‘Bountiful Borderlands’ Extract #2: Chapter Two ‘Bane of the Izard – The Hunter’

Turning to wolves and bears first, these beasts were perennially seen as threats to livestock and people, and thus ruthlessly hunted with traps, rifles and spear-like contraptions. An excellent account of a village wolf-hunt in Landes (Pyrénées-Atlantiques) in the early 19th century provides details as to how such an event was organised. In this area, stilts (known as sangues) were used by some to cover the sandy ground and obtain good visuals of the prey or flock, and an accomplished user could move as fast as a trotting horse. In this case, the party set off at day-break, some on their sangues and all carrying rifles:

Every one being mounted on sangues, the appearance of the parties as they came in sight was extremely singular. Those at a distance seemed moving along high above the surface of the ground, and without any visible support; while others, surmounting a sandy knoll, continued to ascend long after the whole of their person had appeared above it. Some wore the sombre-coloured cloak and narrow-crowned hood, out of which it was almost ludicrous to behold a young face peeping; others wore their sheep-skin jackets with the wool outside, some black, some white, and all of the strangest cut imaginable.[1]

They arrive at the extreme end of a forest, in which the wolves are said to live, and they begin beating and guarding in order to flush out the animals:

Single files, from fifty to a hundred paces distant from each other, according to the inequality of the ground, but always within shot of any animal which might attempt to escape by breaking though the lines, were extended down each side of the forest, the side next the river requiring a less number to guard it that the other, as the wolf will not, unless hard pressed, take to the water. Along the upper end of the forest, that to which the wolves were to be driven, the files were placed closer, and the best shots of the district invariably occupy this, the post of honour. The sides and upper end of the forest being thus as it were secured, a line of beaters was drawn across the lower part of the wood. This party, always on foot, is generally composed of the youngsters of the canton, whose business it is to make more use of their lungs than of the old horse-pistols and carbines, with which a few of them are armed. Dogs, although sometimes useful in following a wounded animal, are seldom permitted to accompany the beaters, as they are never sufficiently well-trained to range close, but wandering ahead destroy the regularity of the battue. As the beaters advance, the files who have been guarding the sides of the wood fall into a line with them, so that, increasing in numbers as they go through the wood, they soon become so near to each other that not a single thicket or dingle, however small, escapes their search.[2]

After several hours, the beaters are visible as they make their way through the forest, and guns are checked and preparations are made for the breaking of the wolves from their sylvan cover. The first wolf to emerge escapes to the next woodland, avoiding the excited shots of the hunters, however the three others that are flushed out by the beaters are shot. Amusingly, during the shooting the Maire (mayor) tumbles to the ground screaming and then falls silent; much is made of this and everyone fears he is dead from a stray shot. It is revealed however that a bullet merely severed one of his stilts, and the fall to earth knocked him unconscious. This has been fortunate for the other wolves that broke cover, as during this confusion they manage to escape unharmed. Other animals are also killed by the beaters and guards during the hunt, and the author recounts of foxes, wild boar and roe deer as being among the prizes. After this everyone settles down to drinking brandy, eating and dancing, as well as a race to determine who is fastest on his sangues. The results are predictably chaotic, as one would imagine when combining brandy and stilt-racing, and are described in this charming passage:

I have already said that the sangues were from four to five feet in length; it may therefore be supposed that mounting upon such articles is no easy matter, without having a wall or bench from which to start. The usual mode of managing the affair by the Landais is to sit on the ledge of a window of the second story of their cottage, and there fastening on the stilts, walk away from the place; or a ladder is generally leaning against the walls of the cottage, up which they mount until sufficiently high to effect their object. Here, however, there were none of the usual facilities afforded for mounting; and every one was put to his wits to discover some method or other to get on his horse. The most active of the party having selected a pine which had a drooping branch, climbed on to it, and managed without much difficulty to effect their object. Several of the elderly ones, and some of the juniors, whose libations had placed their capacity on a level with that of their seniors, were not so successful. One heavy fellow, who had raised himself on the branch of a pine close to where we were sitting, had just succeeded in buckling on one of his stilts, when the branch on which he sat gave way. The leg with the stilt on was mechanically thrust out to break the fall, but the result was much the contrary. With only one support, a single stride was all that could be made, but that stride was an important one; for, unable to deviate from the direction in which the branch broke away, the heavy carcase of the fellow landed in the centre of a group whose advanced state of jollification altogether precluded their joining in the race. […] Another fellow had, in the hurry of the moment, carried off one of his neighbour’s sangues instead of his own, and did not discover the mistake until he had buckled them on, and thinking that all was right, started from his place of mounting. Then he found to his surprise that one stilt was half a foot shorter than the other, and that, accordingly, to balance himself was quite impossible. So away he went staggering and limping, endeavouring to describe a circle, so as to get back to the tree from which he had sprung. But the odds were against his succeeding. The shorter stilt having sunk in the hollow of a decayed tree root, the discrepancy of length became still greater; to recover his equilibrium was impossible, and he measured his length on the ground.[3]

After a few fights break out, one of which is settled with staffs, the race takes place across a river and a plain, and the winner is greeted with thunderous applause. This is also the only mention that I have found in any English account of the practise of sangues racing, hence its inclusion here. Murray also recounts the method used by a professional wolf and fox hunter using hounds, around Pau:

The wolves are frequently driven down from the mountains by the snow, and take refuge in the woods of the low country; and the peasants, when they see then, inform M. Dupont of their presence. The wolf is a more difficult customer to deal with than the fox. He is hardly ever killed by being fairly run down by dogs. Very few instances of wolves being so killed are known; although runs of this kind have been known to last a day and a night – the dogs following the same wolf for that length of time. On this account, the hunters always endeavour to wound or cripple him, so as to put him upon a more equal footing with the dogs; and, accordingly, every one, upon such occasions, is armed.[4]

Whilst Murray is not present for a wolf-hunt but rather a fox-chase, he does describe the pomp and ceremony with which this hunter dresses and enters through villages, announcing his arrival with a horn so that the locals might come and admire him in all his splendour, and it is likely that the same happened when Monsieur Dupont went chasing wolves. This is a very different affair to the Landais wolf hunt recounted above; here we can see overt displays of social status, potentially even paying clients, in a manner more akin to the aristocratic hunts of Fébus:

Afraid that we should not get out of bed early enough, M. Dupont had ordered his piqueur to come to our hotel about four in the morning and ‘blow us up’ with his great horn.[5] About five, the master and his hounds, and a party of French gentlemen arrived, and we, being all ready, joined them. […] Our master of the hounds, a most enormous man, could not, with jack-boots, great coat, blunderbuss, holsters and all, ride under one and twenty stone. He was mounted upon a small chestnut mare, with legs like those of an elephant, and it was amazing to see how she moved under the prodigious weight she carried. […] There are, – as I observed before, – generally, two of these abominable French horns in a hunting party, the one carried by the piqueur, the other by the master, or a friend. M. Dupont’s nephew was the bearer of this – to the ears of a sportsman – most disagreeable instrument; and he rode at the head of the party: while the piqueur, with the dogs and the other horn, brought up the rear. In this manner, we rode into the town of Tarbes, our leader halting at each turn or winding of the streets, and sounding his ‘Tantara’ for a few seconds; after he had been answered by the piqueur, with the other horn, from the rear, he moved on again, thus giving warning of our approach, and affording all the inhabitants plenty of time to come to their windows, and admire us. Glad were we, when the neighbourhood of our hotel permitted us to escape.[6]

Again, whilst this relates specifically to a fox hunt, it is more than likely that for this gentleman, such grandeur would accompany a wolf hunt, also potentially with a team of helpers and participants which he would lead through villages and out to the forests.

Violant i Simorra describes two methods of wolf hunting in the Pyrenees. One involved a group of men running around a series of mountains shouting a whistling to drive the wolves towards a party of armed hunters. These men would be waiting at the other end of the route ready to shoot the creatures on sight. Another method involved driving the wolves towards either a gorge or an enclosed field. The latter was known as a lobera and would narrow to a trap concealed with branches where, occasionally, a lamb would be tethered as bait. Boar hunts would sometimes follow a similar course in the Pallars (Catalonia); hunters armed with axes and shotguns would be posted throughout the mountains, waiting and watching while their dogs would root the boars out from their shelters. Once the boars had been driven out they would be chased into a ravine or a cave where the axes and shotguns would be employed. In the Valle de Hecho (Huesca), two scouting groups would run along the flanks of the mountains tracking the boars while a reseguero (aided by dogs) would ensure that no boar could turn back and escape, using screams and whistles.[7]

In the Ariège there used to exist a formula for increasing the potency of a hunter’s hounds. In Loubens, the several hunters would turn up a sleeve of their jackets or coats, cross themselves and repeat:

Cassaïre de lardos                      Chasseur de chair                       Hunter of flesh

Autant de lebres tuaras,               Autant de lièvres tu tueras,           As many hares that you kill,

Coumo m’en daras.                     Autant tu m’en donneras.              As many you will give me.

At the end of the hunt, usually in the evening, the hunters would wash the dogs’ muzzles in a stream, to rid them of the magic.[8] Traditionally the most common hunting dog in the French Pyrenees is the Braques Français, the original breed of which dates back to the 15th century. Typically a pointer, it is also employed in flushing, retrieving and even trailing game, and over time has evolved into two distinct regional varieties: the type Gascogne and the type Pyrénées. The former is larger and slower, the latter is smaller and swifter. It is possible that the breed is descended from the Spanish Pachon Navarro. Whilst the French Mastiff was favoured during aristocratic hunts of boar, deer, wolves and bears, the Braques Français is a versatile breed that can cover many roles and also would have been more readily available to the peasant hunter.[9]

A more formidable but no less enthusiastically pursued ‘threat’ was the Brown Bear; so much so, in fact, that by the mid 20th century it was practically extinct in the Pyrenees and is only recently making a return via controversial conservation schemes. As Hemingway noted, ‘Every year hunters kill dozens of bears in the Pyrenees mountain fastness’.[10] Mention has already been made earlier in this chapter of the rewards offered by monastic institutions for the slaughter of bears (and wolves), and of the Medieval views towards bears. Interestingly, this is belied by the focus on the bear in various traditional festivals throughout the Pyrenees, in which it is a major character and indicates a profound presence in the Pyrenean psyche, myth and folklore.[11] This, however, did not stop hunters from pursuing the bear, killing the adult and in many cases taking the cubs to sell to bear trainers in the Ariège; the hamlet of Ercé, for instance, was famous for its bear school during the 19th century, and the Haute-Couserans was home to many of the best bear trainers:

Visitors to the remote region of the Couserans region were often alarmed to see children playing with bear cubs. The cubs were always orphans. The hunter would wrap himself in a triple layer of sheepskins and arm himself with a long knife. When the bear reared up and hugged the woolly human, the hunter pushed its jaw aside with one hand and stabbed it in the kidneys with the other, remaining locked in the embrace until the bear collapsed. The cubs were taken to the village where they grew up with the children and the livestock until they were old enough to be trained.[12]

The Ariège was quite unique in this respect, as it produced the best orsalhèrs, and by 1800 up to two hundred of these bear-trainers/handlers existed in just two valleys, those of Alet and Garbet. One noble from the Comminges (Haute-Garonne) remarked in the late 19th century that each time a bear cub was captured, it would go to the Ariège. The cubs would be raised in the house like a dog, and the mistress of the house would feed them with bottles, and in one case from Ustou, even breast-feed them.[13]

Despite this apparent affection, one could almost call bear hunting an obsession in some areas of the Pyrenees. To give an example of the extent to which bears were hunted, we can turn to Andorra, which traditionally has been one of the richest areas for bears. Records indicate that between 1520 and 1854, five hundred and thirty-seven payments were made to bear hunters upon the presentation of their kill; this figure was actually exceeded by the Béarnaise hunters of the Ossau valley (Pyrénées-Atlantiques) during the same period. The records for the parish of Andorra la Vella over twenty years at the start of the 19th century give an idea of the frequency in which bears in this valley were killed; three in 1800, six in 1802, three in 1803, three in 1805, four in 1806 and 1808, ten in 1812, three in 1816 and 1818, seven in 1819 and three in 1820. Even if these figures represent a particularly populous region for bears, if one extrapolates this over the centuries, and indeed over the various valleys of the Pyrenees, it is unsurprising that the population was decimated by the 1950s.[14]

[1] Murray, Hon. James Erskine, ‘The Pyrenean Hunter: Wolf-hunting in the Landes’ in Bentley’s Miscellany, Volume 4, J. M. Lewer (ed.) (New York, NY: Jemima M. Mason, 1839), p. 499.

[2] Ibid, p. 500.

[3] Ibid., pp. 504 – 505.

[4] Murray, James Erskine, Summer in the Pyrenees, Vol. II (London: John Macrone, 1837b), p. 156.

[5] A piqueur is an attendant that directs the hounds in a hunt.

[6] Murray, 1837b, pp. 157 – 160.

[7] Violant i Simorra, Ramon, El Pirineo Español (Barcelona: Editorial Alta Fulla, 1986), pp. 360 – 362.

[8] Vézian, Joseph, Carnets Ariégeois (Présentés par Olivier de Marliave) (Bourdeaux: Éditions Sud Ouest, 2000), p. 104.

[9] Clark, Anne Rogers & Brace, Andrew, The International Encyclopedia of Dogs (Hoboken, NJ: Howell Book House, 1995), pp. 146–147

[10] Hemingway, Ernest, Hemingway on Hunting (New York, NY: Scribner Classics, 2001), p. 160.

[11] For a detailed study of the bear in the Pyrenees, see Chapter Three of Locker, Martin, The Tears of Pyrene (Andorra: Mons Culturae Press, 2019).

[12] Robb, Graham, The Discovery of France (London: Picador, 2007), p. 169.

[13] Casanova, Eugeni, L’Ós del Pirineu: Crònica d’un Extermini (Lleida: Pagès Editors, 2005), p.197. This book contains a wealth of statistics and interviews with hunters, and is recommended for an in-depth analysis of bear-hunting in the Pyrenees.

[14] Casanova, 2005, p.197.

About the Author

Posted by

Add a Response

Your name, email address, and comment are required. We will not publish your email.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

The following HTML tags can be used in the comment field: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <pre> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>

%d bloggers like this: