Located at the borders of the Aude and the Eastern Pyrenees, a state-owned forest known as the Fanges, is a center of French history. For nearly three decades, the Aude Hunters Federation has written its own kind of history, of the natural sort.
The sun had just gently disappeared behind the Pyrenean foothills. A red kite overhead utilized a column of hot air to gain altitude and continue his journey that brought him back to Europe from Africa. Meanwhile, we took off our jackets and appreciated the mildness reigning over the terrace of the Chaumière, our accommodation for the next three nights.
The last time we visited this region dated back to December, when we had improvised a day-trip stalk in the state-owned Fanges, that was currently located a dozen kilometers away. The hunt had been improvised, since things were organized last minute, following a chance encounter with Marion Najac, the young woman responsible for the hunting-tourism program at the Aude Hunters Federation. It was time to get a taste of this exemplary territory, a government-owned land managed by the central hunting department since 1992. Since then, it has transformed into a true educational showcase for the hunters of France, and other countries. On our first trip we only had time for a brief sample of what we could expect on our stalks, but it was enough to catch the hunting bug for this royal territory. Indeed, it is royal in all sense of the word.
Yes, royal. Under the reign of Louis XIV, the boles of black pine were exploited (they made up 85% of the mountain range) and destined to the fabrication of masts for sailboats of the king’s navy. Nothing remains of this era, other than perfectly conserved boundary stones, dispersed on the border between the state-owned and surrounding communal hunting areas.
The quality of hunting offered to those who come to rub shoulders with wild boar and roe deer, the sole two ungulates found in this area, is as equally grande and royal as the territory’s history. We even found a few isards, descended from the foothills of the Pyrenees in search of unequalled solitude. Essentially, the Fanges forest is managed according to a master plan that allows both the blossoming of flora, and the flourishing of fauna. In 1992, when the federation became the new manager of this forest, they found the roe deer population exterminated, and the wild boar population hardly in a better state of conservation. For five seasons straight, not a single shot was fired. Thereafter, hunters made their comeback under the coniferous foliage.
From 1997 to 2000, some rare driven hunts allowed the harvest of a select few of the forest’s new inhabitants, all done in a very parsimonious manner. From 2000 onwards, individual hunts made their grand debut in this region. This debut left most of the local hunters quite perplexed, as they were only used to driven hunts with dogs.
Nowadays, the two hunting methods cohabit in a perfect symbiosis, with solo hunting times organized between the beginning of June until the end of February, and a good dozen small driven wintertime hunts (hosting a maximum of 35 guns). Stalking and hunting from a blind only occurs on Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays. There is a limit on roe deer of two animals per hunt. On the contrary, the resident black beasts, who boast high numbers, do not get to enjoy this much goodwill!
Now, let us return to our hunt. The morning of our arrival, we met with Eric Comte. He would be our allocated hunting guide, and he was set on not drawing a blank again. The speed with which he conquered the tight bends of the small road that brought us to the Fanges, left no room to doubt his motivation. This time we arranged to have two days and luckily already had a certain knowledge of the area. Leaving the vehicles, the sun’s first rays were already caressing the tops of the giant pine trees. We formed two teams to maximize our chances of an encounter.
Off of the main tracks, skidding paths offered an absolutely silent support, and we quickly found a vast clearing in which our binoculars could scrutinize a surface area of around two hectares that wasn’t yet completely overgrown with boxwood trees. Essentially, this plant is omnipresent in the Fanges’ undergrowth, and its persistent foliage is a true godsend for the roe deer and wild boar who use this thick shelter as cover.
The silence of the dawn was scarcely interrupted by a few coal tits whose verses dispersed through the atmosphere. We stared, fixated on the horizon and the snow cloaked summits above it, from which the kingdom of Spain spans out. A few hundred yards further along, Eric came to a halt. A superb six point was warming his winter robe in the sun’s rays. We decided to spare him, since he would bring happiness to a hunter in the summertime once the antlers will be cleaned. After the animal left the area, all the while greeting us with a salvo of hoarse barks, we turned our heads to the left and noticed the great blue of the Mediterranean Sea off in the distance. Did someone mention royal?
In three hours of marching at the speed of a gastropod, we often stumbled onto roe deer, but never even had the time to place the rifle on the shooting sticks! To his fortune, Lilian had better chances, unlike a certain roe doe. She had dared to take an extra half a second to admire the profile of her pursuer! The .270 Win barked. Relieved by this great start, Eric arranged a time and place to meet in the late afternoon for an evening outing, but that would turn out to be nothing but bucolic.
The next morning we discovered a sector that had been unknown until that point. Whether it’s in the trees or on the ground, the Fanges’ biotope is marked by the omnipresence of mosses and lichens that give it a magical or at least unrealistic aspect. It also comes with an advantage for stalking, as travel is absolutely silent. As we crossed a valley bottom marked by tracks left after last night’s rain, a roe deer busted us yet again, but this time left without making a peep.
Like Eric, we knew that this behaviour generally points to the presence of wild boar, so we heightened our attention. Our feet sunk deep into the water filled peat, and each step required an enormous effort. We were obliged to retreat to the side hills bordering the valley to find a more load-bearing ground. Our eyes passed each box tree like a fine-tooth comb, as a light breeze currently ruffled the vegetation, bringing it to life. All our senses were on high alert, one hand settled on the rifle, the other on the binoculars. Poised like this, we advanced towards an area scattered with small heaps of stone. This geologic formation is particular to the limestone subsoil we were moving over, just like the innumerable chasms, caves, and cliffs that we saw everywhere in the forest.
Favoured by a spinning whirlwind, our nostrils detected the unique smell of wild boar. Eric, who was walking two meters in front of us, had not benefited from this ephemeral air currant and was surprised to see us stop. When we got into shooting position on the sticks as he traced back to us, he understood that a shot was imminent and lowered himself to the ground. The new smell of the wild boar was now imperceptible, so we questioned whether we really should remain planted on the shooting sticks. Suddenly, a light crack, at most twenty meters in front of us, broke the forest’s silence.
No more than ten-seconds rolled by before a mass of black fur appeared in a basin forty meters below us. Thumb engaging the manual cocking lever of the Helix, the boar passed directly into the scope’s field of view, whose magnification had been turned down to the minimum ever since the beginning of the stalk. Before us was a sow, and though we were authorized to shoot one, the index finger remained horizontal. However, a second wild boar followed the lead beast. This time the game was running at a high speed, and the rifle left the shooting sticks to be shouldered without additional support. The illuminated reticle hovered over the snout of what would also prove to be a sow. The projectile flew and grounded the beast even before a second round could be chambered.
Now “all” that remained was to transport the forty-some kilogram wild boar back to the vehicles, across the Fanges forest that is known for making the lives of amateur stalking hunters quite difficult. However, this is without a doubt the reason why it is the cream of France’s hunting territories. Most definitely a fleur-de-lys!
Philippe Jaeger is originally from Alsace and in his youth he was opposed to hunting. He changed his opinion when he met people who explained to him that the foolish behaviour of some hunters had nothing to do with real hunting. Philippe got his hunting licence and bought a hunting dog, which he trained himself. Today he can’t imagine his life without hunting. He is now 46 years old and has a son, and, when he is not travelling around the world to go hunting, he enjoys his family life in the Vosges Mountains.