It is the East Devon Hunt Opening Meet and from the balcony of Rockbeare Manor in Devon, Countryside Alliance Regional Director Alison Hawes appeals to the solidarity of British hunting folk.
The week before, at a farm outside Bergerac, a priest appeals to the souls of the local hunting fraternity. It is St Hubert’s Day and huntsmen across Europe are attending masses to honour the patron saint of hunting. Special blessings are said for the safety and success of hunters and the health of their animals and dedicated hunting hymns are accompanied by a chorus of hunting horns.
Although I had been forewarned that there would be a Mass before the hunt, I was not prepared for the magnitude of this al fresco ceremony. When the heavens opened and rain poured down on the congregation no one moved a muscle. And when the horns started playing, even the teenagers burst into song. The stone barn, red, blue and green coated huntsmen, strange shaped hats and bugle-clad youngsters gave the setting a medieval feel – more Breugal than Belvoir.
After the service, slinging their horns over their shoulders, the huntsmen headed off into another barn for lunch, seemingly in no rush for La Chasse to begin. The rest of the congregation followed only to emerge an hour and a half later, blinking at the sun. Sausage rolls and a stirrup cup at the meet is one thing, but a buffet lunch composed of the finest cheeses, meat, pates and bread washed down with vast quantities of red wine is decidedly superior. ‘Hunting is what the French do best,’ someone said to me, ‘eating, drinking and dressing up?’
Michael Bamberger hunted with the Axe Vale in Devon for many seasons before becoming an ‘épingle’ of the Rallye Varéna hunt near Bergerac. ‘French and British hunting styles are diametrically different,’ he tells me, ‘In every way they are opposite’. I ask myself how two countries can use a pack of hounds and a field of huntsmen in opposing ways, particularly when British hunting terminology is borrowed from France’s ‘code de venerie’. Bamberger notes my scepticism, ‘You’ll see by the end of the day’ he says assuredly.
Rallye Varéna has only four full ’boutons’ but a French hunt could have many more. Invitations to become a ’bouton’ are only distributed to very experienced huntsmen whose expertise will help the hunt. Bamberger points to the gold buttons of his waistcoat, each displaying the crest of Rallye Varéna. I later learn that his waistcoat and tie pin also have significance. French hunting attire is a ‘code de venerie’ in itself with each hunt awarding a pin or ‘épingle’ to new members. Experienced riders are known as ‘gilets’, waistcoats ? there are 12 gilets in the Rallye Varéna. The Master, Docteur Rousseau wears a blue and red jacket, the colour allocated to Rallye Varena wheras Docteur Pasquet wears a green and red jacket for the Rallye Croquant.
Despite our comparatively sombre attire, the French chasseurs make the three English pretenders feel thoroughly welcome and we leave with light heads and apples in our pockets, which is ironic considering the French ‘tombent dans les pommes’ when they pass out. Hunting in France is by invitation only so it is a credit to our hostess Jane that we are so readily embraced into the fold. ‘Look after yourselves,’ Jane says fretfully as we make out way over to the horse lorry. ‘Look after them,’ she says to Antoine, who has the immense responsibility of looking after the three of us. Whatever is meant by the wide smile and shrugged shoulders seems to consol her.
It is a relief to discover that my horse, despite being named Ivresse (drunkard), looks and feels pretty much like an English hunter and is rather beautiful to boot. There is more horn blowing, the Rallye Varéna’s personal ‘fanfare’ this time, and we’re off down the road at a trot.
Trotting is not something naturally associated with hunting. In England it is even acceptable for hunts to canter on the road. But I quickly realise that trotting is the staple pace when hunting in France. This is not because French hunts are slower but because they hunt using trotters rather than thoroughbreds or Thelwell ponies. A 17hh trotter accelerating down the road towards you is an intimidating experience, particularly when it is carrying a 17 year old epingle with thigh-high leather boots and a long whip. But as Ivresse and I pick our way through the woods, ducking and diving to avoid losing an eye, it becomes clear that the sheer power and strength of a trotter make them ideal for hunting in the Dordogne.
Chesting branches and small trees, trotters move smoothly through dense woodland with remarkable speed. Even Antoine, a devoted eventer who detests trotters on an everyday basis, admits they are good for La Chasse.
Before long Antoine has led us deep into the forest and we wait amid the dense scrub, listening for horns. There is no field master or whipper-in ? everyone is responsible for reporting back to the master. ‘Everyone is a whipper-in,’ Bamberger explains to me afterwards, ‘Even the foot followers’. Hounds are often cared for by a ‘valet de chien’ and controlled by the master when hunting. But the Rallye Varéna and Rallye Croquant share the luxury of a full time ‘piqueur’, a figure who exercises the hounds and with an expert knowledge of the local landscape, leads them while hunting. The role of ‘piqueur’ is taken very seriously and requires intense training. At just 23-years old, the Rallye Varéna and Rallye Croquants’ piqueur, is known as ‘Daguet’ meaning young stag. Daguet wears a gold band around his hat and a coat with chevrons to signify his position.
Around four the two masters decide to call it a day. The weather is too warm and damp and there is no scent. French hunting etiquette is very strict. Hunts are licensed to hunt a specific type of animal, usually chevreuil, wild boar or stags. The Rallye Varéna and Rallye Croquant are licensed to hunt chevreuil and it is only legal for them to kill one on a day’s hunting. Once this is happened, the masters plays a fanfare and the hunt ends. But today the hunt closes without a kill. The masters apologise profusely to the hunt for the lack of activity and the final fanfare sounds slightly deflated. The only chevreuil we see is on the way back in the car, limping into the undergrowth.
But the fun has really only just started. Three hours later, after washing off Ivresse and diving into the bath, I am back with the Rallye Varéna and Rallye Croquant, enjoying a fabulous three course dinner and more fanfares. The end of each course is marked by a horn recital, expertly performed by Daguet and his team of horn blowers. As coffee arrives, Daguet puts down his horn and with a voice rivalling Pavarotti, leads the hunt through a number of well known French folk songs.
When the dulcet tones of the French national anthem have died down Bamberger turns to me with a smile: ‘You wouldn’t get this at the East Devon?’ and I nod my head frantically, wishing I could have recorded the beautiful fanfares.
French hunting and English hunting are totally different. The spirituality, the gastronomy, the attire and of course the fanfares of French hunting are straight from eighteenth century Arcadia. But the essential essence – the love of animals, the countryside and the community is very similar. As the cap was passed round at Rockbeare and crumpled notes were pulled out of jacket pockets, it struck me that the strength of England’s hunting fraternity relies on the fact that no invitation is required to join it. Post-ban, British hunting is more about community than ever before, so much so that I wouldn’t have flinched if the national anthem had been sung at Rockbeare this weekend.
Hunting weekends in France at Le Bourdil Blanc can be organised throughDordogne Hunting