The shoot hut at the Bel Air shoot is designed not only to feed hungry hunters, but also to get the blood of novice boar shooters coursing through their veins. Magnificent heads cover every inch of wall: giant bristly boar, huge red stags from the forest and medal-head roebucks. Craning our necks up at the walls, we waited for the morning?s hunting party to return.
It was no coincidence that we found ourselves in deepest Normandy on a shoot syndicate day. The trip had been organised by Laurent Sainsot and Nick de Toldi, the men behind a week?s mounted stag and boar hunting and driven boar shooting earlier in the year (Tusks and tines, 9 March). Nick is owner of GourmetFly.com a sporting agency specialising in flyfishing, hunting and shooting trips in the area, catering for all pockets; we were already two days into ours when we arrived at Bel Air. It seemed the hungry Frenchmen and two Scots who eventually arrived at the shoot hut were also doing well. With the morning?s bag cleaned and hung, the 34 Guns and their guests dined on wild boar ? what else? ? and discussed with flailing arms their various victories.
The two Scots in the company, James Sheerin and Nicol Manson, had come all the way from Inverness and revealed that they had been coming to the estate for the past 13 years. ?It?s a fine shoot,? they said. ?The guys here are great and there are always plenty of animals.? With the supporting evidence watching over us from the walls, cheese and coffee were inhaled and boots laced ready for the afternoon drives.
Into the woods
Hopping out of the comfort of his Land Cruiser, Andre Giovani set about positioning the Guns
at 90-yard intervals along vehicle tracks forming three sides of a huge square section of mature 20,000-acre Normandy forest ? moving drives meant simply shifting to another square.
The beaters, wearing fluorescent waistcoats, were armed with shotguns containing single slugs; they needed to be able to administer the coup de grâce should it be required. They were flanked by a couple of leggy terriers. After positioning the Guns, Andre took his place close to the old estate wall that made up the fourth side of the square.
In front us, a couple of kilometres away through the forest, the beating line advanced towards the line of Guns. To those unaccustomed to driven boar shooting, standing in front ? even such a distance away ? of a line of keen-to-kill Frenchmen might not seem such a good idea. In the ?rules? of driven gameshooting, however, one is only allowed to shoot in 30° arcs to the rear, with the line of Guns representing 0°. No-one shoots in front.
As we stood looking down one of the forest tracks across which any boar would have to
run, Andre, a keen sportsman, told me he was soon planning to visit Scotland in the winter
for a spot of hind stalking. Using broken French and some crawling demonstrations, I managed to give him some idea of what to expect; he found it rather an alien notion to shoot animals that are standing still, rather than on the charge.
?Come with me,? said my new friend, leading the way to a wooden platform in the middle of our block of forestry. ?If you see anything,? he told me, removing his rifle from its sleeve and handing it to me ? ?shoot it.? It seemed no other instructions were necessary.
The sound of horns
The .300 double express I was armed with was a lovely rifle, though the rounds looked more suitable to bringing down German bombers than French boar. There was no scope; instead, perched on the top of the barrel was an ingenious laser-dot optic. I?d noted how few bolt-actions there were among the company and that most hunters seemed to be armed with these over-and-under double rifles. Evidently this gun was a must-have for boar.
I was taking a few practice swings when a horn sounded. Earlier it had been explained
to me the meaning behind the different number of blasts from the beaters? horns: one for a boar, two for a roebuck, three for a red stag and so on. Now, a few hundred yards in front, a number of blasts went up. I hadn?t had time properly to study the brass band?s musical scripts, but I didn?t need to: presuming my GCSE French was far better than it was, Andre was jabbering away excitedly. I got the gist: the boar were coming.
I was sweating, scanning the undergrowth and forest beyond. Then everything seemed to fall silent. Ninety yards away to the right and 50 in front, a string of eight boar was weaving at a gallop through the forest. To those that haven?t seen it, it is quite a sight. The rifle came up, both eyes stayed open and I followed the second animal across the road with the red dot, keeping it as close to its shoulder as I could. As the boar looped past the 30? mark I squeezed the trigger and it skidded to the earth, leaves and dirt flying up before it like snow in front of a plough. So close was the line of pigs that the two animals behind ran into the back of the shot boar, before quickly regaining their balance and running on. I still had a round in the second chamber. Before the boar disappeared into the forest I swung directly behind, waited for the chest of the last animal in line to cover the red bead, and fired.
A lucky first
The first boar, a sow of some 55kg, lay dead in full view of the shooting platform; the second was found by the dogs, lying in a holly bush, just out of sight. I had certainly found myself in the right place at the right time. On a good day a hunter will hope to fire only two to three shots and many fire none at all.
The day wound up with one final short drive, collecting guns and carcases along the way. This was my first encounter with a wild boar and its smell and the coarseness of its fur were a surprise. The final tally was eight boar, one huge red hind and two roe. Much bon vivre followed my ceremonial blooding: la curée (the trumpeted story of the hunt) was performed and a brief ceremony conducted over the dead animals as a mark of respect. It was the end to a thoroughly exciting day and we took an early night in preparation for another day?s shooting, which was to prove rather different.
Bacon for breakfast
A fall of snow overnight meant the wooded countryside we drove through the next morning, near Rouen, was lightly frosted and the agricultural shoot hut at which we arrived, high in the forested hills, bore little similarity to the luxurious interior of the previous day?s hut. A roaring log fire greeted us, however.
This particular forest had been taken for the day by a group of 14 friends, mainly local farmers. The collection of broken noses and craggy features around the breakfast table gave the impression that these were boar wrestlers, rather than shooters. None spoke a word of English, apart from universal terms such as ?David Beckham? and ?Michael Owen?. We sat down to a breakfast of cold meats, cheeses, red wine and a spirit that tasted like a mixture of lighter fluid and petrol, but was actually a type of absinthe.
Soon we were stationed at various intervals along a track in the middle of a 400-acre fenced forest. Most were armed with a shotgun and belts of single-slug 12-bore cartridges, but organiser Nick de Toldi had given me his own Remington three-shot semi-auto for the day. It was fitted with the same V-iron sites I had on my first .177 air rifle. This was certainly going to be interesting.
The beaters were a team of six or so, with a small pack of Griffon Nivernais ? ranging wolfhound-type dogs essential for covering such large tracts of land ? whose job it was to keep putting boar past the Guns until their quota of animals had been shot. The team had paid an amount of money that equated to five boar between them, meaning some would be lucky and others wouldn?t.
The Guns were positioned on platforms 10ft high and given instructions to shoot in any direction they spotted boar. If you see one of the beasts, shoot it ? the same principle as the previous day. I couldn?t help but feel uncomfortable as I mounted my tower, though: my neighbours were 100 or so yards away on either side, each with the same instructions. I certainly didn?t want to find myself minced into boar sausages to hide evidence of a missing journalist.
Instead, for the second day running I found myself in the hot seat, managing to bag a relatively easy boar at 70 or so yards. We left the forest intact and, with a boot-load of boar, headed for home. Though the two shoots were immeasurably different, each was fantastic. The spirit of the Gallic hunters and their ceremonies was second to none, and reason enough to cross the Channel. The challenge and excitement of driven boar shooting make it a must.