‘We are treated like assassins’: Could hunters in France face alcohol ban?

Senior French politicians have heeded the call of a 120,000-signature petition and recommended banning alcohol during hunts.

'We are treated like assassins': Could hunters in France face alcohol ban?
(Photo: Guillaume Souvant / AFP)

Prohibiting “hunting while intoxicated or after narcotics” is one of 30 proposals “for greater security in hunting” put forward in the report published by senators as the new hunting season gets under way, and at the end of more than 100 hearings and months of investigations following the death in December 2020 of Morgan Keane in the Auvergne. He was shot while cutting wood in his garden.

It suggests “aligning the blood alcohol level, the prohibition of narcotics as well as their respective sanctions with the rules in force in terms of the highway code”. 

Currently, there is no limit on drinking before and during hunting, but alcohol is considered an aggravating factor in the event of prosecution after an accident.

READ ALSO Everything you need to know about France’s hunting season

Hunting groups have reacted angrily to the proposed alcohol ban, claiming that 91 percent of alcohol screening tests following a hunting incident come back negative.

Local groups are raising awareness among their members. In Gard, hunting rules indicate that: “The practice of hunting is forbidden under the influence of narcotics or alcohol and to be in a state of inebriation.”

But Willy Schraen, president of the National Federation of Hunters, brushed aside the problem: “What right do you have to reserve [these rules] for hunters, a drunk guy on a bike is dangerous too.”

Antoine Herrmann, director of the federation of Rhône hunters, criticised what he classified as a ‘stigmatisation’ of hunters.

“We are being passed off as assassins,” Alain Messal, a hunter from Haute-Garonne, told BFMTV. “We are being caricatured on things that are unfounded – today, hunters are not alcoholics.”

Senator Patrick Chaize, one of the authors of the report, however, said that: “the situation must be clarified” because “alcohol is not prohibited when hunting”. 

“The objective is therefore to correct this situation,” and to allow routine blood alcohol checks on hunters which could be carried out by forestry officials.

The petition had also called for hunting to be banned across the country on Wednesdays and Sundays during the hunting season – but this was rejected in the senators’ report, saying that studies had not backed up petitioners’ claims that incidents involving people not taking part in hunts rose on those days.

“According to the latest report of the Institut national de veille sanitaire (INVS) from January 2020, hunting represents 4 percent of traumatic accidents related to sport, 10 times less than mountain sports,” the report said.

READ ALSO How to get through France’s hunting season ‘without being shot’

“On the road, collisions with wild animals cause more victims than hunting. 

“The share of alcohol-related accidents is also lower in hunting (nine percent) than on the road (13-28 percent depending on the circumstances). Nevertheless, each accident is one too many and hunting accidents have two specificities: the use of firearms and the fact that 12% of victims are non-hunters.”

READ ALSO ‘It’s like the Wild West’: Tales of life in rural France during the hunting season

In the 2021-22 hunting season, the Office français de biodiversité recorded a total of 90 hunting accidents in which people were injured as a result of a hunting weapon being discharged, including eight fatalities.

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‘My partner was killed by a French hunter who mistook him for a wild boar’

As France once again introduces new rules on hunting safety - including €1,500 fines for drunk hunters - we look at the issue of fatal and near-fatal accidents caused by 'la chasse', and speak to one woman who lost her partner to a French hunter's bullet.

'My partner was killed by a French hunter who mistook him for a wild boar'

Hunting is a perennially controversial issue in France due to the high number of accidents caused by hunters who do not respect safety rules. 

Over the past 20 years more than 100 people have been killed by hunters – the majority of the casualties are hunters themselves but other victims have included cyclists, hikers, dog-walkers and people outside in their own gardens. 

One of these victims was Susannah Hickling’s French partner Richard – who was shot by a hunter who mistook him for a wild boar in the Var département where the couple lived.

Susannah, a Brit who had moved to France the previous year, was left alone with the couple’s new baby.

Susannah and Richard. Photo: Sausannah Hickling

She said: “We lived in a really rural area of the Var département, in the south of France, and my partner had a business gathering and selling foliage to florists.

“He was out collecting one day in a forest about 50km from our home, with his father and his sister, when he was shot by a hunter.

“The man heard a noise and just fired blankly into the foliage, thinking it was a wild boar. The bullet hit my partner in both legs, it severed his femoral artery and he bled to death very quickly, before the emergency services could get there.

“At the time I was in Marseille because our son had been born prematurely and was in intensive care. The baby was improving and I was thinking it would soon be time to take him home and we would be a family.

“Instead I was alone with my newborn baby and the dog.”

You can hear the team at The Local discussing issues around hunting in the latest episode of the Talking France podcast. Download here or listen on the link below

Rules around hunting have been tightened up and several new laws introduced since Richard lost his life in 2003, but in his case the hunter was prosecuted for manslaughter – he had been hunting out of season, had fired blindly at vegetation without identifying a target and had switched ammunition from birdshot to bullets. 

Susannah said: “He was sentenced to 24 months in prison, of which 21 months were suspended. So he served three months in jail and lost his hunting licence.”

Although tragedies like this are thankfully rare, many inhabitants of rural France describe altering their daily behaviour during hunting season or feeling afraid when they know there are hunters in the area.

Julia Kornig who spent her childhood in Vaucluse, told The Local: “I grew up learning how not to go outdoors during hunting season, making sure to wear brightly coloured clothes and pretty much being terrified of getting shot during those times because it’s something that sadly happens very regularly.”

Kene Ovenshire, a veteran of the US Airforce, who now lives in Landes, told The Local: “My experience here in south west France during hunting season is that this is more of the Wild West than anywhere I’ve ever lived or visited in the US.

“I have a small 11 hectare farm, my home sits right in the middle of my property. My wife and I have eight horses and we enjoy riding on the paths that surround our home.

“But during hunting season we do not ever go out for walks, hikes, or bike rides. The hunters in our area are constantly coming within more than 150 meters of our home, on our property, and cracking off shots at the game they are hunting – pigeons, wild boar, deer, whatever.”

Claire Younghusband who lives in an old farmhouse on the border of the Lot and the Dordogne said: “Just about every weekend and some weekdays from September to February there are convoys of 4x4s and mini vans tearing up and down our lane and through our small commune where there is very poor visibility and dangerous corners.  

“We dare not enter our own woodland at this time of year and are increasingly concerned about being in the garden when we can hear the dogs,” she added.

And this is an experience that Susannah can relate to. She said: “Before this I had been aware of hunters in the area – during the hunting season I wouldn’t let the dog out, and if I heard them shooting nearby I would take the car down to the village instead of walking.”

But her biggest exposure to hunting was through her partner himself and his family.

“My partner was a hunter and his whole family were too – his grandfather was head of the local hunting group, and would tell everyone how he had been in the Resistance during the war and kept everyone fed on wild boar that he had shot.

“Hunting is very much part of the rural community – certainly in that area anyway – and many of the hunters were proud of how they conserved the land, cleared brush and took part in forest fire prevention work.

“My partner was always very hot on gun safety and hunting within the rules – so it was a tragic irony that he was shot by someone who was hunting alone and was breaking most of the normal hunting safety rules.

“My partner’s family were destroyed with grief at what had happened, and they were very angry about that three-month sentence, but they didn’t see it as a reason to stop hunting. They viewed it as one guy who was breaking all of the rules that good hunters should abide by.”

Since 2003 there have been several new codes introduced to try and make hunting safer – the most recent is the creation of a 14-point plan that includes the introduction of fines of €1,500 for hunters found drunk in possession of a gun or bow, rising to €3,000 for repeat offenders.

The code also includes some changes to the way that hunters get gun licences, but stops short of calls made during the 2022 election campaign for hunting to be banned at weekends – when hikers and cyclists are most likely to be out and about in rural areas.

And the gradual tightening of the rules is having an effect, with a steady decrease in the number of fatal accidents – in 2022 there were eight fatal accidents, all of which involved hunters themselves.

The Office français de la biodiversité, which tracks hunting accidents, recorded 44 fatal accidents in 1998, 19 in 2010 and 11 in 2018.

Susannah said: “I would not agree with banning hunting, I think it’s part of the rural community and it’s an important social activity for many people.

“But also there need to be rules and they need to be enforced – just as we don’t allow people to drink and drive we shouldn’t allow people to be drunk with a gun – so I definitely think a greater emphasis on safety is a good thing.”

Ultimately, Susannah ended up moving back to the UK with her young son, but still visits France regularly to spend time with her partner’s family and still harbours great affection for the country. Her son, now at university, is studying French.