The Chateau de Cheverny, one of the most beautiful and best preserved in the Loire Valley, is home to a large pack of dogs still used for “riding to hounds.” This was the sport of kings, all over Europe, for centuries. In the past, it consisted of chasing a hapless animal–fox, deer or boar–across open countryside. Riders on horseback follow a pack of baying hounds, jumping fences and ditches. People who subscribe to the hunt say that the baying of the hounds is like beautiful music. There are no firearms. Sometimes the prey gets away. But in the past, if caught, the animal suffered a gruesome death, either torn to pieces by the pack or cornered and speared. I didn’t see any information at the castle about how hunting is actually done, but I’ve been told that it is much more humane these days and follows local regulations.
The British used this kind of hunting to control the fox population until it was banned in 2004. Not only did modern sensibilities find it cruel, but property owners complained of serious damage to their fields. The Chateau has its own large estate, and I’m sure that like many estates, there is a gamekeeper overseeing the wildlife.
One of the main attractions at Cheverny is the daily feeding of the hounds. The dogs are a combination of English foxhound and French Poitou. Their dinner, “la soupe des chiens,” always attracts a crowd. The hungry hounds mill around in their kennel, baying and yelping, when they know it’s almost time. Their lab-coated trainer hauls in big troughs of raw meat, topped with kibble, and places it all on the floor, which has been hosed down beforehand. The trainer lets the dogs into the feeding area, barking and jockeying for position–but they have to wait! They are perfectly trained. They stand inches away from the food, until they get the signal to eat. Then they leap forward, crowding and snapping, and devour it all within a few minutes. This kind of strict training must be essential for hunting, which I understand they do twice a week. Clearly these hounds live to hunt. I can imagine their joy when they’re set loose in the woods.
These dogs are clearly valuable and well cared for. But seeing how they have to fight for their food, I have to wonder what becomes of them when they’re too old to fight or to run for miles with the pack. Is there a retirement program for them? Many people adopt greyhounds too old to race. Do these dogs have the same possibility?
Join me next time for more explorations in the art and history of Europe!