Picture credit: Arterra/Sven Erik Arndt/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Country Notes

Walk on the wild side

A new role for old game keepers

We were a couple of days into autumn and it felt, at last, like summer had come. Pigeons drifted low over the wheat, a combine rumbled down the lane, and we sat on the tailgates of our trucks, watching heat rise around the newly-cleared pond. Other than collecting sausage rolls at lunchtime, I’d contributed almost nothing at all.

A man on a tractor with a flail mower had cleared the thorn and bramble in the morning; my friend, Richard Negus, had gone at the willow with his chainsaw; and Richard Gould had directed the operation. Some 30 years as a gamekeeper on wild bird shoots (rather than shoots that release farmed pheasants) has given Gouldy a pretty decent understanding of how to make a perfect place for ducks.

Lots of bright-eyed ecologists will charge you handsomely for the theory and then leave you to call the lads in to do the heavy lifting

Gouldy is an interesting man . He has worked at some of the smartest estates in the country, where conservation and gamekeeping are one and the same. But in reality, there are fewer and fewer keeper’s jobs that require the sort of skills he has. Most of them these days are generally required to buy pheasant poults in, rear them in pens and release them in time for the season. “That’s not gamekeeping”, Richard Negus said to me as we were working away, “I’d say that’s more like chicken farming”.

Some years ago, Gouldy decided that enough was enough. Things were getting harder and the job opportunities were too few, so he left wild bird keepering to become a conservationist for hire. Lots of bright-eyed ecologists will charge you handsomely for the theory and then leave you to call the lads in to do the heavy lifting. But with Gouldy you get the heavy lifting as well as hard-won advice. Everything he knows, and he knows a great deal, is based on trying and failing and listening.

In truth, Gouldy is one of the lucky ones. He no longer does what he set out to do in life but he uses his knowledge and expertise to make the countryside a better, more biodiverse place.

Others haven’t been so lucky. There are men out there driving buses and working in warehouses who grew up dreaming of counting English partridge chicks in stubble fields at dawn. I met a lorry driver not long ago who had managed to land a few jobs as a gamekeeper — but every one of them was on a large commercial shoot, where big bags of reared pheasants were the order of the day. Driving a lorry isn’t so bad, he told me, because from his cab he still gets to look out over the fields.

until recently, the direction of travel seemed pretty terminal. At the turn of the twentieth century there were almost 25,000 gamekeepers in Britain, and most of them would have been working with wild birds. In Norfolk and Suffolk alone there were over 2,000. Currently, across Britain, there are just 3,000 and plenty of keepers have told me straight that they don’t want their children to follow them into a job they believe is slowly being destroyed.

But the countryside is forever changing. Earlier this year, the Government rolled out a suite of measures designed to halt the decline of endangered species.

It is being billed as the most significant reform of agricultural policy in decades and land managers are now being paid for things such as restoring hedges and creating ponds — but also, crucially, for controlling ungulates and predators.
Whether you like it or not, your money is being spent on paying people to shoot deer and trap squirrels. The issue, though, is actually finding people to do these things. Farms and estates no longer have as many men on the ground as they once did, and lots of farmers know a lot about combine harvesters and very little about slotting a muntjac buck in high cover at 90 yards.

It’s only just starting to happen, yet it’s a fascinating new chapter and some estates that want to do their bit are appointing former gamekeepers as “conservation officers”. Presumably they aren’t allowed to actually enjoy shooting deer unlike those savage gamekeepers of old, but interestingly, I’ve heard some landowners saying that they might get their new conservation officers to start looking after a bit of wild game too. After all, English partridges were there as a result of practical conservation. Perhaps, like the water in my new pond, shooting in Britain will find a natural level.

This article is taken from the October 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

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