By Hugh Schofield
In Pau, France
A curious side-effect of the ban on hunting with hounds which comes into effect next week will be the new lease of life it gives to a unique and historic fox hunt on the other side of the Channel.
The English way of hunting had previously declined at the Pau-Hunt
It was in 1814 that officers campaigning with the Duke of Wellington in southwest France discovered the delights of riding to hounds in the countryside around the town of Pau.
In the following generation a certain Lord Oxenden brought out the first pack of English dogs - and in 1840 the Pau-Hunt club was born.
For a century it was the centre of a thriving English and American social scene - as the rich and aristocratic enjoyed the mild winters against a backdrop of the snow-capped Pyrenees.
Winston Churchill and King Edward VII hunted here and the future US President Franklin D Roosevelt had a riding holiday in Pau as a child. In the 1880s the master of hounds was James Gordon Bennett, founder of the International Herald Tribune newspaper.
But since World War II the Pau-Hunt has dwindled into obscurity. It retains its old clubhouse with kennel yard and stables - but today there are only 20 active members, nearly all French.
What is more, no-one can recall the last time anyone actually killed a fox.
Drag-hunting - chasing a scent rather than a real animal - is the weekly pastime.
Riders still dress in pink and charge across the country on sturdy thoroughbreds (unlike other French hunts which proceed at a gentle trot) but the days when the foxes of the Bearn would quake at the sound of approaching hooves are long gone.
'Helping the English'
Now - with astonishing suddenness - that is all set to change.
Georges Moutet is the 30th master of the Pau hunt
A link-up is being arranged with two English hunts whose activities are about to be curtailed: a second pack of hounds is to be accommodated in the kennels and authorisations are being obtained from the powers that be.
Come the next season in October, the "chasse a renard" will be back.
"Our idea is to revitalise the Pau-Hunt by bringing back the English tradition which we have nearly lost. And it is also a way of returning a favour. The English did us a great service," says master of hounds Georges Moutet.
"Now we are in a position to offer help in their time of need,"
The driving force behind the initiative is a 58-year-old former British Army fitness instructor and Majorca-based tax accountant who arrived in the region four years ago.
A larger-than-life character with more than a passing resemblance to David Jason, Jeffrey Quirk was quick to spot the opportunities opened up by the British ban.
"It is perfect hunting country around here - a mixture of southern Ireland and Leicestershire. It has a lot of ditches and banks - not quite as life-threatening as in Ireland but more interesting than in the UK.
"And there are copses everywhere that are full of foxes," he says.
Jeffrey Quirk says the countryside is ideal for hunting
Mr Quirk, who runs a hotel-cum-stables at the Chateau de Sombrun, has just employed a 31-year-old former whipper-in from the Cottesmore hunt, Anthony Reed, and hopes to finalise an agreement with the Puckeridge and the East Sussex hunts once the ban is in place.
Initially just the hounds will be brought out. Then members will fly from England to try out the hunting and if all goes well they will bring out their horses for permanent stabling.
There are several daily budget flights to Pau from London.
"We shall have in essence two hunts under the same club. Those French members who want to will continue drag-hunting, and a separate pack will go out after live foxes.
"Some of the French are nervous about live hunting because it is unpredictable and more dangerous - but many are keen to start," says Quirk.
'Keen to learn'
It is not just the Pau-Hunt that is enthusiastic. The local Hunt Federation has given its authorisation for large tracts of countryside to be ridden over, while the Socialist mayor of Pau has even applied to the European Union for a grant to refurbish the somewhat dilapidated clubhouse.
"They see it as a way of drawing in investment and visitors - and also of reforging our link with a unique tradition," says hunt member Philippe Lanusse.
At last weekend's drag-hunt, Mr Reed cast an appraising eye over the French operation.
A handler proudly introduces Tony Blair - the hound
"It was an absolute godsend when I got this job. Hounds are my life, and with the ban I'd just be on the scrapheap. I'd have left for America or Australia," he says.
"This French pack is okay, but you can see they've lost some of the knowledge. They need to be much better controlled. The huntsman missed a lot of opportunities. But they are really keen to learn."
Mr Reed hopes to put his expertise to good use in the coming months. Among the hounds one in particular has caught his eye.
He is no more skilled than the rest of the pack - but he does answer to an unusual name.
It's a fox-hound called Tony Blair.