Ageing French hunters target young blood
Jouy-Sous-Thelle -- Thirty-year-old Simon Mueller stands with a shotgun slung over his shoulder and a brace of dead partridges at his feet. France desperately needs more youngsters like him to keep the multi-billion-euro hunting sector alive, say bloodsport authorities.
The sport has more than a million participants here, making it by far the largest hunting population in Europe.
Shooters can take aim at everything from wild boar in the deep forests around Paris, to deer and woodcock on the Mediterranean island of Corsica, to chamois goats and mouflon sheep high in the Alps.
In neighbouring Britain hunting is seen as a largely upper-class pastime. But in France it is a far more democratic hobby — largely thanks to the 1789 French revolution that did away with aristocratic privileges — practised by top executives and factory workers alike.
But with the average hunter age at 54, the industry believes it needs to take rapid action to avoid decline and has launched a recruitment campaign to accompany the opening late last month of the main hunting season.
Mueller, a farmer, thinks young people are turned off by a pastime they see as "wicked men shooting poor innocent animals."
He regrets that most do not understand that, apart from being a convivial activity that provides lots of fun, hunting also protects nature.
"Hunting is about respect for others, respect for the animal, respect for the environment," said Mueller in between taking potshots at birds in a beetroot field at Four a Chaux estate near Jouy-sous-Thelle, north of Paris.
That is the message France’s national hunting federation is trying to get across in the poster, advertising and car sticker campaign it has launched in villages and towns across the country.
"We want fewer grey heads and more young blood," said Guy Harle d’Ophove, president of the hunting federation in the Oise department, or administrative district, that borders the Paris region.
The white-haired president noted that overall hunter numbers have dropped from 2.2 million in 1974 to 1.4 million today, and of that number just 100,000 are under 25 years old.
The problem, he said, is that too many French see hunters as people "who kill Bambi and Bambi’s mother," a reference to a Walt Disney film where loveable deer get shot by bloodthirsty humans.
That is indeed the message of animal rights groups like the foundation set up by the French film legend Brigitte Bardot, which describes hunting as "ransacking and murder" and says it is a pastime with no future.
"Some hunting federations are engaged in reckless lobbying, scandalous proselytism in schools, but with little success because hunting is an outmoded practice," a foundation spokesman told AFP.
Animal rights activists describe hunting, like bull-fighting, as the torture and killing of animals for entertainment.
The anti-hunting movement, which is far less vociferous here than in Britain or the United States, holds regular protests and in particular takes aim at the "chasse a courre," or hunting with hounds, which is banned in several European countries.
Many animal lovers are horrified by the spectacle of a crowd of hunters following a pack of baying dogs that pursue, sometimes for hours, terrified deer or boar before going in for the bloody kill.
The problem, said Harle d’Ophove, is that France has gone from a rural to an urban society that has lost touch with the countryside and forgotten that nature is red in tooth and claw.
"If you want an animal to remain wild you have to hunt it. If you don’t hunt it will lose all the things that make us admire wild animals — cunning, speed, strength. Otherwise they end up like sheep."
Hunters were ecologists long before the environment became fashionable, he said, noting that hunting federations finance and maintain nature reserves across the country in order to maintain the habitat necessary for their prey.
Some species can also start being a serious threat to crops if their numbers are not kept down, said Harle d’Ophove.
"That’s true for boars," said Christophe Aubel of the Roc League for the Protection of Wild Animals.
"But one reason the population needs to be controlled is because hunters feed boars in winter to keep up the population and thereby contribute to the explosion of the population," he said.
Harle d’Ophove is confident that the bid to attract youth will work.
"The campaign we are launching is aimed at putting hunting back in the heart of civilisation," he declared.
Politics is a large part of that campaign.
A candidate from the Hunting, Fishing, Nature, Traditions (CPNT) stood against Nicolas Sarkozy in the 2007 presidential election. He got only 1.15 percent of the vote, but Sarkozy knows those 420,000 votes will be useful if and when he runs again for the presidency.
"When I phone politicians they always gets back to me," said Harle d’Ophove.
He argues that there is also a major economic reason to encourage more young people to take up bloodsports, noting that the sector is worth an annual 2.4 billion euros (3.6 billion dollars) and employs 23,000 people.