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12 Jan 2009

Foxes, urban and rural

Over the Christmas holiday, a French man in his forties, with learning difficulties, was on a visit to London with a group. He became separated from the group, and disappeared. He had no money, no ID, no mobile phone, and did not speak any English. Happily, he was found, three days later, in South London. He did not explain what he had been doing, or how he got where he was found. All he wanted to talk about was the foxes in the streets of London.

Of course, every one knows about the urban foxes, but over the last four or five years there seems to have been almost an explosion. I live near Hampstead Heath in London, and one sees foxes in the streets most evenings after dark. These are city foxes: cocky and hard to intimidate. They walk along the pavements, and if you follow them they take no notice unless you gain on them, when they either break into a casual saunter, or wander into a garden out of sight. If they are coming towards you, they usually cross the road, not out of fear but because they really would prefer not to be seen with you. I have seen a couple sit down in the middle of a suburban road in broad daylight, watching builders put up scaffolding, and another lying along a wall between gardens sleeping in the sun. And of course, it is always easy to smell where they have built their dens. I have even been woken up by the screaming of two or more foxes in the gardens.

In Normandy, by contrast, I have seen foxes on only two occasions, both as they slunk along the far side of fields. They are around, and there are many paths made by them as they follow a regular route around their territory, particularly where they scramble over the bocage hedges. They are secretive. That is because many people keep chickens, which roam around freely so that foxeds are shot on sight, and because many farmers still hunt. Not on horseback with hounds, but on foot with rifles, and motley dogs, and mostly they are hunting for the pot. Winter weekends the hunters are a common sight, trudging through the morning mist and fog in ones, twos and threes, every so often firing at something, and missing. At the nearby forest, during the weekends in the season, there are signs warning that the people are hunting is in progress, and to beware.

La Chasse is very important to those to whom it is very important, but there is less and less to shoot. The hunting societies now artificially raise hares, pheasants, partridges and even deer, to release when the season starts. The increase in prosperity, the rise of supermarkets and the use of cars means that it is not really necessary to hunt for food to survive, although there are of course always interesting game that you cannot easily buy.

Because the Societés de la Chasse have traditionally been quite powerful, they have many rights and privileges, and they are governed by quite extensive regulations. However, nowadays, fewer young people are interested, and older hunters are dying off. There are now many people who do not approve of hunting, and where there were signs at the gates of fields saying that the hunting rights were reserved to the Societés, there are more and more signs saying 'Chasse Interdite' (hunting forbidden).

The downside of regulation for the hunters is that as their power wanes, the regulations start to work against them. The owners of land can register their refusal to allow hunting. The hunting season is being shortened by the Préfectures who set the rules. Limits are being imposed on what creatures can be shot, and how many. For example, a Societé can only shoot so many hares in total, but no one hunter can shoot more than one, only two wild boar may be killed, and so on. Even if the Societé had actually raised the creatures themselves. The details are usually published in the local papers, and displayed on the larger mairies.

Many hunters are unhappy, but there is little they can do. In a couple of generations' time, hunting will be virtually gone. I for one will not miss it.

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