Just don't go down to the woods today

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The Independent Online

The weather in Normandy has been absurdly mild and bright.

The weather in Normandy has been absurdly mild and bright. The other day, I walked through the ancient beech and oak forest that runs for 15 miles along the ridge of the hills just behind our house. With no leaves to filter the sunshine, the lichen and moss on the bark of the trees shone like stained glass. The magic of a forest walk in January! The tranquillity of a weekend in the Norman hills!

Within 20 minutes, I began to fear for my life. In the distance, but growing nearer, I heard the characteristic sound of the French countryside in winter: the mournful, medieval call of hunting horns and the crack of high-performance hunting rifles.

The killers were loose in the forest.

I have nothing, in principle, against hunting. In the case of Tony Blair vs The Daily Telegraph, the English Countryside and Fox Hunting, I am, on the whole, on the side of the Telegraph. French hunters, though, are a shifty, aggressive and irresponsible bunch. They drive white vans and dress in paramilitary uniforms, like a sort of Bosnian-Serb militia. They leer menacingly at passers-by. If you say " bonjour", they stare and do not reply. In my experience, genuinely rural French people do not hunt very much: la chasse is the preserve of middle-aged men from small towns and suburbs.

With extraordinary, and depressing, frequency, the hunters shoot one another. Sometimes, they shoot walkers or cyclists. Occasionally, they hit an animal.

As the sound of horns and rifles drew nearer, I imagined myself starring in one of the short dispatches that you find on the French news wire, AFP, each weekend at this time of year: "A man of 55 was mortally injured by a hunter during a boar-hunt yesterday... Just as an animal was breaking cover, the hunter heard a noise in the bushes and fired. The rambler, hit in the femoral artery, bled to death before help arrived..."

There have already been 20 human deaths since the boar-hunting season began in October, and 254 hunting deaths in the past seven years. For some reason, this death toll is regarded as acceptable. The hunting lobby is politically powerful. Armed lobbies usually are. The present centre-right government has been busy dismantling the legal safety-catches on hunting that do exist - such as the ban on hunting in twilight and the "hunting-free day" on Wednesdays introduced by the previous, Socialist-led government.

The pro-animal and pro-rambler lobbies, although gaining in strength, have no illusions about their immediate prospects. Olivier Rousseau, president of the Association pour la Protection des Animaux Sauvages, sent an empty cartridge case to every member of the national assembly this month. He asked them to support his idea of a Sunday ban on hunting to allow walkers and nature lovers to enjoy the countryside without fear of gunshot wounds. "There is no chance of winning this battle yet," he says. "In rural France, we live in an armed dictatorship, the dictatorship of the hunters. But there are many more walkers and nature lovers than there are fundamentalist hunters and, one day, we will prevail."

In order to escape the Norman hunters, I took a detour along a road, meaning to cut back through the forest later. By the time I approached my turning back into the woods, it was growing dark. The hunters were still hooting and shooting. Two of them, in khaki jackets and caps, stood at the entrance to the path, holding their rifles. It is against the law in France to shoot near a road or a public footpath. The hunters frequently ignore the law, which is only enforced after they happen to shoot someone. In any case, boar hunters use rifles that are capable of hitting a target two kilometres away. So, what does "near" a footpath mean?

"Is is safe to go through?" I asked the two men. They looked at each other and smirked. "You can risk it if you want to," one said. I carried on along the road, making a two-mile detour.

Later, I checked the AFP dispatches. Three people had been shot in hunting accidents that weekend, two hunters and a rambler: an excellent bag even for France at this time of year.

The dirty French come clean

One of the cultural stereotypes repeated endlessly in the US these days is that the French are averse to washing. This is quite untrue, according to a statistical avalanche about all things French unleashed by the magazine Le Point. Seventy per cent of French people take a shower or bath every day; only 3.8 per cent - ie, 2,400,000 people - say that they never wash at all. The statistics also prove that this is a nation of dog-lovers. The French may have more cats (9,700,000) than dogs (8,600,00), but 32 per cent of dogs receive a Christmas present, compared with only 23 per cent of cats.

Branching out

After noble service, and hardly shedding a needle, my portly €10 Norman Christmas tree was dumped outside our apartment block for the special tree-collection organised every year by the Paris town hall.

One tree, however, briefly escaped this fate. It was spotted travelling on a Métro train (line 8, Balard-Créteil). To the branches was attached the following notice: "They bred me in captivity. They cut me down. They sold me. They draped me in garlands. And, after all that, they dumped me on a pavement. Please, transfer me between different Métro lines, so, at least, I can see some of Paris before I die."

The commuting tree is believed to have journeyed for several days before finally being uprooted by the Paris transport authority.

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