Ian Stewart was a housing manager for Westminster Council before deciding to move to Italy two years ago with hopes of retiring to a better life. However, last year his German Shepherd puppy Umberto was poisoned by truffle hunters.
We bought Umberto as a puppy from an agricultural fair in Mondovi, north-western Italy, in 2006. We were looking for goats at the time, as we were hoping to build up a farm in our house in Montichiaro d'Acqui, but ended up with a dog instead. We had stunning views of the Alps in a beautiful part of Italy, and it was a great place to have a dog, who we would often take out for long walks in the surrounding fields.
However, we had been warned to take care of truffle hunters. The area around where we live is known for being a particularly good patch for collecting white truffles. As many people know, these retail in London for more money than gold; especially this year and last. A lot of the people nearby don't have much money. So if you know where to find truffles, it's worth protecting the area so no one can come along and steal them.
A lot of truffle hunters will leave poisoned meat so that if someone else comes on to their patch, the dogs that people use to find truffles will discover the poisoned meat. If they eat it, it removes the truffle hunters' competition. We don't know if that was exactly the cause – the food might have been left out for foxes – but it had all the characteristics of being put down by a professional hunter.
We were out walking Umberto, who was one at the time, and he went for a run in the woods surrounding our house. We didn't see him eat anything but when we came back to our home at around lunchtime he started hiccuping. It got worse. Within half an hour he was dead.
It was not a nice death, and had all the hallmarks of strychnine poisoning. His body went into spasm, which got worse if people touched him. I mean, I didn't know what was happening to my dog. I was trying to calm him down by stroking him, but under the circumstances, that was probably the worst thing I could have done. In the end, I hoped death would come as quickly as possible.
He was the most beautiful dog. I don't have children. I know it's a cliché but if you have a dog that you love they become a surrogate child. Umberto was very ill when he was born and wasn't expected to live to old age, but I remember telling him what a beautiful life he would have.
The Italians have a strange way. A lot of my Italian friends were very embarrassed that this happened. But this kind of thing does go on. If I could find the people who did it I would probably make them eat the same. It was the most hideous way to die. It's a disgusting and brutal thing to do. Our paradise here became a much darker place afterwards. The beautiful fields became a place of death.