‘Not all traditions are good’: lethal accidents deepen French hunting divide

Anti-hunt activists say tragedies are too high a price to pay for one of France’s most popular activities

On a brisk morning at the Étang des Regains in Charny-Orée-de-Puisaye, shots ring out from the surrounding forest. It is hunting season and local hunt members are flushing out and tracking wild boar, deer and smaller game.

A few miles away from the northern Burgundy town, another hunt is out. The woods lining the departmental road off the A6 Autoroute de Soleil are peppered with hunters wearing fluorescent orange jackets and placards reading “Attention: chasse en cours” (Warning: hunt in progress).

Like the road signs warning of falling rocks, there is little passing hikers or motorists can do to avoid them. In October 2021, Joël Viard, 67, was killed when a hunter’s stray bullet hit him in the neck as he drove along a motorway from Rennes to Nantes. The hunter is under investigation for manslaughter.

Hunting is one of France’s most popular and divisive activities. Opponents say hunters behave as though the countryside belongs to them and allege that they have killed, injured and terrified locals with impunity. Hunters accuse critics of seeing rural France as a kind of Disneyland, where deer and wild boar roam free – damaging farmers’ crops and forests.

In recent years, the divide has widened and hardened: anti-hunt activists – not all of them bourgeois urbanites – reject the view that innocent victims such as Viard are an inevitable corollary of rural tradition. French hunters have dug in to defend the centuries-old pursuit, pointing out that most of those killed or injured are hunters.

The death of Morgan Keane two years ago brought everything to a head.

Keane, 25, was hit in the chest as he was cutting wood outside his home in a village north of Toulouse, when Julien Féral, a hunter, “believing he was shooting at a boar”, shot him from a distance of 75 metres (250ft) with a Remington pump-action rifle, a court has heard.

The tragedy of errors recounted during the shooter’s trial seemed to surprise even the presiding judge: a fatal conjunction of an inexperienced hunter wielding a powerful rifle; a hunt director incapable of saying if those present had paid attention to the safety rules; a young man shot in the chest on his own property.

Friends of Morgan Keane march in his memory
A friend holds a portrait of Keane during a march in his memory. Photograph: Valentine Chapuis/AFP/Getty Images

Even Willy Schraen, the outspoken president of the French hunters’ federation – who insists “zero risk” is impossible even for innocent bystanders in hunting – declared the incident “unacceptable”.

Féral, who does not deny firing the fatal shot, is on trial for manslaughter and a verdict in the case is due on 12 January.

For Keane’s close friends – Léa Jaillard, Mila Sanchez, Zoé Monchecourt and Audrey Tindilière – it is unthinkable that his death should be treated as inevitable collateral damage in a popular but minority pursuit.

Jaillard said: “Exactly how many deaths, injuries and people terrified are acceptable in the name of an unnecessary tradition?

“After Morgan died, I remember thinking back to things we’d endured as children in the countryside. If we went out for a walk, my parents told me to sing or shout so the hunters could hear. Of course, we were children, so it was a game. We would shout, ‘We are not wild boar’.”

The women set up the anti-hunt collective Un jour un chasseur (One Day One Hunter) and organised a petition calling for a ban on hunting on certain days, tighter security controls and tougher sentences for hunters who ignore the rules.

It gained enough signatures to force a Sénat commission to look into hunt safety, to which they gave evidence. The collective’s Facebook, Twitter and Instagram accounts encourage people to report incidents or confrontations with hunters. Critics have pointed out that many are anonymous and unverifiable, but the group’s interactive map gives details of hunting accidents reported in the press.

A hunter walks in the Pyrenees, France
A man walks in the Pyrenees during a deer hunt last month. Photograph: Lionel Bonaventure/AFP/Getty Images

Jaillard said: “Our campaign has opened the gate to allowing rural people, those most affected by hunting, to speak about how they really feel about it. They have spoken and they show a problem exists that cannot be ignored. We try to argue rationally with facts and figures, not feelings.”

Official figures show hunting accidents have dropped in the past 20 years. In 2020-21, there were 80, seven of which were fatal. Last year, there were 90 accidents, eight of them leading to deaths. About 150 people are injured in hunting accidents every year.

The French hunters’ federation is a powerful lobby group that has the ear of the president, Emmanuel Macron. The director general, Nicolas Rivet – a former French army officer – is in broad agreement with Schraen, only more diplomatic.

“Over the last 20 years, we have seen a reduction in the number of accidents, but zero accidents does not exist. The majority are caused by hunters not respecting the safety rules. Respecting the rules is imperative, but people make mistakes and we cannot be behind everyone,” he said.

“Not a weekend goes by [during hunting season] where we’re not worrying about getting a call about a tragedy. Happily, it doesn’t happen every weekend, but it is a constant preoccupation.”

Rivet said the federation had introduced measures to increase security, including requiring hunters to wear fluorescent orange vests and put up warning signs, and recalling hunters every 10 years to remind them of the rules.

“We are also working with local sports and leisure federations to find intelligent solutions about how we cohabit the countryside,” he said. “Banning hunting on certain days solves nothing. What those who say they want days without hunting really want is to ban hunting completely. It’s a dogmatic ideology.”

A demonstrator sets off a flare during a protest in defence of hunting in Forcalquier, France
A pro-hunting protester sets off a flare at a march in Forcalquier, France. Photograph: Clement Mahoudeau/AFP/Getty Images

Rivet was less diplomatic when asked about anti-hunt activists. “They think hunters are yokels and backward, and [that] because they kill animals, they don’t like nature. These people live in a Walt Disney world where the animal is nice and the hunter nasty,” he said.

Yves Verilhac of the French bird protection league said the league is not calling for hunting to be stopped, but has written to Macron to demand that it be banned two days a week.

“The LPO is not against hunting; it is against hunting as it is currently practised in France, and against the excesses and abuses, which are numerous,” he said.

“Hunting has changed over the last decades. Today, the arms used, rifles with a range of two to three kilometres, are far more dangerous. You take a bullet from one of them and you are dead.”

Though disappointed with the Sénat’s response to their petition, after the commission’s report dismissed many of the collective’s demands, Jaillard believes the political and public mood towards hunting in France is changing.

“Morgan’s death was just the start of our campaign. There were lots of articles in the media but we knew if we didn’t do something then, in a couple of weeks, a month, his death would be forgotten. And we knew the issue was bigger than that,” she said.

“Hunters say hunting is traditional but this argument is absurd: not all traditions are good. We’re not in the middle ages where people had to hunt to eat.”

Hunting’s deadly toll

In February, a hunter’s stray bullet killed Mélodie Cauffet, 25, who was walking with a friend on a forest path in Aveyron.

In October, a British woman, 67, died after her partner, a hunter, allegedly shot her during a wild boar hunt. He was alleged to have been carrying his gun over his shoulder when it went off while she was walking behind. Her death is being investigated.

In October 2018, a stray bullet hit and killed Mark Sutton, 34, a restaurant owner from Wales, while he was riding a mountain bike in Haute-Savoie.

In November 2019, Franck Jarry, 77, was shot in the back and killed while picking mushrooms in Charente-Maritime.

Two years earlier, a 69-year-old woman was killed when a hunter shot through her garden hedge while on a wild boar hunt. The hunter was given a 12-month suspended sentence and banned from hunting for 10 years.


Kim Willsher in Charny-Orée-de-Puisaye

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