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Last Updated: Wednesday, 13 October, 2004, 17:54 GMT 18:54 UK
Beleaguered UK hunters head to France
By Caroline Wyatt
BBC correspondent in Burgundy

As Britain debates when and how to ban hunting with hounds, the hunting season has opened in France, a country with more hunters per head of population than any other in Europe.

The French, who hunt boar, stag and occasionally foxes, are amazed at the passions raised in Britain over the Labour government's move to ban hunting.

There is no class system in the French hunting tradition
In France, it's all rather different.

The hunting horns ring out their chorus across the courtyard of an old Cistercian abbey in the heart of Burgundy.

It's the feast of St Hubertus - the patron saint of hunting. Before the local hunt can begin, there is an outdoor mass of thanksgiving - with huntsmen and hunt followers braving the wind and rain to attend.

At the front of the congregation sit some 30 hunting hounds - showing little interest in the sermon, or indeed the priest's blessing, as he prays for them to be spared from rabies, which still exists among the wild boar they will be hunting today.

The pack belongs to Michel Monot, and his wife Ines, who run the hunt from the picturesque Abbaye du Val des Choues. Michel sympathises with his British counterparts and even joined the Countryside Alliance to march against the hunting ban.

"I am very proud that I was in London for the march with the French delegation," he tells me, as he prepares his horse for the day's hunting.

"We were very happy to be able to support our English friends, and we pay a lot of attention to what's happening to hunting in England."

Mainstream

Like many in France, Michel and Ines are baffled by the bitter divisions over fox-hunting in Britain, where Oscar Wilde once described hunters as the "unspeakable in pursuit of the uneatable" - a view that hasn't changed much since.

In the French countryside, however, there are 440 registered hunts which attract followers of all ages and all classes, whether on horseback, on foot or even on bicycles. Hunting isn't a class issue in France, says Michel, but something the whole rural community takes part in.

I think people will carry on hunting in England for a long time after it's banned. Eventually perhaps they will come to France, or go to Ireland - there are lots of other places
Vanessa,
UK rider
And it is increasingly international; eight of the huntsmen and women here today are from Britain, as well as several from Belgium, where hunting has already been banned.

Robin Bramley from Norfolk has been hunting in France for the past five years and says it's viewed in a very different light here.

"The French have been clever to position it closer to the mainstream of their culture and there's a much stronger rural tradition," he says.

"It's a shame that ours in Britain has been taken over by a suburban culture. That hasn't happened in France which is something we find very welcoming when we come here."

As the horns signal the start of the hunt, it's clear that the French and British hunting traditions diverged sharply from their common Norman roots.

In France, hunting for wild boar or stag takes place discreetly in the depths of the forests rather than across open land; it's done by licence within state-run forests, with a specific number of animals to be killed each season, in order to manage the numbers of wild boar and others.

Since the French revolution, it has not been seen as a pursuit only for the rich or titled but involves 1.5 million people across France every season.

English rider Vanessa, on her first French hunt, is finding it a very different experience to fox-hunting in Britain.

French huntsmen say UK hunters would be welcome, not their hounds
"It's very relaxed, there's no hierarchy," she tells me, after three hours of fruitless pursuit through the forest.

"In England it can be quite formal. Here it's informal and really fun - just being out with different people, and talking to people, finding out about their ways of life."

So does Vanessa think that British hunters will go to France if hunting is banned in Britain?

"I do, but I think people will carry on hunting in England for a long time after it's banned."

So could France become a refuge for British hunters, and perhaps even for the beagle packs which might otherwise have to be put down? Pierre de Boisguilbert, head of the French hunting association, isn't sure.

"When it comes to people, I would say it's already the case - they are coming here already and we very much welcome them. But when it comes to the hounds, it's impossible.

"We don't have enough room for the 440 packs we already have in France. Maybe one or two hounds could come, but it's not a solution. People yes, hounds no," he smiles.

No politics

But might the British anti-blood sports movement spread to France too?

Pierre de Boisguilbert hopes not.

"In this country, the main difference is that hunting with hounds or shooting is not a political issue, whether you are from the left or right it doesn't matter - it never has been a political issue."

It's not hunting for hunting's sake, it's more about being with people, and celebrating the countryside
Christelle,
French rider
Even opponents of hunting in France stop short of demanding a ban. Nelly Boutinot, of the Union of opponents of Hunting (Rassemblement des Opposants de la chasse) says it would not be fair to call for a complete ban in France, but rather for there to be stricter regulations.

Back in the forest around the Abbey, the Master of the Hunt Michel Monot is summing up the day's hunting - three boars were sighted but none was caught - as the huntsmen and women relax over a meal.

For them, the sport is a tradition as French as the wine from the neighbouring Burgundy vineyards. Even Christelle, a newcomer to hunting who came from the nearby Champagne region to watch her first hunt today, thinks it would be a shame for Britain if this rural pursuit were banned.

"I think the atmosphere today was very nice. It's not hunting for hunting's sake, it's more about being with people, and celebrating the countryside. I think it's quite a shame to ban hunting outright in England."

If the ban does go ahead in Britain, as the government is determined to ensure, perhaps determined British hunters will find themselves having to swap their cry of 'Tally Ho' for the original French 'Taillot'!




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