On a recent morning a group of more than 40 hunters gathered in the woods outside the tiny French village of Kraft, along the Rhine River. They’d come for a weekly group hunt, or battue.
The battue uses an ancient technique. First, several trackers fan out through the woods, screaming and whistling to flush out the hiding boar. They drive them toward hunters, waiting in a line at a designated location. Nearly as soon as the trackers begin their noisy work, boar are everywhere.
About 30 feet in front of a reporter a huge male leapt up from behind a fallen tree and charged past, doing about 25 miles an hour. One tracker put it at about five feet in length and weighing over 200 pounds.
Soon the trackers were nearing the hunters’ position, and the gunshots began. One boar stumbled into the rifle sights of an elderly retiree named Christian Brand. Despite his age, Brand brought the 50-pounder down with one shot.
WARNING: This video contains graphic imagery
Brand, a former cardiologist, is typical of French hunters today. He wouldn’t give his age. But he was most certainly a senior citizen. He said French hunters are growing old like him, and few are coming to take their place.
“Younger men or women do not want to hunt because it takes a lot of time,” Brand said. “It’s an outdoor thing. It’s also expensive to hunt. When you have less money you have less money to hunt.”
This is a problem, because France’s boar population is soaring. 10 years ago the government says there were five hundred thousand. Today there are a million. And they’re causing all kinds of damage.
Wandering boar cause thousands of car accidents a year, along rural roads like this one south of Strasbourg. Farmland lines both sides of this road. Ruined farmland, says Pascale Perrotey-Doridant.
Perrotey-Doridant is a hunter himself. But his day job is assessing the damage boars cause to farms. He points to the nearby field. It’s filled with holes and divots.
“That’s typical,” he says. “The boar came to this field to look for worms. They dug up all the grass.”
Cows can no longer graze here, he says, and to plant the owner would have to re-till the land — with no guarantee that the boar won’t return. Perrotey-Doridant says France paid out about 45 million dollars in compensation to farmers last year, and the amount keeps going up.
It’s actually the hunters who pay. Nearly a century ago, they made a deal with farmers. To get the farmers to stop competing with them as hunters, the hunters agreed to pay the damages the boar cause to crops.
But now France is desperate to find some way to train up a new generation of hunters.
The effort starts in Geudertheim, south of Strasbourg, at a one of a kind shooting range for hunters. Here, instead of aiming at your typical paper targets, would-be hunters fire live rounds at huge, projected cartoon animals.
For older kids, there are videos of real boar moving in the wild. In one, for example, three large shaggy males hurry through a snowy wood.
The man behind this shooting range, or Cyne t’ir, is Gerard Lang. He’s also the president of the local hunting federation. Lang says French kids today can name all the animals on the African plain, but know nothing about animals at home.
He says this shooting hall has hosted a thousand kids in its first year.
“When kids leave here,” he says, “they are no longer against the hunt. We can’t hope to make new hunters out of all of them, but at least they aren’t anti-hunting.”
Lang says that something, given the boar explosion.
Their numbers have grown so quickly of late for many reasons. One is corn. French farmers have been planting it more and more to sell for biofuel, says Pascale Perrotey Doridant. In his Strasbourg office he shows a map of the Lower Rhine department. He says, thirty years ago there were 20 thousand acres of planted corn in the Lower Rhine, and hunters hunted about a thousand boars a year.
“Today,” he says, “cornfields cover 200 thousand acres. And we’re killing 20 thousand boars annually. One trend has followed the other.”
Boars love corn. And they figured out how best to eat it.
They’ve learned not to feed at the perimeter of a field, where farmers can see the damage. Instead, the boar sneak into the center, where they can feast unseen for weeks before anyone figures out they’re there. Scientists say the abundance of such crops let the boar breed more often, and have bigger litters.
And now the problem gets even more complicated. It turns out that the hunters, the ones trying so hard to control the boar populations, are not always trying that hard.
Back at the battue, a 49 year old hunter named Marine waits on the edge of a clearing for her chance at a boar. She explains that the hunters actually feed the boar, right here in the forest.
And their preferred choice of feed is corn.
“There’s no small game left around here,” she says. “No more hares, no more pheasant. And the hunters want game. If we didn’t provide the boar with nourishment they wouldn’t develop so fast.
And they’d dash straight for the farms, cause even more damage, and increase costs for the hunters. So it’s all about finding the right balance … between the boar, the hunters’ way of life and farming. And this is a moving target. For France to keep the balance right, it needs to gain new hunters before the old ones are gone.