Well, here we are, again, back at square one; maybe square two as the schools are open this time. It makes the title of this blog, freefromlockdown.com, look increasingly jaded. Not that many people actually read these posts, although there is one stalwart from China who rarely misses a day, but never comments. We are not free, not even remotely and won’t be until a vaccine is perfected. Will the French way of life ever recover? Optimistically yes, but maybe the traditional French greeting will be less intimate.
It took a world war to put a stop to hunting. Posters were nailed up in every town square after France’s occupation declaring that persons who failed to turn in their firearms within 24 hours would be subject to the death penalty. Not all obeyed of course; many guns finding their way into the hands of the resistance.
Fast forward to October 2020 and our local préfet (the state’s representative in the department) has just issued this order ‘la chasse est fermée sauf les battues aux nuisibles‘ , in other words no hunting except of pests, which might, in true Gallic fashion, be generously interpreted. In this SW corner of France the sanglier, or wild boar, is the number one pest. What Covid-19 has done is shorten the hunt for the palombe, the wood pigeon, on its annual migration south. In the narrow mountain passes between France and Spain the flocks become denser and easier to snare.
Guillaume, our plumber, came to investigate an unpleasant smell from the bathroom. One problem of living in an old house is that ancient plumbing can be dodgy, more so if you’re connected to a fosse septique, basically a hole in the ground with a tank in it. Aucun problème he said, just run all the taps in the house and the smell will go away, which it did. We were fortunate to catch him this month because la fièvre bleue strikes men of hunting age. His fellow plombiers had succumbed to this ‘blue’ fever and could be found self isolating in discreet locations up in the hills.
Last year Madam and I were driving back from Saint Jean Pied de Port by way of the Le col des palombières. There’s a long straight stretch of road leading up to the col and there was a barrier across the road manned by hunters who made it plain that they were not pleased to see us. Hunting, after cycling of course, is sacred in France but we live in the country and you accept the traditions that go with it. The fact that a public road was blocked would not have been factored into the equation. We were content to wait until a whistle blew from above and the barrier was lifted. At the top men were removing, reluctantly, a net that had been suspended between two trees on either side of the road.
The two traditional methods of hunting palombe here are with shotguns or, much more complicated, with nets. This link http://www.gourmetfly.com is to a company which organises hunting and fishing trips in France. They published an article which explains the origin of this practice. A monk from Roncevaux Abbey some 700 years ago observed that hawks were waiting for the pigeons as they flew through the passes. He noticed that the pigeons were too tired to gain altitude when attacked but dived down and flew close to the ground. If you’re ahead of the game you will have realised by now that the Basques use the hawks’ method by forcing the palombes down towards the ground and into waiting nets.
To do this high towers were erected; the skilled individual at the top, the abatari, throws white paddles or bats high into the air which, theoretically, cause the pigeons to dive down. Those that aren’t trapped in the nets will be caught by the guns further on; that’s the theory.
Guillaume suggested that we go up to the nearest col before dawn at the weekend and see the the action. The air was sharp so we took refuge in the hotel for a hot drink. Over the door to the kitchen was a stuffed pigeon; very realistic we thought. It was so authentic that it proceeded to relieve itself. It would have the authorities in the UK jumping up and down.
By the time the sun was up a sizeable crowd had gathered and we did not have long to wait before the first wave of palombes swept down the valley. Horns blew, there was much shouting, the abatari threw his bats and down they swooped. Just two were caught in the net but there was much popping of shotguns on the other side of the wood.
In the woods near our house we came across this elaborate contraption. A pigeon is strapped to the perch, called a stool (useless fact: origin of the expression ‘stool pigeon’ i.e. one who betrays colleagues). This is then raised to the top of the tree and the unwary migrant sees the tree as a safe place to land. If the thought of hunting disconcerts you it may be better to stop here, but country people had to hunt to eat in the days when they did not know where their next meal was coming from.
Pigeon on the menu today will set you back at least 40 euros in the humblest restaurant. Roasted wood pigeon flambéed with Armagnac is a favourite. Personally I find the birds rather tough!
WARNING: gruesome picture!
Further north in the Landes where the land is flat hunters devised alternative methods to snare the pigeons. Adult pigeons were fed alcohol soaked grain and used as decoys.
You were warned! The practice of temporarily sewing the eyelids of the decoys was common practice until the 20th century. The cries of distress of the restrained bird was supposed to attract the unwary.
Let’s finish on a more cheerful note with one of Perry Taylor’s humorous drawings of life in South West France.
Don’t go mushroom hunting under a tower when the abatari has been up there all day!
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