A fast-paced day with a beagle gun-pack in France was light on opportunities and ended with an empty bag, but it remains an unforgettable experience for David Tomlinson
The hounds had been speaking to the line for at least two minutes, and every second their baying became louder and more excited: there was no doubt about it, they were heading my way. My thumb hovered over the safety catch of my carbine. Suddenly a fine roebuck appeared and I instinctively lifted the gun to my shoulder. However, I didn’t pull the trigger, for I knew that not far from me was a fellow chasseur. My split-second hesitation was sufficient for the buck to make his escape, leaving me curiously relieved rather than disappointed, and able to enjoy the pack of beagles streaming past me.
This proved to be the only chance I had to shoot during my day with a beagle gun-pack in the foothills of the Pyrenees and, though I didn’t fire my gun, I’d had an unforgettable experience. It’s nearly 20 years since the shoot but I can still recall every detail. The day’s shooting had been arranged for me by a French friend, Monica, who had asked one of her farmer friends if he would take an Englishman out for a day. I’d arrived at the Meet not really knowing what to expect, armed with my camera.
My new French friends were appalled that I only wanted to shoot with a camera, so a gun was found for me: a short-barrelled over-and-under loaded with rifled slugs. Once I was suitably armed, the hunting dogs were released from an ancient trailer towed by a small Renault van. There were five and a half couple of beagles, plus two hairy terriers and a couple of long-eared, mournful-looking hunting dogs of unknown breed. I’d arrived not knowing what to expect, unaware even of what quarry we would be hunting, but it soon became clear. The quarry was chevreuil (roe deer) and sanglier (boar). The hunting party numbered eight, plus me; everyone was similarly armed.
As a gundog writer, I’ve always been intrigued about how other countries use their hunting dogs, but until that day I had never realised how many gun-packs there are in France, nor had I appreciated quite how popular beagles are as hunting dogs. There’s even a thriving Club du Beagle, Beagle-Harrier et Harrier that looks after the interests of the hunters who work with these hounds. The beagle may have been developed as a hunting dog in Victorian England but there are many more working beagles in France today than in England.
The huntsman hunted his hounds with a small horn, while half the pack wore bells. My poor French was a handicap to discovering exactly what was going on, but it was clear that once on a strong scent the pack was impossible to stop, and the chasseurs had to work hard not only to keep up but to be in a position where a shot might be possible. Though we saw plenty of deer, no boar were flushed. My companions fired 24 shots (I counted) but not a beast was bagged: quite a lot of the shooting was seriously optimistic.
A highlight of the day was lunch, served in a small barn with roaring log fire – the latter much needed as it was a bone-chilling day. I discovered why French hunters carry sharp, bone-handled Laguiole knives (all equipped with corkscrews): it’s to cut the baguettes without crushing them and to spread the coarse, homemade pâté. All was washed down with the local red wine (Corbières) but there was a bottle of Pernod Pastis 51 for anyone who wanted something stronger.
When the huntsman finally blew for home a couple of hounds was missing, but nobody was worried. A van was left with the back door open. I was assured that they would be back by the next morning. It had been, for me, a fascinating introduction to la chasse. The next day I was out again, this time on a pheasant shoot but one quite unlike any I’d ever been on in England.
The day started with breakfast – more red wine, crusty baguettes and pâté – followed by horn blowing but we were off by nine, accompanied by a rich variety of dogs. There was a show-bred golden cocker, a yellow labrador, three Brittanys, one beagle, a Gordon setter lookalike, two terriers, what was probably a German shorthaired pointer, plus two sporty dogs that I never identified. I was looking forward to seeing some good dog work, while there was optimism that there would be some exciting sport – nine pheasants, I was told, had been released the day before.
Sadly, on the dog front I was disappointed. There was little hunting and no retrieving, while the labrador gave up after half an hour and trotted home. I gained the impression that the typical French hunter likes to be accompanied by a dog but doesn’t expect it to do too much. Similarly, the dog doesn’t expect too much of its master, as there’s not much shooting, but there is the opportunity to work up a good appetite for lunch. The shooting stopped at 11.30am, with six pheasants and an alouette (skylark) in the bag. The end-of-season shoot dinner took up the rest of the day. It was magnifique: a reminder to never judge a day by the size of the bag.