My husband Peter has been a keeper for more than 30 years. He first attended Sparsholt College before taking on a job on a prestigious shooting estate in Hampshire. He stayed there for 19 years until this shoot closed. Unfortunately, he was made redundant, but by that time he had built up a specialised and skilful knowledge, particularly of partridge. Then, one day, a Swiss woman contacted Peter through the Game Conservancy Trust. She was offering an amazing chance to relocate to France to introduce redlegs and grey partridges to an up-and-coming shoot.
When Peter told me the news I felt that there were a lot of ifs and buts. We knew that moving to France would be a real challenge for us because neither of us could speak French. At the same time we felt that the offer would turn out to be the experience of a lifetime. After endless late-night discussions at the kitchen table it was this factor that eventually swayed us. We decided to take a chance. Before we knew it we were moving into our new home ? a converted barn in the middle of the Loire Valley. Life wasn?t easy at first and we often wondered whether we would be able to survive with only a basic grasp of French. We found the local people to be very tolerant of our lack of vocabulary, but our salvation came in the form of a lovely young English couple. They also worked on the shoot and spoke fluent French, and were to help us immensely throughout our time in France.
The estate had many wild boar days, but one day in particular will always stand out in my mind. It was during the last drive of a pheasant shoot. I sent my trusty Labrador, Shot, to clear up. My French companions looked on in horror and I gasped in surprise when he came back with a marcassin, a newborn piglet, unhurt.
Using French and gesturing, my friend explained to me that I would have to knock the poor little thing on the head. Even if I were to let it return to its mother she would surely kill it as it was carrying my dog?s scent. I couldn?t bring myself to kill it. At the end of the day, nobody seemed to notice me slip away from the after-shoot count and revelry. I set off for home at speed. Tucked away snugly in the inner jacket pocket of my Barbour was my new-found friend.
It was only when I got the piglet home that I realised that she still had her umbilical cord attached. I feared that she would not last the night. When dawn came I was relieved to see that she was alive. Over the next few days Miss Piggy, as I had decided to name her, took quickly to the bottle and made herself at home. As the weeks went by she became house-trained and began to give us a squeal when she needed to go out. She ate the same food as Peter and me and her favourite treats were peanuts.
Just like the character from The Muppet Show, Miss Piggy was always affectionate and friendly. We had six Labradors at the time and Miss Piggy would always go walking with them. And when she went swimming with them in the clear waters of the nearby river, she thought she was a dog too. At around four months old Miss Piggy began to secrete a very strong musky smell, so we decided to rehouse her in the garden shed. At first, this didn?t go down well. She missed the company of her ?family? and squealed in protest. But eventually she settled in to her new apartment. She came for walks with us every day and had the run of our enclosed garden. We realised that other wild boar might smell her fragrance and come calling, but thankfully this never happened.
Miss Piggy got up to all sorts of pranks, some hilarious and some damned annoying ? such as foraging in our flowerbeds ? but we still loved her. The weeks turned to months and before we knew it three years had passed and it was time to return to the UK. Peter and I would look at each other across the kitchen table. We knew we would have to make some tough decisions.
With help from our English friends we made enquiries to try to acquire a licence to take Miss Piggy back with us, but despite our pleas the stubborn officials always said non. Peter and I thought our fairy tale stay in France would last for ever, but eventually the fateful day came. We had weaned Miss Piggy off the food she had grown accustomed to and on to pellets. These pellets would be part of her diet in the Parc National where we had decided it would be best to leave her. We fought back the tears that day ? our only consolation was that she was eventually accepted by the other wild boar and sought some companionship occasionally in the form of a park warden.
If this were not trauma enough, we had to put our Labradors through six months? quarantine, even though they were up-to-date with their vaccinations and had been checked out recently by a vet. We never missed the weekly 360-mile round trip to see them.
Whenever I pick up the latest copy of ST and see a photograph of a boar I can?t help but think of Miss Piggy foraging in the Loire Valley and of our happy days there.