There have been rising tensions between animal rights activists and fans of hunting on horseback with hounds in the Compiègne Forest, which is located about 100 kilometres northeast from Paris. Activists started filming hunting parties to denounce a practice they they say is both “cruel” and “outdated” as well as being a serious nuisance to locals.
For the past year, the AVA association (a French acronym that stands for “Abolissons la vénerie aujourd’hui”, or “Let’s abolish the hunt today!”) has been organising actions in the French department of Oise, where 10 different clubs hold traditional hunts on horseback with hounds in the pursuit of hares, rabbits, roe deer and red deer. About 86% of French people polled oppose this traditional practice, according to French polling agency IFOP.
In the Compiègne Forest, where these videos were shot, the dogs only hunt red deer. During the hunts, the dogs chase down a deer, exhaust it and then close in for the kill.
The pack is directed by several dozen people on foot, on bicycle, in cars or, most commonly, on horseback. Generally, the use of modern technologies is banned so that the hunt is both as fair and as close to “natural” as possible, giving the animal a real chance to escape.
When the animal is surrounded, the club president (called the "maître d’équipage" in French) or one of the members then kills the deer with a dagger. The hunters remove the best parts of the meat and then let the dogs eat the rest during a ritual called, in French, “la curée.”
These hunting practices are extremely ancient and, in the past, only the nobility could take part. Today, many still see it as a leisure activity for aristocrats. Adherents usually pay between 2,000 and 4,000 euros per year to participate in these hunting parties. However, spectators can watch for free.
Hunting with dogs is banned in several different European countries. The United Kingdom outlawed it in 2005, Belgium in 1995 and Germany in 1936.
"Ils sont isolés dans la forêt, tant qu’on ne filme pas ça ne va choquer personne"
Violette Desnot, a founding member of the AVA association in Picardie, is from this forested region, where she still lives.
We are a group of locals who use videos to fight the practice of hunting with dogs. Not all our members are opposed to all forms of hunting. Some are okay with hunting with guns, for example.
We follow the hunters several days a week around the Compiègne Forest. We take turns following them on foot, bicycle or in cars and we film what goes on. We also try to save the animals when we can, but it isn’t always possible.
One of the many techniques used by the organisation to break up hunts is to put out dog food to distract the hunting pack. (Screengrab of a video posted in December 2017 on Facebook.)
Last October, a deer that was cornered in someone’s garden was killed and there was nothing we could do about it.
In this video posted on October 24, 2017, a red deer trapped in a garage driveway is killed by Alain Drach, a prominent figure in the hunting community. This footage sparked a debate about hunting with dogs in France back in November 2017.
Filming is key. These hunters carry out their hunts deep in the forest and no one will be shocked by it unless we film. Filming is also a way to protect ourselves when we come face-to-face with the sometimes-violent hunters. Confrontations with them can be quite tense.
"Today, there were close to 50 of us AVA [members] in the Compiègne Forest! No deer was killed,” the organisation posted on its Facebook page on January 13, 2018.
A “barbaric” practice
I was born in a village in the Compiègne Forest and, unfortunately, the hunt has always had an impact on my daily life. I regularly witness its barbarism. Sometimes, the hunters run into our village square, and they have even gone so far as to follow an animal into our neighbour’s garden to kill it.
In this video from January 6, AVA supporters try in vain to save a red deer being pursued by hunters. The animal is eventually killed by two men in a boat. This video was shared tens of thousands of times on social media.
Horsemen block the roads during the hunts and sometimes cause serious accidents. Locals are tired of running into veritable armadas of vehicles that destroy the forest. During the weekends, hundreds of cars follow the hunt all day. And to think that the hunters dare to say that this is the most eco-friendly form of hunting…
For the hunters, it’s “cruel” but “natural”
Fans of hunting with dogs say the tradition is ethical, natural and ecological. Alain Drach, the president of the hunting club la Futaie des amis, appears in most of the videos made by the AVA. Drach denies that the practice is cruel.
As opposed to hunting with firearms, we don’t injure an animal with gunshots, which sometimes leaves an animal in agony for days before it finally dies. When the animal is surrounded by dogs, it is killed within the rules of the art. It is the only form of hunting that replicates the way that natural predators hunt. It happens as it does in the wild. We use dogs, the descendants of wolves.
This video, posted by an AVA supporter in September 2017, shows a hunt from beginning to end.
"We only kill 35 deer a year"
We spend hours chasing them over several dozens of kilometres. Each season, between September 15 and March 31, we only kill about 35 deer, which is a quota imposed by the authorities. We respect this quota.
In total, between 300 and 350 deer are killed each year in Compiègne Forest, from all different kinds of hunting.
Usually, when an animal enters a house or a garden, he is safe. We call back the dogs and keep them from entering private property. When I had to kill a deer in the garden of a house in La Croix Saint-Ouen, it was by order of the local law enforcement because it could have been a danger to local residents.
"The activists don’t know anything about hunting”
After the publication of the video by AVA, I got hundreds of death threats. They were sickening, many of them focused on my religious beliefs or threatening my family. We decided to start making our own videos, to show the dangerous and irresponsible methods used by the activists.
These activists are, in reality, anarchists and nihilist zadistes [Editor’s note: “Zadist” is a term used for France’s most militant environmental activists] who don’t know anything about hunting.
For some of them, it is a social struggle against “rich people on horses”, even though our teams are made up of people from all different socio-economic backgrounds. Some of them are against hunting because, yes, it’s cruel. Watching something die is never pretty. But, for me, it is natural.
The French national hunting organisation, the Société de Vénerie, reports that it has about 10,000 members, who belong to 387 clubs across France. Together, they participate in about 18,000 hunts per year. An estimated 9% of their members hunt red deer.