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A visit to Hartpury College – where aspiring gamekeepers learn their craft

It's where NGO award-winner Cormac Thompson is forging his career as a gamekeeper, and where he was taught

Cormac Thompson

Award-winning Cormac Thompson

“Crack your flags on the right, boys…push on 20 yards… stand still… flags up on the left.” Familiar words to the ears of beaters on shoots throughout the land, but it is not often they are uttered by a gamekeeper who is only 18 years old.

Hartpury College in Gloucestershire runs courses in gamekeeping and associated subject matter, but also has its own shoot around the campus. Former student Cormac Thompson is now gamekeeper on the shoot, having recently won the NGO’s Frank Jenkins Memorial Trophy for most promising student keeper . The shoot has 14 let days and on the day Shooting Times visited, the Guns were all ex-students, the shoot becoming a way of keeping in touch after they have left the college.

shooters around Landrover

A break in the clouds: the Guns assemble for a few minutes’ rest to share the tale of another impressive drive

The ground that Cormac and his team of beaters work with consists of rolling agricultural land, old pear orchards and overgrown ditches and woodlands. It is varied habitat and ideal for both partridges and pheasants. So what is Cormac’s background and how has he been managing with the responsibilities of his new role?

Love of the countryside

Cormac started at Hartpury College as a 16-year-old. He was born and bred in Warwickshire, with his mother keen on horses, his grandfather, who is 84 and who used to be a gamekeeper, and his father a shooting man, all feeding his love of the countryside and his appreciation of keepering. “I was very much influenced by my grandfather and my dad, who took me beating aged nine,” said Cormac. “I shot my first hen pheasant when I was nine and it was these early experiences that set me on the path I have chosen.

“In my first year I was primarily taught by lecturer Andrew James and in my second year by Robbie Nicolle — both taught me a great deal. I would have said about half of the course was classroom-based and the other 50 per cent spent out in the field. I was beating on the college shoot every Tuesday, as well as on other shoots, and there were practical lessons outdoors as well. In the classroom we looked at just about all the aspects of gamekeeping in the 21st century, including pest and predator control, trapping and correct procedures, estate skills such as how to build stiles and erect fencing, gamebird management and codes of practice. It was really quite intense in the first year.”

sprocker spaniel

Bomber, Cormac’s two-year-old sprocker

So, having won the NGO’s Frank Jenkins Memorial Trophy, how did he feel about his award? “I don’t know how I got it! It was a massive surprise as Robbie and Andy kept it a secret that they had put my name forward. I did a lot of work on the shoot here, I helped run the beating line, set up some clay shoots with Robbie and Andy, showed willingness and worked hard. When the previous keeper left, this opportunity arose and here I am in my first season. I was very proud to win the award — the trophy is on display in the trophy cabinet, here in the agricultural department — and it has its own shelf!”

Running the beating line well is vital

How does he feel as a shoot day approaches? “A mixture of excitement and nervousness, I suppose; I look forward to the challenge and learning from my mistakes. Running the beating line well is vital and knowing where your birds are is essential. A typical shoot day would see me up at 6.30am for breakfast, then get the tractor and beaters’ trailer hitched up, back around 8am for a brew and then over to meet the Guns for around 9am — I like to meet them before the day begins.

“Looking after the beaters is of great importance. I like to chat with them, and as we are all still teenagers and more or less the same age, we have to treat each other accordingly. The team here are great, they know when to laugh and joke but also know when to turn it off and be serious as we have a job to do. Most of the team are either students or staff.

Young Guns on drive

The Guns, all former students at Hartpury, set off for the first drive.

“Having a shoot right on the spot with around 1,000 acres is a great bonus but good communication is vital. While I lead the team, there are four other second-year students who are equipped with radios who communicate with me throughout the day. After the day is over I have to feed my dogs — Bomber, a two-year-old sprocker, and Scooby, a  five-month-old springer. With regard to the game shot here, we pluck it and sell it on to local pubs or on campus. Guns, picker-up and beaters all take some and every week it goes. And when I am not out on a shoot day I am occupied with vermin control, watering and feeding birds, office work and particularly watching what my partridges are up to.”

Favourite job aspects

What are Cormac’s favourite aspects of his job? “The shoot day without a doubt, that last drive we had today was a beauty and I am chuffed to bits with the way it went. It is always good to finish on a high note and the Guns remember it,” he enthused.

Shooting in field

Up high on the Hiams: Guns at work on the first drive of the day. The shoot is a reunion for ex-students of Hartpury College

There is so much to think about as a gamekeeper, organising catering, vehicle maintenance, and the beating team are but a few. What are his biggest worries? “Without doubt the weather. I like a brisk northerly wind and in still conditions it can be tough. The birds lifted beautifully into the wind on that last drive. Though we have about nine drives on the shoot, it doesn’t leave me with a lot of options if the weather isn’t playing ball. I don’t worry too much about finding beaters as we have a big team on hand here, I just need to make sure instructions are clear and sometimes may appear a bit blunt! One of the things I would like to see in the beating line is more dogs. We have some thick cover here and a few more dogs to push through it would be useful.”

Beatling line

From his position on the beating line, Cormac keeps a careful eye on proceedings during the day

What is Cormac’s favourite gamebird? “I like both pheasant and partridge, and I like to see a mix of game in the larder at the end of the day. But, without doubt, I love my partridges. They are a different bird in their behaviour from a pheasant. They are harder to drive, more skittish, and feeding, watering and providing them with dusting areas are all vital to keeping them on my ground. I did some work experience in North Devon on a large partridge and pheasant estate and one day would like to work on a large partridge shoot.”

young gamekeeper on cover crops

What conservation measures has he looked at? “We have been clearing a lot of brambles and other vegetation to allow some light in and regenerate plant growth. I also like to use gamebird mixes in my cover crops that include millet, sunflowers, quinoa and fodder radish and kale. These are all good for insects and songbirds.”

Outside of keepering what does he enjoy? “I am a very keen cricketer and play for the local team. I also enjoy my clayshooting and have shot for the college for both of my student years there.”

What about the future?

Cormac commented: “The future is bright … an increasing numbers of youngsters are interested in gamekeeping and I’d say that pupil numbers at Hartpury are up 15-20% on last year…. more people are getting to know about gamekeeping, learning about it and getting involved.”

The Frank Jenkins Memorial Trophy

The late Frank Jenkins was a well-known gamekeeper whose career spanned more than 60 years. The annual award goes to the best full or part-time gamekeeping student or apprentice of the academic year. The award is judged by senior members of the NGO. Cormac Thompson completed a Level 3 Extended Diploma in Countryside Management (Game). Hartpury College lecturer Robbie Nicolle said: “Cormac is one of the most hardworking and determined students I have ever taught.”

As well as his award Cormac was presented with a gift from Frank’s daughter and son, and received a voucher for a new jacket from Musto, which sponsors the awards, as well as an engraved NGO tankard. The award was presented at the 2016 Midland Game Fair by NGO chairman Liam Bell (below, with Cormac) who said: “The judges felt Cormac was an outstanding gamekeeping student. His dedication to the job, coupled with his maturity and excellent academic and practical ability, along with the gift of being able to inspire others, will, I hope, see him fulfil his dream of becoming a headkeeper.”