to see us. I didn't ask about Tonto immediately. None of the hunters mentioned him either. Instead they brought us up to date with the number of kills since we were down last. Last season, all told, they had killed 94 boars. Since the beginning of the new one (which kicked off in the last week of September) they had killed 14. That was the good news. The bad news was that Banana, one of the more reliable griffons, had been fatally injured by a boar only the day before. Showing great presence of mind in a crisis, the boar had simply crushed poor Banana to death against a tree trunk. The boar had got away, and the hunters were wondering whether this was the animal that was currently making a name for himself throughout the Aveyron department of Languedoc. In a fortnight this rogue boar had killed two dogs belonging to one neighbouring hunt. He had also wounded all 12 dogs belonging to another. The hunters explained that from time to time a boar realises that in the long run it makes more sense to stand and fight than to run away. Once a boar has acquired the knack of feinting with his head, then getting his tusks underneath and tossing the dogs, the local vet can be seen smoking cigars in public.

As we drove up into the steep beech-clad hills, Guy pointed out signs of recent boar activity. In one field we passed, their excavations looked like the result of a ploughing match. The boar population has increased dramatically in the last 10 years, he explained, the main reason being that the boars have been interbreeding with domestic pigs and as a result the boar sows' litters are larger than they were before. Also, unscrupulous hunters are illegally releasing captive boars to increase local stocks.

We parked in some woods and the dogs were released from their wooden crates. I noted that Tonto wasn't among them, but said nothing. The dogs - about half a dozen in all - wore melancholy-sounding sheep's bells around their necks. They leapt down off the trucks and bounded melodiously away into the forest, le chef de la chasse staggering after them as fast as his limp would allow. The rest of us strolled a little way into the woods, then disposed ourselves, ankle-deep in beech leaves, at 40- or 50-yard intervals along a neglected ride.

When the sound of the bells had receded to nothing, the woods became deeply, uncannily silent. We stood motionless, waiting. Occasionally the stillness was disturbed by a foraging blackbird or a dropping leaf. I looked at the trees. Some of the colours of the leaves dying gloriously on the branches had a distinctly hallucinatory quality. It occurred to me that I hadn't really looked at a tree since I was a child. Standing stock- still for such a long time, in a flaming beech wood, in absolute silence, waiting for boars, felt, at times, like a religious experience.

We must have stood there for about an hour. And then at last we heard the faint yet purposeful music of the dogs' bells. It came from a long way off, but grew steadily louder. The dogs were coming this way, and fast. The tempo of the bells was vivace - quick and lively - they were following a strong, fresh scent. They were singing now, too. The sound of the melancholic bells was accompanied by the ecstatic, melodic yodelling of the bassets, and the baying of the griffons. It was an eerie, primeval sound that made me want to give all my money away, tear off my clothes and join them.

Although I was an integral part of the firing line, I didn't have a rifle. I don't like guns much. I prefer to see dogs working. Looking to my right I saw Emile - pouchy eyes, bandolier, beret - already down on one knee, his shotgun at the ready. I stared at the bushes in front, expecting to see boars bursting out of them at any moment. Emile flapped a hand to attract my attention. He gestured that if the boars should come out of the bushes opposite me, I must stand firm and shoo them in his direction by waving my arms about.

Unsure whether he was serious or not, I nodded smartly and took my hands out of my pockets, ready to wave them at onrushing boars. I wondered how much protection my clothes would afford me if I couldn't divert them and they attacked me. I need not have worried, though, for the boars must have sensed our malevolent presence and veered away to the right. The only thing to emerge from the woods in front of us was an out-of-breath chef de la chasse, who shook his head sadly before limping away again towards the now diminishing sound of the dogs' bells.

Dejected beyond words, the huntsmen came together briefly, shrugging their disappointment, then we walked back to the pick-ups. That's the trouble with hunting the boar, said Emile, as we drove away: his intelligence and his keen sense of smell make him the most elusive quarry of all.

I stuck with Emile. He and I drove out of the forest and on to a low, rocky hillside sparsely covered with juniper and gorse. He parked the Mercedes pick-up on a sharp bend in the road and we got out and stood a little way off. Emile had his gun with him. Evidently he calculated that this was a likely place for the boars to appear next. Opposite, the hills were topped with sheer granite cliffs, which shone golden in the late autumn sunshine. This unexpected change of scenery thoroughly disoriented me, but it was pleasant to stand on the side of an open hill in November and feel the sun on my cheek. Creamy yellow butterflies were flickering about, and there were lizards on the rocks.

I thought I heard something moving just below us. I looked, and boars - big ones - came bounding out of the undergrowth one after the other in single file, crossed the road right in front of us and scrambled up the bank on the other side. They were travelling strictly in order of size: large boars, then females, then juveniles, and finally some striped piglets. The piglets were squealing in panic and losing their footing on the smooth tarmac.

I was rooted to the spot with shock. So many wild boars, so suddenly, and so orderly, and so alive, and such a rich, dark, living chocolate colour against the pale road, and so nimble as they scrambled up the bank. As they passed - in far too much of a hurry to pay us any attention - my shock turned to astonishment, then to fascination, then finally to pity at the sight of the young ones fleeing for their lives. And then they were gone. I reckoned 15 boars passed in front of us. Emile told the others later that it was 20.

At first, Emile had been rooted to the spot too. Then he ran towards them, took awkward aim and fired from about 10 yards. They were so close that it might have been more effective for him to walk over and whack one over the head with the butt of his gun. But in spite of his proximity, and in spite of being presented with one easy target after another, like moving ducks in a fairground booth, he managed to miss with both barrels.

The adult boars weren't panicked by the two tremendous reports. They just kept on running as if they were resigned to persecution. The youngsters, I'm happy to say, were granted immunity. Unfortunately this was only the beginning of the end for the magnificent family group. Thirty seconds later a fusillade rang out further up the hill, indicating that they had been ambushed again. Emile and I ran up the hill; one of the boars, a female, was lying dead with a neat, bloody hole in her side. According to the excited man who shot her, he had also wounded a boar, and le blesse had taken refuge in a nearby thicket. I reached down and felt the dead boar's flank.

Its bristles were wet with sweat and underneath, the flesh was warm and hard. One of the dogs arrived belatedly on the scene, panting hard, its tongue right out of its head. It went straight over to the dead boar and buried its nose in the bloody bullet-hole. Then le chef arrived, also panting, and was told of le blesse in the bushes. He looked grave and stroked his beard. The dogs were encouraged to go into the thicket, but there didn't appear to be a way in. Then Emile found an egress further down. He pushed two of the griffons in and crawled in after them. Not wishing to miss anything, I crawled in after him. We hadn't gone far when pandemonium broke out. Animals were crashing madly about, Emile was on his feet and shouting, and then firing his gun wildly in the air, and then with more deliberation at something immediately in front of him. There was a sudden silence.

The boar was a big one: about 250 kilos, said Emile, kicking the corpse. It was lying in a crouched position. The bullet that initially wounded it had entered its rump. Its nose was bloody where the dogs had attacked it. Emile had blasted it in the ear. Before it died, it had managed to get a tusk into both dogs, though they were making light of their gashes. I nearly had a heart attack myself, helping to drag the boar out and heave it on to the tailgate of the pick-up.

By the time the sun went behind the hills, we'd shot four boars - all of them, I think, members of the large, united family that Emile and I had seen crossing the road. The rest of the group were dispersed. Whether they would be able to regroup and care for the youngsters was anyone's guess. I hoped so. More than one boar, I believe, had been hit and kept on running. That's the trouble with guns.

Before we returned to the hunters' cabin to butcher the boars, Emile took me to his house for a drink. It was in an ancient village perched on the steep side of a hill. On the way, I asked Emile what he did for a living. He said he slaughtered chickens.

The interior of his house was homely. His wife was lying on a battered old sofa, knitting, and there was a young boar asleep on the hearth rug. While Emile poured us a stiff measure of Ricard each, I shook hands with his wife and patted the boar's firm, hairy back. It opened its eyes but otherwise didn't move.

"Elle s'appelle Prunelle," said his wife. She told me Prunelle was an orphan, and that Emile had brought her home from the hunt at the end of last season. Emile raised his glass in affirmation and we downed the pastis in one. He poured another. I asked Emile's wife whether Prunelle was intelligent. She said Prunelle was very intelligent; "plus intelligente qu'un chieng" in fact (in Languedoc, chien, vin and pain are always chieng, veng and peng).

Prunelle readily answered to her name, and was able to let herself in and out of the house when she wanted to do her business. Staggering stiffly to her feet and belatedly introducing herself, Prunelle came and shoved her slimy snout in my crotch. Emile briefly showed me his collection of a glossy magazine called Sanglier Passion, which as far as I could tell is devoted entirely to the subject of boars and how to kill them.

Emile then led me out of his house and down narrow darkening streets to an intimate village square, where a small crowd of adults, children and dogs were gathered around a brazier. They were roasting chestnuts. Someone handed a clean wine glass, and someone else splashed red wine into it. My presence was accepted without curiosity, but when Emile announced that I was a visiting Anglais, this changed. A young man with a saintly face and an absurdly long scarf stepped forward and asked whether I hailed from the town or the country. The others fell silent and peered expectantly at me as if this was a question of the utmost importance, and would determine my future relations with them.

"La campagne," I said. The man looked relieved and beamed fraternally at me. But I wasn't in the clear yet. There was another, still more important question that I had to answer, so that everyone would know exactly where I stood.

Whose side was I on, he said - Charles' or Diana's?

Even the children were agog for my answer to this one and edged closer.

"Sometimes Charles's and sometimes Diana's," I said, as honestly as I could. This equivocal answer clearly disappointed them, so I tried to explain that it was difficult to tell what people are really like when all you have to go on is what you read in the papers. I'd not met either of them, and I didn't know anyone who had met them either.

And then I saw Tonto a little way up the street. He was smelling his way along the bottom of a crumbling old wall. "Voila Tolstoy," said Emile, looking at me and smiling for the first time all day.

His lovely snow-white coat was grey with dust and dirt, but otherwise he looked very well. I called to him and he came gambolling up to me. He was friendly but not hysterical. I was glad of that. When a man came out of a nearby house and whistled proprietarily at him, Tonto galloped over and jumped affectionately at his legs. Emile introduced me to the man, who was called Joel. Joel was Tonto's new owner. I told Joel it was good to see that Tonto looked so well and that he had the run of the village, and he smiled at me without comprehension.

Emile explained what had happened. The first time they had taken Tonto out to hunt boars, he said, Tolstoy was so bewildered he wouldn't leave the men's sides. Here Emile gave a classic Gallic shrug as if to say that no great shame attached itself to this. (And I suppose he was right. It would indeed be asking a lot of a type of a terrier that has been bred for centuries to bolt British foxes, to fly at the first boar he ever saw. Now I came to think about it, I had been foolish to assume otherwise.)

They couldn't be bothered to persevere with the dog, said Emile, so they had passed Tolstoy on to Joel, who is a lorry driver, and who was looking for something to keep him company on the road. No sooner had Tolstoy arrived in the village than he made his mark by killing two village dogs in separate incidents. One belonged to one of the women at the brazier, who, when prompted by Emile, confirmed it without a trace of resentment.

When we got back to the hunters' cabin, the rest of the hunters were gathered in the yard, inspecting the headless corpses of the boars, which had been suspended upside-down from a steel frame. Someone cut the livers out and placed them, still steaming, in a large frying pan.

Three of the griffons had been injured by boars. One, Gypsy, was laid on a workbench, and a huntsman, who was also the local doctor, was using his scalpel to shave the fur from around the hole in the dog's hindquarters. I asked if I could do anything to help, and he said I could help hold the dog still if I liked. I cradled Gypsy's head in my arms and talked to her. After he'd cleaned the wound and injected it with an antibiotic, the doctor stapled it together with an office stapler. Gypsy was very stoical. I think I may have underestimated those French griffons. !

Comments