Usually I look forward to a decent full-day hike at the weekends, exploring the peaks and forests of the mountains we’re lucky enough to live in. Enjoying stunning views, taking the mountain air and a cheeky lunch break at a little restaurant with good friends – what’s not to love? There are dangers of course. Trips and falls, being caught in bad weather, getting shot. Wait, getting shot?
British hikers will not appreciate this particular risk – the chances of coming across a gunman lurking in the bushes in Derbyshire are remote. Even if you were to happen upon a murderous fugitive like Raoul Moat you’d have been placed on alert by the presence of Gazza shouting about chicken and lager, so you’d be extremely unlucky to actually be killed. In fact, in Britain the number of hikers shot every year is roughly…zero. That’s as it should be – hiking and dog walking are not extreme sports or military exercises.
Unfortunately in France, every Autumn, your weekend constitutional becomes a matter of life and death because hunting season begins. From this Sunday, I will have to check any route we’re planning against a list of zones where groups of often-drunk, trigger-happy men with rifles lie in wait. Even so, you can never be sure exactly where the hunters are going to stray, and how far they’re shooting. All Autumn I must walk along wearing luminous vests, singing at the top of my voice, arms waving, to try to stop myself being mistaken for a small deer at a distance. It’s like the Sound of Music but less Julie Andrews, more Dick Van Dyke. Coincidentally I seem to struggle for walking partners in the Autumn…
Although it sounds amusing, it’s actually a very serious problem. A shocking 20 people are killed and 300 injured each hunting season – many of them innocent passersby just out for a stroll. As reported in newspaper The Local:
In September 2013, an 82-year-old hunter shot two walkers after mistaking them for pheasants and in October 2013 a man killed his son by mistake after thinking he was a boar. On that same weekend a six-year-old boy was killed in a freak accident when a dog knocked over a loaded gun that set off the trigger. In December 2012 a boy was lift fighting for his life after being shot in the head while hunting with his uncle and in December 2013 a teenager accidentally killed his father on a hunting trip. Perhaps the most bizarre incident in recent years was when a French motorist was killed after a bullet fired by a hunter ricocheted off a wild boar, before travelling almost 2 km across fields, through the driver’s window and eventually striking the driver in the head.
The tragedy that really brought it home for me was when in 2015 a man out for a jog with his wife in the French Alps was shot in the head and killed. Apparently his killer mistook him for a boar. The hunters are supposed to put up signs when they’re out roaming with rifles – on that day they didn’t, plus the couple passed a hunter on the track who failed to warn them. Even if there had been signs, it’s easy to take a short cut and miss them. On our walks last Autumn we regularly saw hunters or, more disconcertingly, heard gunshots nearby, turning our leisurely stroll into a high-alert, heart-hammering, survival march. Yes, the views are to die for here – but not literally.
The hunters are known for drinking at lunch time (the French national sport), and swaying round forests shooting at anything that moves the rest of the day. There is a campaign to ban drink-hunting, but currently the police don’t have powers to carry out alcohol tests on hunters – basically making it legal to hunt and drink. Plus a disproportionate number of hunters are elderly and no checks are done on eye-sight, health or signs of dementia. Give a tipsy, half-blind 80-year-old on day release from the nursing home a gun and you’ve got trouble.
So why is this dangerous, pointless and irresponsible hobby allowed? Deer and boar populations may need controlling, but surely there’s a way to do that that doesn’t involve killing people too? Like in America, the gun lobby here is a powerful beast and the government doesn’t seem to dare ruffle its feathers. Over a million hunting licenses are given out each year for the 5-month season. At least in England we finally managed to put a stop to hunting – and there the most dangerous weapon they were allowed was a loud horn.
There have been some small steps to prevent more deaths. In the Haute Savoie hunting is not allowed on Wednesdays and Fridays, and now – after a long campaign – Sundays. So for almost half the week we can walk without fear of imminent death, hurrah. And now we don’t need to worry about finding the info on hunting zones because, as with most things, we have an app for it!
Strangely, I’ll pack my bag for a hike on Sunday much like one I’d pack for a 90s rave – fluorescent clothing, ghetto blaster and whistle.
Unfortunately, in Autumn ‘the hills are alive’ but with the sound of gun shots rather than music.