When we bought our house in the 80s, it was no rarity to find country houses for sale with considerable amounts of land attached.
In remoter areas of France where agriculture was small-scale, cultivated land had been in decline since phylloxera hit the vines and the cataclysmic decimation of a generation by the First World War drastically reduced the numbers working the land. Young people moved out of chilly old farmhouses heading for an education and a job in the cities from the sixties on, leaving swathes of “La France Profonde” to become “Réserves Indiennes” as smart Parisians dubbed them dismissively.
Vineyards, pasture and arable plots returned to nature, until city-dwellers looking to get back to the land and foreign holiday-makers seeing a chance to prolong the holiday “ad infinitum” flocked in to cherish the old buildings and perhaps use their land as a smallholding or at least get the local farmer to take a hay crop or keep a field grazed.
Like many other incomers wanting to go truly rural, we were thrilled to find that our crumbling house came with a generous plot; surrounded by 10 hectares (roughly 25 acres) of south-east facing hillside, it seemed to us a guarantee of the peace and privacy we longed for after 10 years in London, or so we thought. The catch was that when you buy a house to renovate, the land too will demand more than cursory attention. But back then, at the beginning, we just hacked a path to the door through scrub and brambles and got on with making the house habitable and earning a living.
When our first horse, Aly, came along, we began a programme of clearing thickets, felling trees, and battling against blackthorn and blackberry bushes to try and turn what had been a decrepit orchard and a neglected field into decent pasture. The task continues to this day:
As I was hacking back brambles today and basking in the low-slung sunshine of a February weekend, I was struck by something strange …… silence! No baying hounds or the sound of guns going off. No revving off-roaders or beaten up vans tearing up our untarmac’ed lane. Could it be that the hunting season is over?
Woe betide anyone daring to criticise the “chasse”. It’s a very powerful group with strong political representation at regional and even national level. Our Mayor and several of his Conseil Municipal are “chasseurs”. But I can’t help finding the presence of men with dogs and guns, dressed in quasi-military garb, driving at speed towards me and my horse on a single track lane, or letting off shots near our house both frightening and dangerous.
And I can’t help feeling revulsion at men (women chasseurs are still rare) who claim to love nature and tradition, but who get their kicks from slaughtering wildlife. I love seeing the deer cross the fields in the evenings, even though I’ve had to invent all sorts of ingenious systems for preventing them feasting on our rosebuds in the garden. We’ve had to resort to heavy-duty electric wire fencing to keep the wild boar from turning over the pasture, but there are still hundreds of hectares of woodland out there where they can range free.
Four “marcassins”, wild boar orphans, used to come into Aly’s field and share his hay many years ago. They were such joyful, playful little piglets who let me get right up close to take photos and who kept cheerful company with Aly. They always kept the same order; the rather serious-looking leader decided where they should go, the two who looked most alike were always larking about in the middle, and the lookout at the rear kept a wary eye open for danger, giving a loud snort when he thought they ought to get going. More recently another tiny orphan slept several nights in the horses’ shelter; we found him dead among the hay one morning, probably still a too young to survive alone.
It made me so angry when I used to ride past a farm where these “wild” animals were raised, just to be released for the pleasure of shooting them after they’d done damage to farmers’ crops and even gardens in the suburbs, thus giving some credibility to the argument for keeping numbers down. I have even heard it said that the “sanglier” have been crossed with domestic pigs and this increases the number of litters borne per year.
I also feel sorry for the wretched dogs, kept in small cages for most of the year, who end up in our friend, the vet’s surgery in shameful numbers, to be stitched back together during the hunting season. And according to our annual village bulletin, the chasseurs have recently released rabbits specially bred for hunting. They actually commented jovially, (in French, obviously), “Won’t it be lovely to see bunnies running in the hedgerows again?”. Aside from remarking on the utter hypocrisy of this sentiment, I did wonder if anyone had thought to consult the gardeners?
Of course the people whose families have lived in our village for countless generations will only despise a foreigner on her high horse (literally), who waves at the hunters to drive more slowly or asks them not to let their dogs run into the horses’ fields. Nor do I want to go to their hunters’ feasts – not eating meat is yet another marker of difference that I find hard to compromise even in the interests of integration.
I hope that hunting will die out, or be banned in my lifetime. Lots of new houses are being built in this area; they will house new families, ever more of whom will go out walking, cycling, exercising their dogs, donkeys, ponies and horses, and who don’t want their children to be run over or shot at. Eventually there may not be enough wild space left to support all those who want to use the countryside, wildlife included!
Thinking about all this went round and round in my head as I was taking it out on the undergrowth; and then the trailbikers on the hillside opposite decided to rev up and put an end to that lovely weekend peace and quiet………….. Ah well, working up a fury kept me working hard; we had the first of many bonfires to come, stacked some more logs for the wood-burning stove and are on the way to clearing another half-an-acre!
Next time; two midlife crises and we finally resort to drugs (herbal, for the horses!).