Only a gamekeeper could grumble about the weather on a balmy June evening, when the weakening sun turns the fields of wheat into a sea of shimmering silver. The tranquillity of the rolling Essex countryside, just miles from Londons teeming East End, seemed lost on the underkeeper of Braxted Park. His eyes were scanning the tramlines of the crops, searching for the tell-tale movement of red fur which would confirm that his snares had trapped another victim.
We really needed it to rain today, said David Dronfield, the 21-year-old deputy to his father (also David), who manages the 2,000-acre estate near Chelmsford. Scenic woodlands, meadows, covercrops and ornate ponds provide the perfect backdrop for 50 days of shooting during the winter, which are dependent on the concerted efforts of both keepers throughout the rearing season.
During a wet day, it makes sense that the fox will trot along the archways rather than struggle through the soggy crops, David continued. Were just about to start releasing the birds to wood, so most of our snares have been taken down as we concentrate on the pens. But Ive seen a fox operating in this area, so were targeting it with strategically placed snares, as the crops are too high now for lamping. Well just go for a dingle down there and see if weve caught one.
With the wheat crop providing instant refuge for this marauding fox, snaring became the most likely method of catching it. Davids strategy was to intercept the hunter along its most likely thoroughfares, such as the tramlines in the wheat. Snares were attached to a metal stake in the ground and then supported by a length of straining wire to ensure it remained at snout level. By the time the menacing fox had worked out what had happened, it would be up to its neck in trouble. By checking the snares twice a day, David could despatch the fox quickly.
He measured out the height from the ground using the traditional method of laying the heel of his hand on the ground and then raising his thumb. He was careful not to kneel too close to the snare, as a keepering friend had told him that the human knee has scent glands that could give his presence away. I dont know if he was pulling my leg, but I dont like to take the risk.
The keepers of Braxted Park have yet to use the new break-away snares from the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust (GWCT) that release non-target species, but they are prepared to move with the times as needed. Both read the bad news stories in the media about snaring, so any extra legislation will not come as a shock, though the change of Government has given them hope that country sports will be supported, for the next Parliamentary term at least.
We are fortunate here in that we dont have many badgers or deer, said David. You see the odd badger, but I dont catch any in the snares. And weve no TB in Essex, which is a relief. Its not like parts of the West Country, where they bunch up like rabbits. If snaring was banned altogether, wed have to find another way of controlling the 10 per cent that we regularly catch in the snares. When you compare that with the 95 per cent that my father used to catch when he was my age as a keeper in Derbyshire, it shows how quickly times change due to legislation, farming methods and technological advances.
Tall and gangly, David bears more than a passing resemblance to the English striker Peter Crouch, an observation that did not go unnoticed by his year group at Sparsholt College in Hampshire. Yes, I was called Crouchy for four years, he said wearily. Not that I get much opportunity to watch the World Cup at the moment. He missed the England match against the USA, as he was off barn dancing with the local Young Farmers Club, which provides a necessary social outlet for country workers such as David, who might otherwise struggle to meet like-minded folk. He will also join friends on the campsite at The CLA Game Fair this year, though most of the summer will be spent looking after his birds and managing the vermin population.
David is rarely far from Hardy, his two-year-old black Labrador bitch, which rides with him in the front of his Kawasaki Mule. A strong swimmer, Hardy is quickly becoming an adept picker-up and an expert dogger-in, but it is her devotion to her master that makes her the perfect companion on the solitary rounds.
Being son of the headkeeper does bring its challenges, as David feels he must work harder to prove his worth. Im always my fathers son, but I have my own beats and if they go wrong, its on my head. The advantage, of course, is that we know each other well and can work as a close team. It is a fabulous estate to work on, so I have no desire to move away. One day, if the right headkeepers job became available, I might consider it. But this is all I ever wanted to do and I love the lifestyle. Id be crazy to give it up while Im still learning.
As we drove round the impressive parkland to the snare line, David pointed out the boundary line where itinerant foxes will pour in from adjacent heathland, especially once the harvest begins. By the time this article is published, Davids birds will have gone to wood and he will be out at first light with his .222 to protect them from the threat of Charlie. The more active poults will move towards the rising sun at that time and that is where the foxes will be waiting for them. So Ill be there waiting for the foxes on my transportable high seat.
The hay on the estates set-a-side schemes will soon be cut, allowing lamping on many fields. Come August, once the harvest has begun, David will wage a constant battle against the red peril. One of the beating team has invested in Gen Two night sights to help tackle any awkward or lamp-shy foxes.
Next to a release pen, David pointed out a clearing of coppiced hornbeam and sweet chestnut that will provide woodchips for the estates burners, accruing impressive financial and economic savings in the years to come. This renewable fuel will provide hot water and heating for the shooting guests in the house during the season at a snip of the cost of oil. The new shoots will also provide cover for poults nervous of the aerial threat from sparrowhawks and buzzards, which have developed a taste for more than just carrion.
David twitched involuntarily as he noticed a pair of magpies dropping out of a distant wood. Once the youngsters start flying the nest, the keeper will re-start his Larsen trapping in earnest, catching 100 carrion crows and 50 of the pied thieves every year. Two grumpy peacocks marshalled a strip of maize covercrop, squawking their displeasure as the vehicle approached, while a troupe of guineafowl chirruped across a field of long grass flecked white with wild daisies, raising their heads as a vigilant unit, as though playing a constant game of Grandmothers Footsteps. One of the estates many white cock pheasants released primarily for the beaters entertainment strutted confidently across a track, blissfully unaware that it led a charmed life compared with its orange brethren.
David had also set up snares between the field margin and the wheat crop, where the Mules wheels had created a rut that would be a perfect path for a hunting fox. Ive caught foxes here in the past, as they tend to keep to the same tracks. Ive also placed a snare at the opening of a wood where the beaters created a gap. Foxes leave their own signs of activity, making it easy to work out their routine. Ive walked these fields since I was a boy, so Ive learned their habits.
David is often amused by the various characters of the foxes he sees on his rounds. You get different members of the litter, some always getting into trouble while others are shyer in this respect they are just like dogs.
Does he ever feel regret or sympathy for them? Not when Im scooping up dead poults that Ive raised. Thats the other side of the fox that I certainly dont enjoy.
None of the keepers that David has spoken to has been overly surprised by the news story of the baby twins mauled by the fox in nearby Hackney in east London. Have you seen the number of foxes in towns nowadays? he laughed. I wouldnt know where to look! Happily, we dont seem to get too many of them coming out here. We did have one mangy fox that was bare as a louse, poor thing, but weve had no obvious signs of urban dumping. What do city folk expect, when half of them are feeding the foxes in their gardens then complain when they make a mess of the lawn. It is still a wild animal, after all. It was only a matter of time before something like this would happen. What has been surprising is the public reaction to the news. The fox is no longer a cute, cuddly creature.
The snares were empty that evening. Charlie had won this battle, but David is likely to win the war. If every young keeper shares his passion for the job and his dedicated work ethic, the future of the sport is in safe hands.