Those of you who are patiently awaiting the next episode of Downton Abbey’s new season, I have a little something that might interest you. I came across an article in the Figaro Magazine all about the practice of fox hunting. Like in England, the sport in France dates back centuries, a highly ritualistic pastime generally relegated to the higher classes of society. The most poignant difference between hunting in the two neighboring countries, however, is that in France people hunt on foot much more than they hunt on horseback with a pack of hounds. But that certainly doesn’t diminish the sport’s traditions and inherited practices as compared to fox hunting on horse (la vènerie or la chasse à courre in French).
In fact, the practice of fox hunting on horseback has a long history in France. The French kings were all capable hunters and our last king, Louis XVI, was a fanatic foxhunter right up until he was imprisoned and beheaded during the Revolution. Since then, the sport in its horseback form has kept its exclusivity as an aristocratic hobby and is generally thought of by the French as ‘English hunting’. But even still, today over 420 groups of foxhunters à courre hunt in 69 of the French departmental regions. The French hunt fox, boar, hares, rabbits as well as deer. And rather than a law forbidding hunting wild animals, as there is in England, a strictly followed Ethic of Hunting including Rules of the Art of Hunting is passed down through the generations.
The article I read in the Figaro highlighted the English hunting group of the Duke of Beaufort, apparently one of the oldest and most prestigious aristocratic families in England. Interestingly, this family got their name ‘Beaufort’ from a château in Champagne, France, making the Beauforts the only present Dukedom to have their namesake a place outside of the UK. And can’t you just picture it – the Duke up on his elegant beast, an army of volunteers (long gone are the days of house servants) clad in Wellington boots and red vests serving whiskey, hot wine or Port on silver platters.
On the property surrounding the Badminton House, the Duke of Beaufort’s homestead, where the sport of the same name was apparently founded (who knew?!), two-hundred horsemen and women mount their hunters up to four times a week surrounded by a hyper pack of 35 foxhounds. The owner of the property is Ian Farquhar, the current Duke of Beaufort, who was an equerry to the Queen Mother for years as well as an officer of the Queen’s Own Hussars.
The 2004 law regarding fox hunting passed in England under Tony Blair restricts the sport to chasing a sack smothered with the odour of a fox rather than a live animal, a relief to those of us in the fox’s corner.
In England, the fox being hunted is nicknamed Charlie and this clever beast is not without friends. Members of the League Against Cruel Sports (LACS) hid out in the bushes with their telescope lens and snap the evidence they need to condemn the hunters under the law. Apparently, since the law was passed less than 10 censures were handed down by the courts. According to the Duke of Beaufort, many of these were a case of mistaken identity. His foxhounds, he insists, are a highly cultivated race with direct lineage back to 1743, over 25 generations. So they are bred to hunt and if they smell a real fox in the area as well as the scented sack, it is possible that they may veer off course.
In his autobiography, Tony Blair lamented that it was an error to champion the law against fox hunting in England. Either way, I think its best that people who inherit the tradition of hunting in their family are able to continue it in a way that removes the violent end Charlies met in the days of Downton Abbey.
*Pictures from the Figaro Magazine article.