There's a man with a gun in my garden

2012-05-21 14:15

I wake to the sound of gunfire. For a befuddled moment I think I must have been dreaming that I was back in Johannesburg where I’ve been jolted from sleep in the dead of night by shots coming from the direction of nearby Yeoville.

But it is 7am on a misty Sunday morning in the faraway French village where I live, so I sigh and burrow back under the duvet. Then I hear more shots. And Joburg experience has taught me the difference between a gun going off and a car backfiring.

I am now fully awake. Either the village is under attack, which would be more a more bizarre idea than District 9, or … hang on a minute. It’s hunting season.

Hunting is a popular pastime round here – boar, rabbit, pheasant and even, under strictly controlled conditions, roe deer.

I have grown used to seeing men in full camouflage – always a faintly ridiculous sight in peace time – tramping though the fields bordering my property, shotguns swinging, silky hounds bounding ahead. Actually, on a couple of occasions they’ve even traipsed through my property. But as long as they do their best to avoid shooting the homeowner, it is every French hunter’s right to pass through a person’s property within 150m of the front door.

Personally, I’m more worried about a wild boar passing within 150m of my front door. But others, especially some of the English inhabitants of the village, consider hunting barbaric, comparing it to now-banned foxhunting in the UK.

There are differences. Foxhunting in the UK is historically associated with the upper classes, the  toffs who dress up in red coats and whip their horses across fields yelling ‘make way, peasant!’ to locals out for a quiet walk.

In France hunting is a democratic right that was earned the hard way. On August 4 1789, the night the French Revolution officially began, the nobility’s exclusive rights to hunt were abolished and the king was asked (quite politely, I note, on reading the Decree Abolishing the Feudal System) to free all those imprisoned or exiled for hunting violations.

Eventually the revolutionaries got sick of trying to help Louis XVI develop his female side and cut off his head instead. It took Napoleon to seal the deal and since then, hunting has been protected as part of rural culture and it is every citizen’s right to kill the rabbit to make the stew.

When I ask around the village if hunt protestors have rights too, I learn that objectors can apply to the authorities for permission to erect signs in their garden forbidding hunters access to their property.

I’m also told that such spoilsports might come out one morning to find their cat stuck to the door.

One afternoon my English friend Shuna and I went for a cross-country walk with her dog and ran into our dapper, snowy-haired neighbour Monsieur Blanc.

Monsieur Blanc, a retired soldier who fought in Algeria - against independence, obviously - was with his dog and his gun. He told us a boar had been sighted in the area and he was looking for it.

Shuna is a vegetarian and the kind of animal rights activist who makes Brigitte Bardot look soft.

The thought of what Monsieur Blanc would do if he caught a boar made her feel faint, though village protocols prevented her from flinging herself on the ground and blocking M. Blanc’s path.

I, on the other hand, was terrified that the bloody boar would come crashing out of the bushes and catch me. We couldn’t get away fast enough.

Not all locals are in favour of hunting. My gentle neighbour Francoise would sooner visit the nudist resort down the road than go hunting. But, having been born and raised here, she can’t help being a crack shot.

One night last summer, I went with her and her husband, Bernard, to a village fair. At the rifle range we watched a tanked up bunch of teenage boys take turns trying, without success, to shoot down a moving row of plastic ducks.

“C’mon Francoise,” I begged, “you have a turn.”

“Best shot for miles,” said her proud husband.

It took some doing to persuade her to have a go. But finally the diminutive 60-something got behind the rifle and handed me her hat. The teens traded looks.

Bam! Bam! Bam! Bam! The ducks went down.

There was a moment of smoke and silence. The teens dispersed in shock and awe and Francoise was handed her prize, a giant pink rabbit.

Like the coolest gunslinger in a Spaghetti Western, Francoise shrugged and jammed her hat back on her head.

“N’importe quoi,” she said. Which roughly means “whatever”.

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