With my duster in hand, I flew to the front door to find out why the dogs were making such a racket. Our two Australian Shepherds aren’t quiet at the best of times, but what I saw would make most dogs howl with horror. There was a man outside with his nose squashed up against the window gabbling loudly, trying to calm them down. That was never going to happen.
I’m always happy to have my household chores interrupted, but the sight of this person made me think twice. It was Régis Faradoute, president of the local hunt here in our area of S-W France, and his visits often involve some level of controversy. Like it or not, hunting is part of the fabric of life here – it’s a tradition that has been followed for generations, and forms an integral part of farm pest control in the country. I banished the dogs to the kitchen and went out to find out what today’s problem was.
Régis is a chap who takes his hunting very seriously indeed. There he was, clad from head to foot in a bright orange boiler suit, looking rather like Humpty Dumpty with a beard. The garish gear is normally used as a security precaution when out hunting. The idea being that humans can easily spot the colour but many game species can’t because they have a form of colour-blindness. In Régis’ case he wears this kit all the time, irrespective of whether he’s hunting.
Régis was is a terrible flap. After exchanging pleasantries he hurriedly poured out a horror story that would make most people fear that nature’s balance had been set on its head. Gangs of foxes were rampaging the area; chickens were being slaughtered, sheep were being worried and lambs had gone missing – something had to be done about it before it was too late.
I listened patiently, ignoring his cabaret of flailing arms and bulging eyes. I also overlooked his posture, which when he gets extremely agitated changes altogether. He bounces up and down on his toes, and then sways from side to side – it can actually make one quite giddy. This was Régis’ usual precursor before asking permission to come on to our land. I was well used to his tactics by now. By creating a picture that was too dreadful to contemplate, he hoped to get his way. However, a few simple questions usually deflated him.
“So, Régis, have you seen all these foxes?”
“No, but I have been told!”
“Ah. By whom?”
“The friend of my brother’s neighbour. My brother told me last night.”
“I see. But he lives around 15 kilometres from here doesn’t he? How many have you seen in our area?”
“I’ve definitely seen two male foxes. But I am sure there are more.”
We're involved in a project trying to raise pheasants and quail to populate our forest, and have extremely strict rules about where the local huntsmen are allowed on our land. We checked our boundaries thoroughly and knew that they were secure from predation. After listening to further pleas of livestock persecution, I allowed him access to the farthest border where our land meets his own. It was nowhere near our pheasants. He assured me it would be a low-key affair involving only himself and a couple of colleagues, together with one or two scent-hounds. That agreed, I left him to it and returned to my housework.
Later that afternoon I took our dogs, Aby and Max out for their daily walk. We traipsed along several forest tracks, basking in pools of sun where it shone through the budding branches. As ever, I was on the lookout for sightings of deer that inhabit our woods, but there were none evident. Instead I caught a glimpse of a large hare in the distance, what a beauty it was. Capering around for a couple of hours is hot work, so on the way back I paused by a brook while the dogs had a refreshing dip and wallow amongst the tree roots.
As I watched the dogs playing I became distracted by the sound of baying – that distinctive sound of a hound on the scent. Although pretty close, I couldn’t work out exactly where it was coming from, and thought very little of it. We live in the countryside where our version of traffic noise comes in the form of animal chatter, including dog barks, so this was pretty normal.
We returned to the house where I was alerted by a soft donging sound. For anyone who has lived in the French countryside, it can mean only one thing. We were not alone. Somewhere in our garden there was a hunting dog, this must have been the animal we’d heard earlier on. Aby and Max rushed off, helter-skelter, to round up the perpetrator. I followed them, concerned that there might be a pitched battle over territory, but I needn’t have worried.
It took me a moment or two to spot it – at first all I could see was our two and 12 paws. We had a cluster of dogs alright, but what on earth was the stranger going to look like? Then it appeared from underneath Aby’s tummy, and stood surveying the area timidly.
It was a very stocky little dog with stumpy legs and long floppy ears, similar to a standard hunting hound. I thought might be a Teckel (the French name for a rough haired dachshund), but it was shorter in the back and a mix of black, white and fawn colours which do not match that breed. The poor animal bravely stood its ground, but it was clearly nervous. I assumed that it must have been one of the dogs used in the hunt that morning which had, for some reason, got lost.
This situation occurs very regularly and particularly so during the deer and wild boar hunting season. Hounds are released to flush out game, and during the pursuit they’re quite capable of following scents for several kilometres, ending up in far off locations. This should not have applied to Régis’ fox hunt. Nevertheless, right now I had the welfare of the animal to consider.
For some reason hunting dogs are often very reserved animals and almost impossible for strangers to handle. Very few are lead trained and, in our experience, will usually only respond to their owners. This has been difficult in the past when we have needed to care for lost dogs and return them to their owners, but today proved to be different. I approached the animal carefully and managed to sling a slip-lead around its neck.
In spite of looking very anxious, the bedraggled dog bravely followed me to the house. My husband, Jack, was in the kitchen and came out to find me with this forlorn creature. It stood, completely docile, as we checked it over. It was a female. She had some injuries but they seemed to be superficial. A sore eye, bloodied nose, scraped back, damaged ear and she was buckling at the knees from fatigue. Nevertheless, she stood proudly, and I couldn’t help but feel impressed by this stoic fighter.
Fortunately, she had a big collar which bore the mini cow bell and a telephone number. I quickly dialled the number, but there was no reply. Frustrated by this I called Régis instead and described our visitor. He huffed and puffed and confirmed that she had been used during the morning hunt but had run off. He assured us that he would contact the owner straight away.
Whilst all this was going on our dogs were getting to know their new companion. Max was immediately besotted, and lay by her side staring dreamily into her eyes, whilst Aby gambolled around the edges, encouraging them to play. Neither flinching nor budging, the miniature hunter stood her ground and looked curiously at the playful behaviour of our mollycoddled dogs.
A feature of lost hunting dogs is that they are usually desperately thirsty and starving hungry. Some will argue that we should not give the animals anything until their owner has arrived but we disagree. Over the years we have looked after several lost or abandoned hunt dogs. Some for a few hours, others a few days and one for the rest of his life, we did not want to run the risk of the owner failing to turn up for hours.
Although our visitor wasn’t skinny, she was definitely in need of refreshments. Jack gave her some water and then a small quantity of dog food. She looked at him, then over to me and began gingerly nibbling on the food. This was an extremely refined lady.
Sometime later the hooting of a car horn sounded the arrival of the dog’s owner. Still clad in his hunting orange, I took monsieur Baralet over to the house where Jack was sitting with the dog by his side. We had dispensed with the lead because she had begun to relax and seemed happy to stay put. Monsieur thanked us for looking after his dog and proudly gave us some history about her.
Dori is a Petit Basset Griffon Vendéen, an ancient breed of French hound that can be traced back to the sixteenth century. The name is descriptive with “petit” (small), “basset” (low to the ground), “griffon” (wire-haired), and “Vendéen” referring to the part of France where the breed originated. The animals are scent hounds bred for hunting game of all sizes over rough terrain.
It transpired that Dori was a terrific hunter and had the war wounds to prove it. Monsieur Baralet pointed to her shredded left ear saying that she had been bitten by a fox – and her other cuts and scrapes were normal after a day’s work. I looked at this tough little dog, then at ours. What a different lives they led.
Apparently it was Dori’s zeal for hunting that had been her downfall. Her job that morning had been to follow fox scents, but she was side-tracked onto her favoured activity – rabbit hunting. Monsieur Baralet did not elaborate on exactly how she’d got lost, but looking at this diminutive animal I could quite understand how she might be difficult to spot galloping off amongst the undergrowth.
I was fascinated by what he was telling us. He was obviously a keen huntsman so I asked him if he had any more dogs. He sighed, sadly explaining that he used to have 23 but, due to the difficulties in the economy, he’d been forced to reduce the number to 18. They were all shapes and sizes, and she was one of the smallest. That number alone made my mind boggle. She was obviously well cared for – I couldn’t even imagine how much it would cost to maintain a pack of that size.
Throughout our chat, Dori had been sitting calmly by Jack’s side. At one point she got up and wandered into the house. It prompted me to ask monsieur if she was allowed indoors. No, he’d replied, all his dogs lived in kennels. In all her ten years, Dori had never been in a house. My heart went out to this tiny soldier, I know it shouldn’t have done, but she’d grabbed my heartstrings, Jack’s too, I could see by the way he’d stroked her.
After exploring for a moment or two she came back to us and sat back down next to Jack – leaning against him slightly. Monsieur signalled that it was time to go and quietly called to his dog. She didn’t move a muscle. “Go on, little one,” said Jack, giving her an encouraging nudge, “get back to Papa.” She looked searchingly back at him with her meltingly brown eyes – was she trying to say thank you?
With a kind smile monsieur thanked us once again and started walking back to his truck, calling lightly to his dog. Dori gave us one more look, got up stiffly and obediently trotted after her owner, no doubt ready for action when required.
I don’t know whether we will ever come across this particular dog again but one thing’s for sure, she’s a super animal, and one that we’ll welcome back at any time.
Our latest encounter with a hunting dog ended another day here on our domaine in France. It’s a funny old thing, despite living in the depths of the countryside there’s always something going on. And we love it.