Game Fair Stereotypes
In more than twenty years of travelling to game fairs and country shows across the length and breadth of the British Isles, I consider that I have seen most of everything that happens at game fairs. All are variations on a theme. Those in Scotland have the swirl of kilts and the drone of bagpipes. In Ireland the kilts are a saffron colour instead of the tartan and the pipers are replaced with fiddlers. In England its a case of blazers, white flannels and the ubiquitous Panama hat that distinguishes the serious game fair devotee from the rest of the crowd. The common denominator in all game fairs in these islands are the competitions, exhibitions and demonstrations. Take away the regional accents and one could be forgiven if he or she forgot where they were!
Game fairs here have rows upon rows of traders selling everything from a fly rod to a fishing boat, a dummy launcher to a dog trailer and more country clothing than you could shake a stick at! The gundogs are dominated by spaniel and retriever events, the best clay pigeon shooters are there and the angling has a serious slant towards things trout and salmon. Nor would not be a British or an Irish game fair without a beer tent or the public dining marquee with its roast beef, Yorkshire pudding and two vegetables. Game Fairs in the British Isles, to summarise, reflect the diversity of the peoples in these British islands and the country sport in which we partake. My personal favourite is Ireland's National Countrysports Fair, held at Gilford Castle Estate in County Down.
What then about our Continental cousins? How is it done in the rest of Europe? To find out first hand I organised a trip to what is considered to be the biggest game fair in Continental Europe and with few friends headed for France.
Early that Friday morning we boarded the aeroplane destined for the Paris Regional airport of Beauvias and the trip southwards to the valley of the magnificent River Loire and to Chateau Chambord, home of the French Game Fair. By mid-afternoon we were ensconced in a very comfortable hotel in the town of Blois. The French Game Fair runs over three days with an afternoon start on the Friday and two full days on Saturday and Sunday. Our preference was to miss the opening half day and concentrate our visit on Saturday and Sunday. Friday was spent sightseeing around Blois visiting the local cave or wine merchant and generally stocking up on some of the little luxuries that a trip to France produces.
Arriving at the French Game Fair is not at all like that at British or Irish show. For a start, one does not have to go early to beat the rush. We arrived at 9.30 a.m. the time we would plan to be at a major event in the UK or Ireland, but found that the only traffic was the odd straggler of an exhibitor, rushing to set up his or her stall. Things in France generally are more laid back and their game fair simply mirrors the national inclination.
By late morning the crowd had swollen considerably and the heat of the mid June sunshine in central France began to take its toll on those parts of our legs where the sun block had not been so liberally applied. Dress generally at this fair is reflective of the country and the time of the year. Only the Englishmen were wearing moleskins, breeks and tweed jackets. For those of us who live on the Celtic fringes and who are not used to balmy hot summer days, it was more a case of tee shirts and shorts rather than the stuffy country wear more akin to shows back at home.
At first glance the trade exhibitors at the Chambord estate looked not all that different from those we encounter at home. There were clothing retailers, gunmakers, angling retailers, people selling sporting prints and books, dog food and the plethora of traders we see at all game shows. That was at a first glance. With the exception of a few touting generic shooting gear, the remainder had on their stands things peculiar to France and the very different way the French approach the sports of Chasse et Perch!
For those interested in sporting guns one is simply spoilt for choice. Most of the major European manufacturers of sporting weapons are found there with their artisans engraving, stocking or finishing off classical sporting guns. AYA, Franchi, Beretta, Darn and FN Browning all had their stands and all acted as magnets to the sportsman. We walked along what could be described as Gunmaker's Row, popping in and out of the stands, watching the gun stockers and engravers, lifting sporting shotguns of gauges varying from ten to twenty bore. Eyed up handguns and rifles the like of which we could only dream of owning in Ireland. The casual atmosphere of the French fair is something, especially the sporting weapons section, was something I was not expecting and thoroughly enjoyed.
Big game is big business for the French hunter. They call it Grand Giber and it ranges from wild boar to deer. But is has to be the wild boar hunting that captures the imagination of the visitor to the French fair. On many of the stands are heads of boar or sanglier to give it its French term. I even came across a full sized stuffed example that was awesome to look at in its innate form. How much more so must it be in the forests of Central or Eastern France on a crisp winter's morning as it ploughs through the undergrowth, snorting as it flees from pursuing hounds. In the background the traditional French hunting horn trumping out its high pitched call, warning the hunters of the impending battle. It was not exactly like that on that particular day, although the sound of hunting horns did ring out around the site.
The French are really big into their hunting associations. There appears to be as many hunting associations as the quarry hunted. Most have traditional costume for occasions such as this and many have troupes of trumpeters that entertain the crowd with impromptu and colourful displays. Immaculate tunics of red, blue, green, yellow or burgundy depicted their associations. Their horns glinted in the midday sun and the evocative sound of hunting horns of varying pitches resounded around the game fair site. Their displays in the main show ring were good to witness but, for me, these impromptu sessions were the most memorable.
Gundogs are very important to the French hunter and the diversity of dogs at the Chateau Chambord was quite remarkable. If we had thought that we would see lots of retrievers and spaniel, particularly Labradors and springer spaniels, then we would have disappointed. These breeds, the mainstay of gundogs in Ireland and G.B. were just not present in any significant number. Even those we did see looked as though they belonged on the show bench rather in the shooting field. In France the pointing dog is king! They refer to them as braques and the variety of these pointing dogs is amazing. Each of the main Western European countries have a variation on a pointing dog named after its country of origin. From Holland there was the Griffon, from Italy the Spinone and the Bracco, the Spanish Water Dog, the Hungarian Vizsla, German Pointers of different types, Munsterlanders, large and small and a selection of spaniels, setters and pointers from the different regions of France.
We called at the gundog working test area on several occasions on both days and spent many hours watching braques and setters being put through their paces on quail. We listened to commentators explaining the attributes of more tan twenty different breeds and marvelled at the diversity of hunting dogs from the Continental Europe. Retrievers and spaniels were not on the agenda that weekend and, to be honest, I did not miss them that much! More information on the various breeds of European gundogs can be found in the European Gundogs section of this web site.
I recommend a visit to the French Game Fair to all. It is different from game shows in the British Isles in so many ways but, in other ways one feel an affinity with those Continental sportsmen who face many of the same pressures we feel this side of the English Channel.
Some tips for travellers to the French fair are; do not arrive too early, the crowd is and afternoon crowd. Do make arrangements for something to eat at lunchtime, as is the custom in France, most stands close between 12.30 p.m. and 2.30 p.m. Catering, when it can be found is sparse and quite expensive. We packed lunches and had a bottle of wine at the car and found that most visitors did that. Do stay until the late evening when there is a spectacular display of fireworks in front of the Chateau. The combination of the firework display and the music broadcast over the PA system was memorable.
Travelling from Ireland or the Britain by air is now relatively inexpensive with Ryanair from Dublin or Stanstead Airports. Europcar has a car hire depot at Beauvias Airport and the Campanile chain of hotels are recommended for short stays in France.
Enjoy your trip to Chateau Chambord and the French Game Fair!