Sunday, 25 September 2011

Outdoor Pursuit

A beautiful sunny autumn morning dawned for the start of the hunting season. I’d agreed to come along with Jean-Claude, his son Vincent and Vincent’s girlfriend Sondrine.

I was wearing old clothes, added to that JC’s oldest hunting jacket and a hi viz vest, topped off with my new hunting boots and I was armed with my camera. The men were armed with rifles. Around their waists were cartridge belts. Around their necks were dog ‘peepers’to whistle to the dog and electrical dog controllers which emit a small electric charge if the dog doesn’t do what it’s told. This is important for the dog’s own safety. I was impressed to see that JC follows good safety procedures with the vests. He also walks along with the barrel of his rifle open. This way he cannot accidently fire at someone or himself if he trips. I was told to keep one or two metres behind JC in case he had to turn and fire suddenly.

Baika, JC’s hunting dog also follows safety procedures. She wears two collars when on the hunt. One is a hi viz collar with something like a little mini cow-bell. In this way you can hear where she is in the undergrowth. The other collar has an electrical device attached which emits small electric shocks activated by the handler by remote control. There was one section of woods where one side dropped steeply to the road. It was dangerous for man and dog. If she did not respond to voice commands she would receive a zap. I’m not sure if that was necessary on this occasion or not. Baika is six years old and exercises her hunting instinct every day, hunting on JC’s property for rabbits, mice and ducks and anything else she can smell.

The hunt wasn’t really very organised. It was just the two men and us two women with cameras plus the dog. We set out down the road and walked about two hundred metres before leaving the road and plunging into the woods. After a couple of minutes we emerged on farmland. You get a lot of exercise on the hunt. I found the hunting boots an absolute necessity as I trudged along up and down sloping fields, wading through dense brambles and dead branches in woods, climbing up steep banks under old railway bridges.

At one point JC asked me to carry his rifle while he helped Vincent look for a shot bird down a slope. Jeepers. It’s heavy but not too heavy and I carried it barrel open with the cartridges showing. Sondrine decided that was too good a shot to miss and captured the moment digitally. From time to time we came across other hunters, some had dogs and some didn’t but none of them had safety precautions in place like JC and Vincent. One guy seemed to want to pose for me with his dead pheasant sticking out of his jacket. Hunting jackets have a big pocket in the back for kills. The dog finds the prey and helps the hunter flush it out. The hunter fires and may or may not hit the target. When the animal goes down the dog is supposed to find it and allow the hunter to retrieve it.

All morning I heard ‘sniper’ fire reverberating around the slopes. Those guns are loud close up. The men had double-barrelled rifles and cartridge belts around their waists. I didn’t feel unsafe; it simply sounded a bit like very loud car backfires though I knew it was the sound of death for something. The adrenaline surging through JC when a bird flew up from trees was very palpable. I was surprised to see that the birds struggle to gain altitude quickly. They seem like people who have fallen from a great height into deep water and must battle their way desperately to the surface and life. Really, though it only took seconds it seemed such a long time, watching the pheasants trying to get high enough into the air but with a double-barrelled rifle the hunter has the advantage if the first shot misses. Vincent was quite successful. He bagged two pheasants, a cock and a hen. I was so focussed on the plight of the birds each time, I forgot to take a photo.

JC didn’t hit anything which is normal for him. He told me his pleasure comes from watching his dog work. She would run along with her nose to the ground. If she smelt something interesting she’d stop and look. Her nose would cast around for what was there and where it was. In woods she would bound about like a gambolling lamb in the undergrowth, directed by peeps and shouts from JC and Vincent. At regular intervals JC or Vincent would let out a ‘woop’ which the other would repeat in the distance. This enabled them to know where each was for tactical and safety reasons. Once again, other hunters seemed rather lax in that.

It was somewhat difficult for me to enjoy nature. For starters, I had to keep up with the hunters so I couldn’t slow down or stop to look around and soak up the scenery. Also, the countryside is not that interesting. For the most part it looks empty (smart critters would have gone on vacation to a city). The woods are not all that beautiful or full of interesting plants and insects, birds or animals. I‘m used to New Zealand forests, woods, rivers, lakes and mountains and fields which seem rather more dense and interesting with their variety of living things. We did see a small deer dash [ast us but they need a special cartridge to bring them down and it was too close to the road. Nor fair for the animal or motorists so the men let it go.

JC pointed out where small deer had been sleeping, he seemed to able to smell where certain types of animal had passed by. That was rather impressive. Near a clearing he said the bad smell would be a dead animal somewhere close by. I couldn’t smell much but was happy to move on.

We doubled back and headed towards the creek at the back of JC’s place looking for duck, trudging through nettles and brambles, trying not to trip over parts of the disused railway line. The train hasn’t used it since the tracks were bombed during WWII. It’s overgrown with weeds and saplings but is easy for hunters to use. Vincent shot a usck at the water’s edge. Baika was told to jump in the creek and retrieve it. She had some problems handing it over so Vincent had to lean down and pull it up and wrap it in a plastic bag and shove it in his jacket. The duck didn’t look pretty after that, covered in mud.

Even in the fields and woods there is litter. It’s so unsightly. I can’t understand why someone would want to light a fire and leave cans and plastic rubbish bags, full and bottles lying around in nature. When JC was president of the local hunt club he organised the hunters to do a massive cleanup of the local countryside. They even removed old rusting cars. Their contribution to the environment I suppose. They also pay fees to hunt. Part of this goes to the landowners. Sometimes the hunters try to protect disappearing ecosystems. Each year they do a wildlife census to determine populations of species. This year one bird species and hares were on the ‘not to be hunted’ list.

We walked back to JC’s place and had a BBQ lunch of brochettes made the night before. These are metal skewers with diced vegetables and assorted meat- in this case, pork, beef and lamb interspersed with pieces of green peppers and onions. And fries, fruit and ice-creams. What an indulgence. It was a merry dining table with four adults and four children. The children had stayed back at the house while we hunted.

Vincent explained it’s not the killing he enjoys, it’s the childhood memories of the countryside as he re-encounters the sights and smells of his childhood. Each to his own means of nostalgia I guess. For me, memories of my childhood would need to involve my Grandmother and my pets and they’ve been dead for years.

I find the creatures in nature more beautiful when they are alive and not panicked. I don’t want to possess them. I eat meat, yes. I’m glad I don’t have to kill it. It was very interesting to go on the hunt and see what it’s all about but I wouldn’t need to do it often.


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