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Hunting the hare in France

The great draw of foxhunting has always been that there is something for everyone to enjoy. For many it is the thrill of the ride or perhaps the opportunity to educate a young horse about life, or simply the chance to cross country usually out of bounds — hopefully without a fall. For others it is a combination of all these things plus the supreme excitement and joy of watching a pack of hounds hunt their quarry. To me, there is no finer sport than that which joins the horse, the hound and the fox. To hunt the hare on foot, however, you have to be above all a hound lover. The nature of the sport demands it, particularly since You are mounted not on what money will buy, but on what God gave you, as Brian Vesey-Fitzgerald said in his book It’s My Delight.

I had travelled to Brittany for a weekend’s hunting as a guest of Laurent Sainsot. Saturday had been spent staghunting and boarhunting in the same forest with two different packs and on Sunday the Rallye Dampierre, a pack of harriers that hunt hares, had been invited by Yvonne and Bernette Villemin to meet at their house near Rennes. Riding a trotter, with its peculiar camel-like action, out hunting the day before meant I was feeling less than athletic and I would have gladly swapped what God gave me for a horse to follow the Dampierre harriers. However, they hunt on foot, so my own two feet would have to suffice.

We gathered outside the manor, built in the 1600s and typically French with its slate mansard, shuttered windows and lime render on much of the building. A tiny chapel was attached to one end. In France, it is traditional to eat in the company of the people you are hunting with before and after the actual sport, so we were asked inside for an early bite — the family live in one half of the house and use the half we were in solely for hunting parties and during the summer, since it isn’t heated. A huge table in a high-ceilinged room with a grand fireplace was crowded with bread, pâté, saucisson, cheese and wine.

The Dampierre are owned and hunted by Laurent Lapeyre. Harriers have a more delicate temperament than foxhounds and require the right mix of firm but gentle handling. They are easily excited and can be difficult if their huntsman does not possess a gift for the job. Laurent has it naturally and it is something he has passed on to his son, Alexandre, aged 15, whose ambition is to be as good a huntsman as his father.

Speaking the same language
The weather was glorious, warm and sunny, and it didn’t seem like a good scenting day. Four roe prinked off into the distance when Laurent took the hounds into the park in front of the house. Nevertheless, hounds quickly found a strong-looking hare and went away at a cracking pace, crossing the road and hunting away from us over a huge cornfield. I was running with Lydia Harvey, Master of the Easton Harriers, who had come over for the week with her father and some other members of the hunt. The Easton Harriers are a mounted pack that hunt hares in their plough and ditch country in Suffolk, and they enjoy a good relationship with the Dampierre. Alexandre spent part of last summer with Lydia in Suffolk and attended the Easton Harriers Pony Club camp. He’s going back this summer no doubt to break a few more girls’ hearts at camp but also to help out with the hounds. The Easton Harriers have also drafted one of their hounds to the Dampierre, a lemon bitch that has been renamed Bourgeoise since her move abroad. She has fitted in well and it was easy to pick her out, always trying hard, from the other tri-coloured French harriers — hounds clearly speak the same language.

By jogging and running up the hill, we made good progress before the hounds swung right-handed and crossed back over the road a few fields behind the house. It was baking hot for mid-March and we were all peeling off the layers after running across the corn.

We turned right-handed off the lane and into a ploughed field where the hounds had checked in a corner by a pond. The huge clods of plough were real ankle-twisters and awkward to cross; crusty and dry on the top but the ground still soft enough beneath for you to come a cropper. I could have done with a stick as an extra leg, but we managed to half-run and half-blunder on to a gap in the hedge where the brambles were not too vicious and we could push through. There was just enough time for a quick breather (little more than a minute) while the hounds cast along the edge of the pond and were away again, uphill in more or less a straight line, crossing the road once more some way further on.

As we reached the road we were behind with two couple of tail hounds, and for a moment were unsure whether the hounds had gone right or left since they were over the brow of the hill and out of earshot. Fortunately a woman who was watching from her garden helpfully pointed us in the right direction. Lydia and I jogged on, negotiating a hedge, fenced with electric, and slid through to discover one of the whippers-in standing the other side. He had seen the hare sitting tight in the corner of the field by some farm buildings, but the hounds were rioting and heading towards a huge wood. The hare is a master of trickery and magic, and will often run her own foil to fool the hounds. She is also a jumper and can leap an astonishing distance, making her scent seem to disappear.

Laurent Lapeyre had gone to stop his hounds and we waited a while before marching on across a vast field, knee-deep in grass, which looked like it would be cut for silage but was segregated with yet more electric. Hounds hate electric fences and after brushing a strand, one of the young harriers fled in the opposite direction. Luckily, it cheered up quite quickly and came on, and we met up with Laurent who had gathered his hounds. Word had got about that we were hunting and we discovered that we had been joined by a convoy of enthusiastic local farmers who were keen to watch the hounds.

The plan was to go back to the farm and try in the corner of the field where the hare was last seen. As we headed back across the fields, two comical-looking Fauve de Bretagne bassets galloped out of a farm in full cry, all stumpy-legged and with a lot to say for themselves — perhaps they had headed the hare, it was hard to say. The hounds couldn’t make much of it in the corner of the field where she had last been seen and so they swung back over the road where they picked up the line. It was almost impossible for them in the hot sun and they hunted her very steadily with a series of checks where she had run her foil, among the roe, up and down ditches and eventually back towards the house. It was fantastic viewing country, with enough hills in the right place to be able to see or certainly hear the hounds most of
the time and, so long as we avoided the plough or the occasional great big brambly ditch, it was easy to cross.

Hounds ran steadily in a straight line to a crossroads, where they checked again, perhaps where the hare had run the road. They cast over the road and ran on to the edge of a copse and then flat out in a huge left-handed circuit within the boundaries of two lanes. By this stage Lydia and I had run for about five hours, so were grateful for the offer of a lift from some followers in a van and the chance to swap two legs for four wheels. We hurtled round the outside of the circuit with the hounds on our left hunting beautifully across the corn before we cut inside to see them hunt across the road. Yvonne was positioned at one point on the road and her sister a little further on, each with a red flag to hold up the traffic while the hounds crossed — the cars waited patiently, nobody blew their horn or looked cross. In fact, they all waved cheerily as they passed us — somewhat different to home.

The hare set her long brown ears for a large wood and was under pressure after being hunted for the best part of six hours. Often when she is tired she will get among fresh hares, which she duly did. It had been a difficult day with plenty to distract the hounds and the fresh hares split them, with one lot leaving the covert for ground they were not allowed on. Alexandre was sent to stop them and Laurent gathered up his hounds to finish. The hare had provided excellent sport; she is the most cunning of quarry species, but the hounds persisted admirably in terrible scenting conditions.

We returned to the house after sunset and enjoyed more pâté, cheese and wine by candlelight — the power had gone off. After dinner the men played the music of the chase on their horns for us, with the moving Le Bonsoir Breton the perfect goodnight to a particularly enjoyable day. 