Jon Snowdon crosses the Channel to see how things are done on the Continent in pursuit of deer and boar on a driven shoot in northern France.
This January, I was thrilled to be asked back to France by my old deerstalking guest Thomas and his father, Gilles, to take part in two driven shoots on boar and deer. How could I refuse?
I was to experience another ‘Le chasse en battue’, what a treat! The quarry is driven toward the Guns by beaters with the help of dogs. This is different to the way we hunt deer in the UK and the quarry are usually larger animals such as deer and boar.
The first shoot was in La Forêt de Breteuil, Eure department, the same place we hunted on my last visit. On arrival, we were welcomed as old friends among the hunters, a group of some 20 Rifles. We listened attentively to the safety instructions, which included the species we were allowed to shoot. In this case it was boar up to 50kg, young red deer and roe does and kids. The deer I had no problem with, but how do you tell if a boar is over 50kg? I was told that anything up to my knee was shootable, but from previous experience I knew how fast these animals could move and wasn’t that confident to make an immediate decision. Better to play this on the cautious side, I didn’t want to disgrace myself!
The instructions for horn calls were given (yes, we were expected to blow horns!) with a particular call for each species when seen.
The dogs used on these shoots were generally a mix of terrier, with the occasional pointer. Each dog had a visible collar with a bell on it, another way to keep tabs on where they were. Their enjoyment of the chase was a pleasure to behold, with some dogs vanishing in to the forest on a trail, yapping for miles before returning later to find their owner on recognition of his horn call.
Placed in my first stand, all was quiet before the start of the drive and I took in the beautifully managed woodland, shafts of sunlight were dappling the forest floor when I heard in the distance a long horn call announcing the start of the drive.
The beaters started a long way off and I was aware it could be a while before any quarry appeared before my stand, if at all. Ironically, at that point, a beautiful red stag appeared out of the cover in front of me, trotting unhurriedly through the forest not 30 metres away. Stags were not to be shot and I am sure that didn’t bother any of the hunters. Like me, they simply took in the magnificent sight.
Barking and bells announced the dogs approach as a mature hind with five further red deer following appeared behind the stands. She knew exactly where she was taking her herd, this was the matriarch and she lead the group safely behind several stands before crossing in to the arc of fire ahead of us.
The rifles always look toward where the beaters come from, but shots can only be taken after the quarry has run through the line, within a strict arc in the opposite direction. My colleague considered the shot when the small herd approached his firing zone, but there was another stand just around the bend in the ride and there was a clearly visible orange coat, which all hunters must wear, so no shot was taken. I saw a lot of animals, but it wasn’t to be my day. My colleague, Oliver, took a great shot on a boar as it ran past him in to the arc of his fire, at 30 metres the animal dropped on the spot to great elation from the rest of us in the line – his first boar.
The next day’s drive was in La Forêt d’Orléans, Loiret department, a famous hunting ground and a very large shoot, with 50 rifles. Again the calls could be heard a long way off with horns sounding from the beaters, I spotted a pair of boars, one smaller than the other, as they passed the stands some 60 metres off. The safety distance to shoot was 50 metres, so I just watched as they unhurriedly walked past the line into the distance.
Everyone, myself included, had lifted their rifles as the quarry came past, but none took the shot. I was impressed by the discipline of the hunters. The boar wandered off only to return some time later, once again passing the rifles just out of range. This boar knew the game and kept just out of range – it was as if he had attended the safety instruction.
Ultimately, it was the neighbour to my left who put one of these boars in the bag. I had my chance, but refused the shot when it came as I thought the quarry was beyond the 50-metre line. At the end of the day, I had not taken a shot but many others had and the day was a pleasure from the bells and horns, brave dogs to the great companionship we were shown. Vive la France and good hunting!