Personally, I’m not a fan of hunting unless the prey is going to end up on the kitchen table. Hunting and fishing for sport is simply not that sporting. However, the French like to hunt and during autumn and winter it’s not that unusual to come across groups of men wearing Day-Glo vests with a shotgun over their shoulder, and as I like to go out hiking there’s always a chance I’m going to run into some hunters.
My first reminder to be cautious was while walking in a nature reserve close to the walled town of Aigues Mortes. As I started out on my walk, armed with a pair of binoculars for a bit of bird watching, I found my first specimen. Unfortunately it was not alive. The large dead cormorant was laid out on its back, not far from the path. I took a closer look and it was amazingly unmarked, so I doubted if an animal had attacked it. There was a tiny bloodstain on its chest which to me indicated that it may have been shot. The receptionist at the visitors centre was not that surprised when I told her, and we discussed whether it may have been a case of mistaken identity or the result of a jealous fisherman.
The next day, I was following a footpath around the old salt pans near Frontignan in the South of France. I’d passed a few cyclists and a couple of horse riders but as I neared the Aresquiers Forest I saw two dogs bounding around in the low scrub. Not far behind them was a man with a shotgun. I could only assume he was out hunting ducks and as I continued along the path I heard a few shots fired, though luckily not in my direction.
A week later, I was enjoying a morning out in the Clape Massif, a beautiful wooded limestone plateau not far from the port of Gruissan. I’d just completed a stunning, but demanding section through a narrow gorge when I found someone sitting on a chair in the middle of the path. He was wearing a bright orange vest and holding a large gun. When you are out in the sticks alone it kind of makes your heart skip a beat.
He gave me a friendly wave and greeted me with a smiling “Bonjour!” as if there was nothing extraordinary about our encounter. I asked if it was okay to continue and he indicated that it was. Further along the path stood two of his colleagues, also in bright orange vests and holding guns. I became very aware that I was wearing mostly brown and my rucksack was olive green in colour, so I quickly added my bright yellow rain cover in order to make myself more visible.
The rest of my walk up to the chapel of Notre Dame des Auxils was accompanied by dogs barking and men shouting from within the forest. The final part of the path is along the winding, climbing Cimetiere Marin (Marine Cemetery) which is marked by gravestones of those lost at sea.
At the chapel I sat and reflected on how easy it is for the French hunters to take the life of an innocent animal yet how appalled they are of anyone who takes human lives (i.e. terrorists) but also how fragile and short life can be. Many of the missing mariners were only in their 20s. I decided to descend via the roadway as wandering back through the woods didn’t seem like such a good idea while the hunt continued.