France's hunting-with-hounds season has opened in controversy after a stag was chased into school grounds in a built-up area, leading to a tense standoff with anti-hunt protesters and police.
The exhausted animal was driven out of the forest of Compiègne, northeast of Paris on Saturday morning by a dozen hunters, and filmed seeking shelter in a building site near a secondary school.
It remained on a pavement for several hours, tongue lolling, during which, anti-hunt protesters sought to protect the animal and police moved in to avoid any clashes.
A vet was called into to check on the animal and sedate it before returning it to the forest, but it took fright before he could get there and crashed through barriers before running off into the trees - apparently with minor injuries.
The incident was filmed by anti-hunt activists, AVA, whose spokesman Stanislas Broniszewski said: "It makes no sense in the 21st century to witness such scenes." Locals said it made them "scared".
Hunt master Alain Drach, the son of the baroness Monique de Rothschild, confessed that the incident was “publicity we could have done without”.
CHASSE À COURRE : UN CERF TRAQUÉ DANS COMPIÈGNE— AVA France (@AvaFranceOff) September 19, 2020
Quand un cerf, connu de ce quartier, est traqué par la #chasseàcourre jusque dans ses rues, les habitants sortent pour le protéger.
Un cas d'école de la résistance pour AVA ! Bravo à tous !🦌✊🏡 pic.twitter.com/y8PhGuGu7K
Stag and deer hunting with hounds is flourishing in France but the tradition is facing rising resistance from some politicians animal-rights activists.
Under a decree enacted since last year, hunters cannot kill an animal that enters a residential or commercial area if it is uninjured.
The new legislation was introduced following outcry when the same group of hunters was filmed pursuing another stag into someone’s front garden before finishing off the exhausted animal while police looked on.
Children could be heard pleading for the animal to be shown mercy.
The film, relayed by a well-known French comedian, received widespread media attention and was viewed tens of thousands of times. A petition addressed to the mayor of the village where the kill took place received hundreds of thousands of signatures.
At the time, the then environment minister, Nicolas Hulot, said it was time to change the rules regarding hunting “from another age”.
“I can cope with hunting that doesn’t leave animals time to suffer and plays a role in regulating numbers. But this hunting with hounds that prolongs their agony and puts animals into a state of panic must force us to question ourselves,” he said.
Mr Hulot later resigned, warning that the government was prey to the hunting lobby.
Despite the uproar, hunt membership in France has doubled in 40 years to about 10,000. The number of “followers” on bicycles and in vehicles has risen to 500,000.
France’s nearly 390 officially registered hunts — more than any other country — mainly pursue deer or boar in forests. The tradition is less arduous than Britain’s 340 hunts, in which riders gallop across fields.
Hunters are a political force to be reckoned with in France, where “obstruction to hunting” is an offence liable to a fine of nearly £1,300.
France has more than a million registered hunters, forming the second biggest lobby group after farmers.
Speaking to local newspaper Oise Hébdo, Mr Drach said: "We could have done without this because it gives an image that is totally false of hunting with hounds on social media by people talking rubbish."
A group of 20 local anti-hunt associations are seeking to ban the practice in the Oise area via a popular referendum but the task is arduous as it requires the support of 185 MPs and the constitutional council before garnering 4.7 million signatures within nine months.