“It was asserted by King Charles IX of France, in his book, La Chasse Royale, that all breeds of French hounds descended from one or other of what he described as the Royal Races, four in number. They were ‘Chien blanc du Roi’, ‘Chien de St Hubert’, ‘Chien gris de St Louis’, and ‘Chien fauve de Bretagne’. From the ‘Chien blanc de Roi’ and the ‘Chien de St Hubert’ descended the Normandy hound that exercised such an enormous influence on the evolution of the modern English hound.”
From The Foxhound of the Future by CR Acton, Baylis & Son, 1953.
In his introduction to Johnston and Ericson's Hounds of France (Spur Publications, 1979), Dr Emile Guillet, Master of the Hounds of the Rallye Kereol, wrote: "With six or seven hundred thousand hounds, divided into 40 breeds or varieties used by 400,000 hunters, France possesses a national heritage unique in the world." How sad for British sportsmen, especially those who risked their lives to free France just over half a century ago, to note that we have lost much of our sporting heritage, whilst they have retained all of theirs. It's worth noting that with over 8% of the vote, against our 2% of the vote here, the French countryman still has a political voice. It is worth noting too that hunting is enshrined in the laws of the French constitution; we hunt within the law, they hunt by it.
Just as sad is that two of our national assemblies, those of Scotland and Wales, seem almost keener than Westminster to destroy our rural ways. There is a stark difference between say Brittany and Wales in attitudes to hunting with dogs. Yet the historic connections between Brittany and Wales are many; the rough-coated Welsh Hound has a distinct 'griffon' look to it. The chestnut Basset of Brittany, or Fauve de Bretagne, now established here, has that griffon look too, with a harsh dense flat coat. I am impressed by the hounds from the Mochras kennel, with their Harmonie de L’Echo de L’Aube imported from the hunting pack of Rene Gourves of Finisterre in Brittany, famed for its type and quality. It was good to see Ch Mochras Melchior come Reserve Best-of-Breed at Crufts 2013. In France there are over 1.000 registrations a year of this breed, most of them in the packs. Betty Judge has now brought in the Grand Griffon Vendeen and the smaller Briquet Griffon Vendeen (recreated using Harrier blood after the Second World War), to reinforce the Vendeen Bassets already here. Our favouring of smooth-coated scent hounds has left us just with the Otterhound of our packhounds with a griffon flavour, although I suspect that the French would have named our Airedale, not a terrier but a griffon.
Hunting in France continues the ancient and aristocratic attitude to 'venery', the exercise of the art and science of hunting. It is divided into two types, depending on the quarry: la grande and la petite venerie. The former, with quarry of stag, roebuck and boar, is steeped in tradition, with a pageantry and formality passed down from a bygone aristocratic era; it is supported by over 100 packs. The wolf was hunted until its extinction in the 1930s. Most packs of la petite venerie hunt the hare, but 20% hunt the fox. The French breeds of hound have great voices, pace and nose but have been accused of lacking drive and stamina. This has led to infusions of Foxhound blood from here. Some packs are Anglo-Francais, but most have retained the old breeds, preserving the great ringing cry of the classic French scenthound. But just as the blood of our Foxhound has been used to the benefit of French hounds, so too has the blood of theirs been used here. In 2013, a litter of puppies bred by the South Devon Hunt are due to begin a hunting future with the Rallye Amor Hunt in Brittany. The South Devon is twinned with the French hunt, which hunts red deer with their Anglo-Francais Tricolore. The Foxhound blood was sought to inject greater drive in the French pack, with these pups sired by a South Devon stallion put to a French bitch. This is merely a repeat of what has been happening over two centuries.
European Stock It has been argued, with strong dissent from Celts, that, without the Norman Conquest, we would be without our scenthounds. It has been argued too that all the scenthounds in the world come from either British or French stock, or a blend of the two, as in the United States. Hound expert Sir John Buchanan-Jardine has argued a role for the Norman Hound, now extinct as such, having acquired the name here of Talbot Hound, citing the words of Gervase Markham, Delabere Blaine and TB Johnson (Hunting Directory, 1826) as evidence. Markham wrote that 'The shag-haired Talbot, preferably grizzled, were ...chosen to hunt the fox, badger and other hot scents.' The Bresse breed from Eastern France was brought here to form the basis of Welsh hounds; they were shaggy and grizzled. The Griffon-Nivernais would be today's equivalent.
The St Hubert hounds have also been dubbed Talbots, a name which some believe is an English misuse of Taillebois, the Abbot of St Hubert's Monastery in the seventh century. Because of their scenting prowess, the St Huberts were distributed to the French aristocracy in all parts of France, were bred with local stock but played a major role in the development of scenthounds on both sides of the channel. In early days each local breed of French hound was found in three versions: chiens d'ordre or full-sized, chiens briquets or medium-sized and chiens bassets. The latter were sub-divided into three sub-types, according to the structure of the foreleg: straight-legged, half-crooked and full crooked. Nowadays we tend to think wrongly of all true Bassets being only the full crooked foreleg version. The contemporary straight-legged English Basset, achieved with the help of Harrier blood, is therefore a quite legitimate Basset, not a modern innovation.
Breeding Base Of the old pure French strains of hounds, there are two in particular that stand out as the ones to which the modern French hound owes most: the Saintongeois and the Poitevin. A tricolour hound is often referred to as having the latter’s blood, a black and white one the blood of the former. But both markings can occur in the same litter. The less purebred smaller type are dubbed Briquets, featuring both smooth and rough-coated hounds, with the latter embracing the Griffon Vendeens, usually lemon and white, with the Griffon Nivernais, larger and darker coated, sometimes black and tan. The Gascon and the Norman may have owed most to the St Hubert, long famed for its ‘extreme delicacy of scent’ and ‘wonderfully powerful deep voices’. French sportsmen have always rated voice in their hounds higher than we have here. To this day, I still hear the hounds featuring the blue marbled coat referred to as ‘The Frenchies’, after the Bleu de Gascogne variety. Since 1980, when the Petit Griffon Bleu de Gascogne, one of the four Gascony blue breeds, was considered to be the rarest hound breed in France, the situation has changed for the better. In 1998, well over 700 Griffon Bleus were registered with the Societe Centrale Canine; only Basset Hounds, Beagles and Bassets Fauve de Bretagne registered more. I can see why De Castets in his book Les Chiens Courants of 1916,stated rather quaintly, that: “There is not, among our breeds of hounds, a more noble beast than the Bleu de Gascogne, with its majestic allure, height, shimmering coat, powerful voice, archaic aspect and aristocratic melancholy.” It should however be acknowledged that Gascony was under English rule from 1150-1450, with noblemen moving between the two countries with their hunting dogs.
Wide Range of Breeds
French scenthounds like the quaintly named Billy, the Francais Tricolore and the Poitevin resemble our Foxhound, which has often supplied new blood to the French packs. There has long been exchanges of sporting dogs between Britain and France. Ear length sometimes distinguishes French scenthounds from ours, as the Porcelaine demonstrates. But their native bassets, such as the Artesien-Normand have much shorter ears than our show type of Basset Hound. There are nearly thirty breeds of French scenthound and nearly all of them are little known here. The Vendeen Griffons and the Grand Bleu de Gascogne are now making progress here but most of the others are restricted to France and the Franco-Swiss border country, like the Bruno de Jura, a handsome black and tan breed. I was recently told of a hound breed I’ve never seen listed: the Rouge de Commings. There are over 300 packs of hounds in France: 35 staghound, 73 foxhound, 61 roebuck, 114 harehound and 14 packs of boarhound. Much of their hunting is conducted in woods not over pasture as here. In their single-minded pursuit of hunting excellence, the French have long sought performance ahead of purity of canine race, even producing the Beagle-Harrier, created by blending two of our hound breeds, to suit the country over which they were expected to hunt the hare.
The Griffon Vendeen Family
One of the four rough-coated Vendeen hounds coming out of South-west France, the Grand Basset Griffon Vendeen owes its origin to the largest of them all, the Grand Griffon Vendeen, with French hunting tastes leading to the breeding down to a smaller variety in time. This Griffon Vendeen family was bred to cope with the rugged terrain of the Vendee and dense thorny vegetation, with testing weather variations. A hunting hound had to possess high scenting ability, great stamina and a coat resistant to bramble and thorn. The powerful harsh-coated Grand Griffon was gradually bred down to the shorter-legged Basset Griffon Vendeen and eventually sub-divided into the Petit Basset and the Grand Basset. Both sizes were used on a wide variety of game, from rabbit or hare, up to fox, deer and even wild boar. In the late 1880s the Dezamy family patronized both breeds, with the ’42 Dezamy’ tag still representing the 42 cms ideal maximum height. The Dezamy type displayed slightly longer legs, stronger bone and the more classic well-sculpted head. The Club du Griffon Vendeen catered for all four sizes of this type of French hound, with hunting trials established. This family of hounds can sometimes produce coat colour anomalies: one sable and white Petit dam producing black and tan and pale cream whelps, and a Grand producing fauve or chestnut offspring. French sportsmen have been known to use the blood of the Teckel and the Bleu de Gascogne in the pursuit of a hound more suitable for their country.
It is good to know of hound competitions being conducted in France, an activity once held here, especially in the early to mid 19th century; a revival would be valuable here nowadays. A brevet de chasse, with over 100 held each season, is organized by a hound breed club and is held for breeders; a concours is held for hunting people. Each pack is scored out of 200 points, based on such basic aspects as voice (prized by the French) and ability to hunt as a pack. At a brevet, each hound is examined and judged individually as well. At for example, one such concours, the hunt would be on foot, the quarry roe deer, with around 20 ‘packs’ of between two and four couples each, made up of a wide selection of breeds: Bleu de Gascogne, Porcelaine, Anglo-Francais, Griffon Nivernais, Aregeois (solid white), Griffon Vendeen (the type resembling our Otterhound), Griffon Bleu, Beagle (used on deer in the south-west) and Beagle Harrier. This one could be followed by another one on hare that might attract some 30 ‘packs’; The event is social too, with scores being allotted to the various huntsmen as well! The camaraderie engendered at such events is immense.
Lost Breeds –Safe Hands
Strangely, the French, with their great passion for hunting, have never developed their own sighthound, although to be fair neither has any mainland northern European country, with coursing long banned. Lost too are the scenthound breeds of Saintongeois (purebred), Limiers Francais (their ‘tufters’), Levesque, Bresse, Artois, du Haut Poitou, Normandie, Virelade, de Franche-Comte and Gris de St Louis, (mostly subsumed into other packs, as some pack titles denote). Their best and most carefully bred packs hunt roe deer, one of the hardest animals to run down with hounds, thereby presenting the bigger challenge to the genuine hound man. The sincere affection in France for rural France, together with its distinct way of life, is in stark contrast to urban attitudes here, where ignorance, indifference and even hostility to country traditions prevails. The hounds of France are in safe hands; ours, despite their global respect amongst real hunting people, are threatened - from within. One French pack, very appropriately, enjoys the freedom of hunting near a British cavalry war cemetery; fighting for ancient freedoms is of no great account in Britain these days. RIP British cavalrymen.
“The French judges do not like our catlike feet – a Saintonge hound has a hare’s foot – and the lameness which besets English hounds after four or five season’s work in France is attributed to the shape of our foxhounds’ feet.”
From The Queen’s Hounds and Stag-hunting Recollections by Lord Ribblesdale, Longmans, 1897.
“Several types of hound are used for hare-hunting in the South of France; they present many variations, according to their origins, but can be placed in the following three categories:
The pure-blooded grand chien or chien d’ordre, whether of Gascony, Saintonge or Bordeaux.
The Briquet (a harrier-sized hound, of much the same breeding as the various breeds of French hounds but often cross-bred and sometimes not even entirely of hound blood).
The cross-bred hound or the improved briquet.
The chien d’ordre or pure hound, which only a few enthusiasts have, with great trouble, preserved in all its original purity, has some fine qualities…”
From Hounds for a Pack by Comte Elie de Vezins, 1882, translated by Woolner, Allen,1974.
“Here is another bit of news about necks and shoulders; the experience of an expert. It appears that the English insist upon a hound with a long neck, so that he can stoop to a scent; this is a proof, according to the oracle, that most of our foxhounds have not very good noses. The Saintonge hound – an ancient and eminent French breed – hunted with his head up (le nez au vent), without deigning to stoop. This is still a characteristic of a well-bred hound – both in pointers and hounds – but M. de Chabot goes on to say that he has often remarked slow-looking hounds keep right up at the lead, and throw their tongues admirably owing to the way they carried their heads and the way their heads were put on. In our love of drive and pace the French think we have sacrificed nose…”.
From The Queen’s Hounds and Stag-hunting Recollections by Lord Ribblesdale, Longmans, 1897.