KILLING FIELDS OF THE ARDECHE

The English may be turning against blood sports; the French are less squeamish. Last year, their huntsmen killed more than 100,000 wild boar, as blithely as they might slaughter a veal calf
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The Independent Culture
THESE ARE tough times for the wild boar of France. True, only 1,630,000 Frenchmen now have hunting licences from L'Office National de la Chasse - down from 2 million 10 years ago - but they're setting about the sangliers (wild boar) with gusto. In 1984, 37,000 boar bit the dust; last year, more than 110,000 met their maker thanks to the huntsmen. But then, it's never easy being a bte noire, which is what the French call these big, fierce pigs. It's especially hard because France is a country in which, unlike England, the anti-hunting lobby can muster few adherents (and those mostly intent on keeping migratory birds safe from the blazing barrels of chasseurs in the Mdoc); a country, indeed, in which such presidents as Giscard and Pompidou were keen guns, happy to bang away at the presidential shoot in Rambouillet, 50 kilometres from Paris, or on the 5,000 state-owned hectares of the Chteau de Chambord, in the Loire valley, where both red and roe deer gambol contentedly alongside wild boar.

They're less grand, but probably more passionate, at Vagnas, a hamlet in the wild, rugged terrain of the Ardche, in south central France, where these pictures were taken. There's a wild boar motif, for instance, on the tiles in the loo at the Caf Vagnas, where the chasseurs down their pastis after a day's hunting; and a door knocker in the shape of a wild boar at Claude "Coco" Lichire's house. "Coco" runs a bakery in the nearby town of Vallon Pont d'Arc, but his heart belongs to hunting, and he's the matre de la chasse for the commune of Vagnas. Every Thursday, Saturday and Sunday during the four-month-long season, he's at the meeting place on the Salavas road by 6am, ready to register the day's hunters.

There are usually 20 or 30 of them - farmers, factory workers, professional men. Some have guns, some dogs: Bleus de Gascogne, St Huberts, Chiens d'Artois, all rough, tough dogs well able to face a dangerous boar without fear. (With its bottom set of teeth - known as les dfenses - a boar can tear open a dog as easily as you can bite into an apple.) Then it's off in the 2CVs and the four-wheel drives to the patch of wood that Coco has already reconnoitred, and the hunt is on. It's the same France over: a strip of soil will have been raked clear around a section of forest, so that any prints are clearly visible; or an experienced hunter and his tried, tested and very quiet dog will have drifted their way round a wood and found evidence of a boar within. Twenty or so hunters take their positions, guns at the ready, at 100-yard intervals, waiting for the four or five beaters and their hounds to start up the sangliers. Once the prey is spotted, the huntsman blows two triumphant blasts on his horn, the dogs harass the boar, and the boar (anything from 50 to 200kg in weight) comes rampaging through the undergrowth at up to 50 kilometres an hour. Once, most hunters used doubled-barrelled guns to pick off the boar, at a range of roughly 50 metres; now more Rambo- like artillery is increasingly popular - the 300 Winchester Magnum is a favourite - and a sharp shot can drop a boar from 200 metres. But it takes an accurate shot, to the head, neck, heart or spinal column, to kill a boar.

In Vagnas, they expect to kill one or two boar in a full day's hunting, and they killed 84 altogether last season. On one of the days on which Nigel Dickinson took pictures, they slew seven; which was, some hunters felt, too many. But they did as they always do: took the dead animals back to their base, the garage behind the Caf Vagnas, where, under the harsh glare of a tungsten light, they set about dismembering their kill.

In shacks and huts all over France the same scene is played out, but Vagnas has its own local peculiarity. There, the chasseurs don't skin the boar; they shave it, pouring scalding water over its fur. And then, while the younger huntsmen sip their tomates (pastis with grenadine) in the caf, the older hands cut the boar up into legs, haunches, breast, head, trotters or what you will. Women, notably absent from the whole voluble ritual of the chase, potter in to watch the butchery, grandchildren on their arms. It's all very democratic; a numbered scrap of paper is attached to each chunk of meat, and a lottery drawn to determine which hunter gets what piece of meat. The blood can serve to make a boudin noir (black pudding), the head the basis of hure de sanglier (brawn). The bowels go to the dogs - or to make andouillettes (sausages).

There is also Vagnas's own speciality: amarettes, or wild boar testicles, seasoned with garlic and basil and fried very lightly in olive oil. These are, says Dickinson, sharp and bitter and raw. At the end of the evening, everyone present at the day's hunt gets to eat them; "a way" says Dickinson, "of taking in the boar's power."

But that's a rather metaphysical gloss on a good day out, which is, really, what the chasse is all about. All the standard justifications hardly bear close investigation. The boar may once have been hunted for food alone, and their million-strong population may play havoc with farmers' crops, but there's food enough now, and electric fences that could be erected around the vineyards and the barley, and more ruthlessly efficient culls that could be run. Indeed, across the valley from Vagnas, there is a fenced off area of several hundred acres where wild boar are bred (each female can bear up to seven young a year). Game wardens manage the park, and huntsmen's dogs are welcome there to practise their craft. In due course, the boar are released for the huntsmen's pleasure. But most boar are genuinely wild, and huntsmen argue their own place in the environmental chain on two counts: woodland, formerly employed for charcoal gathering and the like, is now abandoned, and populated with boar. Unless the boar are kept under control, they argue, whole tracts of forest would become no-go areas for humans. And, conversely, unless the terrain is kept as wild as it need be for hunting, crazed developers would snaffle up the land and turn it into manicured golf courses. (Not that golf courses are sacrosanct: so eager were wild boar to rampage on the greens and fairways of a course at St Quentin en Yvelines, just 19km from Paris, that the owners of the course pleaded with the government to organise a shoot. In all, 50 wild boar were killed there last year.)

These nods at environmental concerns are all so much baloney. The French love hunting, and the authorities mess with it at their peril. When Brussels last year issued directives declaring illegal the netting of wood pigeon and the shooting of migratory birds, les chasseurs took to the streets - 150,000 of them in Bordeaux last May - and President Mitterand was moved to waffle warmly about the good old ways of catching wood pigeon. Parliament agreed; the old ways were the French ways and Brussels could put their directives in their pipe and smoke them.

Of course, the French have their own dirigiste, and highly effective, government regulations. Introduced 15 years ago, le plan chasse has helped bring down the number of hunters and restore some semblance of plenty for the over-hunted hare, rabbits, partridge and pigeon. Now, the aspirant chasseur must take an exam - audio-visual, multiple-choice, tremendously modern - and get at least 16 correct answers out of 21 such questions as: "How many eggs will a partridge lay a year?", "Is this a roe or a red deer?", "How many hare may be shot annually to allow an ecological balance to be preserved?", and so on. That passed, there's £20 to pay for the permis, another £20 to pay for the fiscal stamp which goes on the permis (that's money set aside for farmers for the damage done to their land by wild boar - £14m last year), and then insurance. According to Coco, it all comes to 1,000 francs (£125), tops. And then it's "Aux armes, citoyens", into the Gortex boots and the army fatigues, down to the woods and mort aux sangliers. !

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