In the forest close to our house in Normandy, we have neighbours that we never see. Occasionally, you might spot one sprinting across the road late at night. Each autumn, brutal-looking men in paramilitary uniforms invade the forest with dogs and horns to try to shoot them.
The other morning, for the first time in 11 years, I saw one of our neighbours in broad daylight. He was loitering in the middle of the road. When my car came along, he stared at me insolently and then trotted off into a field of almost-ripe maize.
Our neighbours are sangliers, or wild boar. Their population is exploding. Despite the best efforts of the men in paramilitary uniforms (who often seem to end up shooting one another), the wild boar population of France has increased five-fold in the last 20 years to reach an estimated one million.
Several reasons are given for their proliferation. The great hurricane of Christmas 1999 left French forests in such a jumble that the boar have many more places to hide from the hunters. The spread of cereal fields into traditional beef and dairy country (like Normandy) has given them a new food supply. They are especially partial to maize.
Last week, the wild boar, sanglier or Sus scrofa was officially declared a public menace. Over 15,000 road accidents a year – two-thirds of all French road accidents are attributable to animals – are caused by wild boar dashing across roads at night without looking both ways. The environment minister, Jean-Louis Borloo, has ordered an anti-boar campaign, including official culls and, possibly, a longer hunting season.
Wild boar, which disappeared from Britain in the 17th century, can indeed be a menace. A British friend of a friend of mine struck one in his car late at night. Both his legs were broken. He later received a letter from the mayor of the commune offering commiserations for his injuries and telling him that the boar, when split between the locals, had been extremely tasty.
Tourists are also wary of French ball-traps, it seems. I overheard a pair of British visitors speculating on the meaning of a poster in a supermarket, which announced: "Dimanche, grand ball-trap à 14 heures."
France has a national ball-trap championship, a ball-trap magazine and a fédération, National du Ball-trap. A British TV movie – Ball Trap on the Côte Sauvage – was devoted to this pastime, or the confusion generated by its name, in 1989.
A ball-trap is a clay-pigeon shoot. The grumpy men in paramilitary uniforms use them to practise their shooting outside the hunting season. To little effect, it appears.