After a fascinating tour of the First World War Battlefields of Northern France with my eldest son, we decided that we should take up a most generous invitation from our long standing friends Didier and Jeanne Varenne of the Equipage de Rivecourt. These are a pack of Staghounds which are climbing to the very top of the Premiership of French Staghunting and are well worth a visit by anyone interested in this most fascinating of sports.
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Many of us who are or have been at the sharp end of the business, despair when we read some of the emotional articles that have been written about the hunting of either the fox, stag or hare. So to spend an evening discussing the real detail of Staghunting in France was a fascination and a privilege to say the least. What came out clearer than anything, was not only the absolute dedication and respect that this most enthusiastic French Huntsman has for his hounds but most importantly for the deer that he is hunting. This dedication and respect was not confined just to Didier, it was there in each and every member of the family and later the following day as I was to witness, with those who work for him. Foxes masks, stags heads and roe deer antlers adorned the walls of the Chateau but this was not the home of a ruthless killer of wildlife. It was the home of someone with an in depth knowledge of how hunting and the ecology of the deer come together to ensure the best not only for its survival but for the species to flourish for many years to come.
To hear a pack of hounds singing in their kennels just outside our bedroom window on a very snowy Saturday morning was an absolute delight and certainly was reminiscent of my childhood at Brent Pelham, with the Puckeridge Hounds being virtually on the doorstep. It was not long before a pack of at least thirty couple of mainly English Hounds were turned out in their grass yard, which just happened to be the front garden of the Chateau! A close inspection of them showed me some of the best pure English blood from the Hurworth as well as hounds going back in their breeding to the Devon and Somerset and Quantock Staghounds, the Old Surrey and Burstow Foxhounds and the Weston and Banwell Harriers. It was from the connection with the Weston and Banwell Harriers that I realised I would be hunting that day with the offspring of Eggesford Wagstaff whose breeding was brought to the Grove and Rufford just before my time, by Paul Larby on his move from the Eggesford.
The Meet on this occassion had to be delayed until 12noon due heavy overnight snow. As a result sadly no harbouring had been possible, so it was decided to take the young hounds and give them some education. It was not only they that were to learn a lot that day, us two English foxhunters certainly returned home having widened our knowledge considerably.
As well as being able to rent the extensive Foret de Laigue near Compienne from the Government, the Equipage de Rivecourt are extremely fortunate to have the use of a small lodge and kennels in the centre of the Forest. This is where they normally kennel the hounds the night before hunting and was very much the plan on this occasion. They had been taken over during the afternoon before but sadly the added snow that arrived on the Friday evening scuppered arrangements. After a few hasty phone calls early on the Saturday morning the original hounds were returned to the kennels and a small pack, made up of seven couple of young ones were put together in order to start the proceedings at noon back at the Lodge. Another pack of eleven couple of older hounds was formed in order to replace their younger colleagues when it was deemed they had learnt enough for that particular day. The lengths our hosts went to so that a day’s hunting in these extreme conditions could go ahead were hugely appreciated by both my son and I.
After the Trompes, (French hunting horns) played the Hunt Fanfare Les Echos de Mareuil, Didier took his hounds round the back of the lodge and into the large expanse of forestry. It wasn’t long before a young stag was found but scent was not at its best and although hounds kept hard at work the heavy snow fall was making life far from easy for them. However persevere they did and after a while a much older stag took over the running. It was at this point the young hounds were stopped and taken home whilst their older colleagues stood in and for the next two and a half hours they never stopped trying. At one point about twenty fresh deer got up, mainly hinds I believe, but the old stagers sorted themselves out and managed, after a considerable time, to relocate their Stag who had decided to lie up in some thick brambles. Sadly scent did not improve and they just could not put enough pressure on to pull off a great afternoon hunt. With a main road now fairly close by and the light beginning to fade Didier wisely decided to call it a day and give their stag best. As hounds came to him out of the Forest it was fascinating to watch them responding to calls from both the Trompe and the English hunting horn. It is at this point that we in Britain and many other parts of the World would use our voices to call hounds up, so to witness this happening the French way, with only horns was highly absorbing . Although Didier carries his battered old Trompe, he always hunts hounds with an English hunting horn, whilst his Whippers use their traditional Trompe. The sound of these, echoing round the Forest and the sight of hounds coming to them, will last long in both our memories of this particularly special day, hunting the stag in Northern France.
Before going out to dinner with a delightful group of subscribers that evening we had time to talk over the day’s events and how it had unfolded. There is one thing that came out of the conversation which stands out a mile and that is, this is a huntsman who has not only learnt his craft but has developed the skills required to make a real success of it. Didier’s year round study of the deer, his hounds and the forest are vital in his role. He has an absolute respect for wildlife and its habitat and how they and his hounds come together in such a remarkable and natural way. He is not in the slightest bit interested in killing large numbers of deer for financial gain. He, like many of his predecessors knows how Staghunting fits into the everyday life of the Forest and that when the end comes to an animal, as inevitably it will, it must be a swift one, with the very least amount of suffering to the selected beast.
I could not recommend a day with Didier and the Equipage de Rivecourt more. It was one of life’s greatest pleasures and to be very much part of the day’s proceedings, made it all extra special.
2nd Feb 2013