Working in the open, at one with nature, makes gamekeeping a dream job for many; but a keeper who loses his job could also lose his home ...
I would hazard a guess that many a captain of industry who also runs a shoot listens as carefully to his gamekeeper as he does to his finance director. Not that he pays them the same. Gamekeepers are an iconic species. An ancient and highly respected profession, keepering is small and highly select; there are perhaps 6,000 gamekeepers in the UK, of whom about half are full-time. For comparison with another small profession, there are about 16,000 barristers.
Of course, keepers don’t pocket anything like as much dosh as lawyers, though on some large shoots the headkeeper trousers a healthy amount of tips — all subject to tax, naturally. But nobody becomes a gamekeeper for the pay. There are many other, non-financial, rewards. Working in the countryside on your own, or with a small team, is a dream for many an office-bound commuter.
However, it is not an easy life. The physical effort can be gruelling and the responsibility is onerous. And what happens if you become ill? When the employer’s expectations are unrealistic, the keeper is subject to great stress, yet may not have recourse to the sort of support that applies in more conventional employment. Bullying is not unknown; I have seen a horrendous case where a bright-eyed youngster was treated like a serf by a curmudgeonly old-timer. There are also a few hard-nosed agents who know the cost of everything but the value of nothing; if such people force keepers into illegal activity, they are not the ones who face losing their livelihood.
Housing is a major issue. Estate cottages are increasingly being used to generate revenue as holiday or commercial lets, and the days of valued estate staff being allocated accommodation on the estate for their retirement are fading fast. It is sobering to remember that if a gamekeeper loses their job, they often lose their home as well.
I recall a keeper who was laid off by a high-profile estate after many years of good service. He and his family had to move out of their beloved cottage at relatively short notice. “They’ve told me to apply to the local council for housing,” he said, miserably. “But there’s a long waiting list and besides, I’ve got guns and 12 dogs — what am I going to do?”
Gamekeepers Welfare Trust
Fortunately, there is a body that exists to help keepers in their hour of need, the Gamekeepers Welfare Trust (GWT). The trust runs a totally confidential helpline and provides a sympathetic ear, advice and, where feasible, financial support. It deals with an enormous variety of issues. If you visit its website you’ll get a flavour of the good work it does. It provides a shoulder to lean on for working or retired gamekeepers, stalkers, gillies, river bailiffs — or dependents of such fine people — throughout the UK.
A registered charity with impressive trustees, the GWT relies on volunteers and fundraising. At its heart is Helen Benson, a keeper’s wife whose two sons are also keepers. She works out of a converted coal shed at her home in North Yorkshire. This is a gritty, frontline charity run on minimal resources by people who really care.
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We shooters owe a great deal to the gamekeeping community; are we really doing enough to help them? I am donating the fee for this Sharpshooter column to the GWT. What could you do?