Ever since I was very young, I’ve been fascinated by the mountains. I’ve always preferred silent hiking trails to beaches packed with ruddy bathers basted in lotion. I enjoy the physical challenge of the steep hillsides. I’m not the sporty type particularly, but what a great feeling when the blood starts racing through your temples, you’re trying to catch your breath and your legs are burning. For me, mountain stalking is the purest form of hunting there is. It’s the only time your quarry has a head start up a cliff side. The only hunt where I feel I’m on an extraordinary quest, beyond time. My great friend Dominique from Marseille, with the lilting accent to match, recently gave me a chance to hunt mouflon on Mont Caroux, near Béziers. This is the story of the intense, almost primitive, joy of that hunt.
Discovery of the material
“OK, Koutny, no sleepwalking this year and come back with a mouflon,” Dominique calls out to me. I’d already been up and down Mont Caroux last year. But in my first year as a licensed hunter, I was unable to seize the opportunity that Saint Hubert put before me as I came across a chamois goat in the middle of its meal barely 50 yards away. I’d shouldered my rifle but then lowered it again, refusing to fire at a running animal. Was it a beginner’s romantic ideal?
“You can go hunting with Rémi, I’m staying at the chalet,” Dominique went on. Rémi is Dominique’s good friend, also from Marseille. He works abroad and goes hunting when he’s back in France.
I discuss which gun to use with Rémi. These two guys from the French Med have really brought quite an arsenal with them: an X-Bolt Pro Carbon .308Win, X-Bolt Compo Adjustable .308Win, X-Bolt A-Tacs 6.5 Creedmoor and an old steel BAR 300WM for the previous day’s driven hunt.
Rémi goes for the Carbon in the end, while I put my faith in the X-Bolt Compo. “That gun’s taken out hundreds of animals, it should do the job. You’ve also got a Kite Optics scope on for driven hunts,” Dom tells me. I ask if the 6-times magnification will be enough. “You’re firing from 200 metres. You’ve got to be rubbish if you miss from there.” Not exactly confidence-building, but noted.
Discovery of the place
Having arrived in darkness, I’m once again captivated by the backdrop to our epic tale as day breaks. Our cottage is in the centre of Douch, a hamlet whose main attraction appears to be its open-air bread oven. An electric generator is humming along. The electricity grid is on the blink and the electricity board is drawing a blank as to why.
All around us are medium-sized mountains. The ill-grey vegetation blends in with the stony ground and the mist. It’s 8 in the morning when our guide meets us at the cottage. Robert is close to 70 and as nimble as a chamois. “I’ve been doing this job for decades,” he informs me. “It’s all about managing the effort at my age.” We enjoy a coffee that Rémi brought back from Bosnia.
Outside, the wind has joined the rain in the type of English summer that frogs like. “We’ll go down into the valley. There’s no point looking for mouflon around here in this weather,” says Robert.
A first missed opportunity
So we find ourselves in Rémi’s imposing 4×4, a kind of civilian battle tank. As we make our way down into the valley, the weather begins to clear. A few minutes down the trail, we stop. I chamber Browning’s new lead-free BXS. We set off on foot, following Robert.
After a fifteen-minute walk, Robert’s raised hand brings our silent procession to a halt. On the path, 50 feet ahead, are two mouflons: a female and a handsome male. I want to shoulder my gun, but like a novice (which I am) my X-Bolt is still slung over my shoulder. By the time I get hold of it, the mouflons have scarpered into the thicket.
I curse. “There’ll be other chances,” Rémi reassures me. I still grumble, though. And I think back to all the chances I’ve missed. “It’s part of the learning process,” Robert tells me.
We resume our quest. The mountainside path gives the occasional beautiful panoramic glimpse when the flora is thinner on the ground. We twice see shadows fleeting among the trees, out of range.
We eventually come to a rocky slope with a view. The landscape below is majestic; forest as far as the eye can see. In the distance, a church steeple melts in with the treetops. “Mouflon often comes here to catch a bit of sun, so be ready,” Robert whispers. He heads off first, with me following and Rémi bringing up the rear.
We move ahead slowly. I haven’t bought any new boots since I went hunting chamois in Slovenia, and twice I put the theory of gravitation to the test. Suddenly, Rémi tells me to stop. I do as I’m told, but Robert doesn’t hear and carries on. A little over 200 yards away, a small group of mouflon is relaxing, firmly rooted on a rock. Robert sees them too, and gestures for us to join him a little further on by a boulder that provides a fantastic vantage point for a shot.
We advance slowly. But the longed-for quarry disappears. “Mouflons have the best visual acuity of any mountain animal,” our guide informs us. “They can easily spot you, even from over 500 yards away.” We decide to wait here. Not that I’m disappointed; I enjoy the scenery while thinking about my colleagues stuck behind their computer screens.
Some 500 yards away is a small group of mouflons grazing happily. We decide not to move closer. The ground is too steep and open. We would be tiring ourselves out for nothing, and that’s before we bring the animal back, which would be difficult bordering on dangerous. Thirty unsuccessful minutes later we decide to join Dominique back at the chalet for a bite to eat.
A decrease in the number of mouflons due to the wolf’s return
Dominique isn’t surprised to see us come back with empty-handed. “You had one, maybe even two, shooting opportunities this morning. A few years ago, before the wolves came, you’d have had ten chances,” he states. “A wolf eats 35 kg of meat a day. Mouflon is its favourite prey; imagine the damage,” confirms Robert, adding how animals that survive a wolf attack on the herd are usually so shaken that they stop reproducing for a while.
“Wolves will eventually wipe out the mouflon. Then they’ll move down into the valley and start on the roe deer. Finally, they’ll go after dogs.” Wolves, of course, are no followers of hunting limits, whatever the views of so-called nature conservationists who mainly live in… towns and cities.
A new attempt
We set off again. The programme for this afternoon is to climb a rocky peak. We walk through chestnut trees that seem to be a favourite with boar. I’m feeling slightly ill and am struggling a bit. My lungs feel like they are trying to play the bagpipes. We continue climbing. No sign of mouflon. The wind adds extra bite to the stinging cold.
We eventually come to some high rocks. Below us is a void that would turn us into mush if we fell. Robert tells Rémi to try his luck here and pick which animal he likes. I follow our guide a few dozen yards further on. We sit down and sink into a long, patient silence. They won’t come today. We go back to Dominique as the sun slowly settles behind the mountains.
A new day
I’m not superstitious, except when I’m hunting. When I wake up, I tell myself that I won’t get another chance to shoot. I’m convinced that when you let an opportunity go to waste, Saint Hubert doesn’t give you another. Downbeat, I slip into the same damned boots that have sent me tumbling like Neymar more than once.
Two strong coffees later, I’m outside with Robert and Rémi. No car today. The weather has picked up so we’re going up rather downhill. “You’ll stop smoking today, Koutny,” Dominique calls out to me with a sly grin.
We start on a long, steep path, watching our step as we go. A snapped branch could blow our chances to smithereens. This time, my rifle is cradled in my hands. We stop on a plateau and glass around. Nothing. I spot a hide. “A great place to wait for passing woodpigeon,” Robert tells us. I easily believe him. We adjust our backpacks and resume walking.
Hard work brings reward
Ten minutes or so later we come to a hill. In the distance are a number of mouflons. It’s going to work this time! We make our way down a small, steep path as quickly and as silently as we can. An animal bolts away into the chestnut trees on our left. Was it a boar? A mouflon? There’s no way of knowing.
We continue downhill. The view opens up. Less than a hundred yards away is a superb mouflon, walking along the top of a ridge; probably the animal that bolted earlier. Robert urges me to shoot. As I’m stood up, I shoulder Rémi’s X-Bolt Carbon instantly. “Shoot, shoot, he’s going to get away!” he beseeches me. The animal has barely hove into my sights when I squeeze the trigger. A shot to the shoulder; the mouflon goes down. Its legs flounder in the air for a few seconds. And then stop, for good. Another second and it would have been on the other side of the ridge, gone, and my opportunity with it. I’m delighted with my shot.
Rémi and I bring the mouflon back towards the path and hide it in the nearby bushes. It looks even more beautiful up close. Its horns curve back almost to its ears. I don’t hunt for the trophies, but I’m still in seventh Heaven.
There’s no time to feel pleased with myself. We need to get back in the hunt for Rémi! We move further downhill. The trees here are very sparse, and we’re walking out in the open. The mountain is practically bare, with just a smattering of rocks and broom copses. As I’m coming down from the thrill, I hear Robert tell Rémi: “There! On the rocks, there’s a whole herd of them.” There certainly is; I count about 20. There are ewes, old rams, and young mouflon – a cross-section of the entire population. “You go, Rémi, and choose the one you like,” says Robert.
Rémi and I want to try stalk in. Time is of the essence and we need to use the hill between us and the mouflon as cover while closing in. We rush along the path that leads to the foot of the hill. As we climb the hill, I drop back a few yards so that I don’t get in Rémi’s way. At the top, Rémi rests the X-Bolt Carbon on his backpack. Moments later, a shot rings out around the whole valley. Rémi has just bagged what he thinks is a young ram. “I’m shooting for the meat more than the trophy,” he tells me.
A pure and healthy DNA
Rémi and I bring the mouflon back to Robert. And we’re surprised to find out that it isn’t a young ram – it’s a horned female! “You find horned females in mouflon populations that have pure and healthy DNA. The moulfons on Mont Caroux have one of the cleanest genetics in France,” Robert informs us.
As we are heading back to the cottage to bring Rémi’s 4×4 up to collect our mouflons, we notice large birds circling in the sky. “When you hunt around here, the vultures are never far away. They’re waiting for you to dress the game in situ.” We quicken our pace; I’m not the type to share my foods with vultures. Just special moments with friends.
And you, what is your mouflon hunting experience?