La chasse: How France plans to make hunting safer

After ongoing controversy about the high number of fatal accidents, the French government is putting together a plan to tighten up safety rules. A ban, however, appears to be off the table.

La chasse: How France plans to make hunting safer
(Photo by Valentine CHAPUIS / AFP)

Hunting laws in France could be about to change, as the country’s State Secretary for Ecology studies a number of options – but a ban on Sunday afternoon hunting does not appear to be up for consideration.

Bérangère Couillard, known as the government’s “Madame Chasse”, will follow officers of the Office français de la biodiversité (OFB) as they monitor a number of hunts in the Marne department on Tuesday, and will also attend a training course for people interested in obtaining a hunting licence, as she ponders tightening rules to reduce the number of hunting accidents.

Hunting – la chasse in French – generally refers to shooting and has long been a source of complaint because of the safety risks to the general public during the season. Although, overall, what are commonly referred in the French press to as hunting accidents are down, two recent incidents hit the headlines.

Earlier this month, a British woman died after being shot by her partner during a wild boar hunt, in what a prosecutor described as a “dramatic accident”. A week previously, a 33-year-old mother and her two children were shot by a hunter who said he was “blinded by the sun”.

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

Couillard is expected to set new rules in place around Christmas. Le Parisien reports that she is considering formally tightening rules around alcohol consumption, using drink-drive rules as a reference, with hunts on both public and private lands set to be subject to the new rules.

Discussions are currently taking place with the Ministry of Justice to determine details of the measure and the level of penalties. The OFB, and possibly the gendarmerie, would be responsible for issuing fines.

In September, a Senate report had recommended banning alcohol altogether.

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

The Fédération nationale des chasseurs (FNC) has also been consulted. In something of a turnaround in attitude, a spokesman said that the FNC said, “we are open to all scenarios”. 

Other rules in Couillard sights include those on the use of guns in hunts involving the driving of animals towards hunters by beaters, in which the most serious incidents occur.

The government is reportedly considering rolling out a 30-degree range-of-fire rule that is already applied in some places. 

Other suggestions being considered include improving first aid training and improving signage in hunt areas.

But a ban on Sunday afternoon hunting – popular with ecologist MPs – appears to have been cast into the long grass following protests from hunting groups, notably the FNC, which has strong political connections.

These developments come at a time when the Conseil d’Etat suspended bird-hunting authorisations using traditional methods for catching larks using cages or nets in the country’s south-west.

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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.