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How professional gamekeeping has evolved over the decades

Gamekeeping continues to evolve as a calling, and it’s surprising to find out just how many are self-employed, writes Lindsay Waddell

There are very few people who are employed in the countryside, or anywhere else for that matter, who are doing what they did a century or more ago — at least in the same manner. The thatcher, farrier and hedgelayer are perhaps three that have witnessed little change, although even there, modern implements have eased their way into the toolbox of some.

With a few exceptions though, the gamekeepers in the old grainy black and white photographs would hardly recognise the day-to-day work their modern counterparts do or, for that matter, how they are employed to do it. In the dim and distant past, every gamekeeper was employed by either a landowner or a tenant who had taken the lease on the land. If there was a change from the former to the latter ­— and the gamekeeper was part of the package — it was often an uneasy marriage. 

But what drove the change, and when? There’s no doubt the move from landowner employment to a number of other situations is nothing new. As the Highlands were opened up in the 19th century, mainly via the railway network, many estate owners would let out their stalking, salmon fishing and assorted shooting in an effort to keep themselves in the manner to which they were accustomed, and along with that went the staff. For many of them, it was the first time they had ever worked for anyone other than the owner of the land, and there was no doubt some tenants wanted their money’s worth from the arrangement.

A shooting party gathered at Kinnaird House in 1869

A grouse shoot in Perthshire


After the wars

The fallout from World War I and World War II was even more drastic. Thousands of large holdings were broken up as families were forced to sell their land, in some cases losing it all to pay death duties to the Crown. It seemed a harsh penalty when the family had already paid a very high price in losing their sons to fight for the country, but that was the system.

The fragmentation of the large estates did offer new opportunities to those who wished to shoot or participate in other fieldsports, but who simply had not been able to afford to do it. Smaller blocks of land were available to rent, and the sea-change in rearing methods meant that you no longer had to employ a team of any size in order to rear, or put to wood, a few thousand birds. The days of teams of men rearing birds on coops were all but over. 

Those two things alone probably had as big an impact on the employment status of gamekeepers as almost anything else. What it did mean, though, was that the security of the job was, if anything, even more tenuous than it had been before. You may well have been at the mercy and whims of a single large landowner, but at the very least they had been a fixture in the landscape. 

Now you were exposed to only a few years of a shooting lease, and that was a precarious position to be in, as many found out to their cost. The length of leases and contracts of employment meant there was little recompense when things went wrong. When gamekeepers found themselves being given their notice, they had little to protect them in law as they were classed as private servants. 

Thankfully some things have changed, and now at least those who have served a decent period of time do have some protection in the law, although it is sometimes necessary to resort to legal action to enforce it.

The change from landowners to tenants was one thing, but along with that, as costs increased, came the move to syndicates. Syndicates per se were not new — anglers had participated in them for many years as paying Rods on beats of chalk streams and salmon rivers — but the move to sharing costs on shoots was a game-changer, and lots of shoots began to move in that direction. It could be a fickle existence, as although many syndicates were harmonious, some were not, and an unhappy group of Guns does not bode well for an employee.

As an example, I knew one keeper who was a very good friend. As a young man, he moved to a private family shoot, which after a few years was let to a syndicate, as his employer did not wish to carry the cost anymore. Over the majority of the remainder of his working life he was moved from one syndicate to another as the shoot lease changed hands, until in the end the last team gave up the lease. His employer did not wish to keep a full-time gamekeeper, but wanted to have a small part-time family shoot instead. Sadly, that was the end of a very good man’s employment at a difficult age in his life, as his job quickly became a combination of part-time farm worker, part-time forestry, and the remainder as a gamekeeper. 

Modern gamekeepers have adapted to the changes over the past century, some with varying degrees of success


The roving syndicate

But change is ongoing, and there are now many teams of Guns who look to take the odd day here and there as opposed to being fixed in one location. The roving syndicate, large or small, keeps the books on an even keel for many shoots that are either completely commercial or family shoots that let a few days in order to supplement their income. Syndicates are also playing their part in helping another member of the gamekeeping profession in the countryside; the self-employed gamekeeper. 

It is surprising just how many are self-employed. There are hundreds of gamekeepers who found themselves in the difficult situation of being made redundant who bit the bullet, took the shoot over and have made a very good life for themselves — albeit at times a hard one. Some have taken on a series of leases, some rough shooting, some stalking, some driven shooting ground, which give them a whole range of sporting days for clients and provide teams or individuals with a really good experience, whatever the day may be.

One thing is certain; gamekeepers are resilient. Their life has made them that way, and as things change they will adapt. All being well, they will still be here in another century.