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The changing role of the keeper

There are not many professions today for which the job description insists that you are a bird keeper, pest controller, accountant, marketeer, PR manager, environmentalist and health and safety technician; but the modern gamekeeper can expect to answer to all these titles. Gone are the days when a keeper’s primary role was
presenting birds for the Guns to shoot.
“One of the major changes since I was a lad is the bureaucracy,” said Martin Edwards, a lecturer in gamekeeping at Sparsholt College, in Hampshire. His department helps prepare the next generation of keepers, teaching them the rudimentary skills before “finishing” them on an internship at a sporting estate. “A modern gamekeeper now has to gain a certificate of competency in health and safety for so many more aspects of his profession, whether it is meat hygiene, driving ATVs or using a chainsaw. It has probably helped improve standards, though whether there are fewer accidents now as a result is debatable. It’s a sign of the times, I suppose.”
Before colleges such as Sparsholt existed, knowledge was passed down from father to son or by serving an apprenticeship under an experienced keeper. “It was all about fieldwork back then,” Martin said. “Of course, we do still teach that, but the courses bring in a modern range of skills, which are vital for the keeper of today, such as book-keeping, marketing techniques and use of IT. They need to learn how to set up basic shoot finances and draft a contract. Many shoots now have sophisticated websites which are their primary means of marketing, so it is becoming an increasing part of the keeper’s role. In the past, a resident land agent would have looked after the administration, but now that is often done by an external firm or left to the keeper himself. There are few headkeepers today who don’t rely heavily on computers and email for the running of their shoot.”
New technology, it seems, is an unavoidable element of the modern keeper’s art, much as some of the old timers would resist it. Many a drive would stand still if the system of radios packed up, and gadgetry ranging from GPS devices for mapping out covercrops to infrared night sights for pest control have all become tools in the keeper’s armoury. “When I was growing up,” recalled Paul McAteer, a retired land agent from Cornwall, who is now in his nineties, “keepers didn’t rely on mobile phones or radios on a shoot — any important instructions were relayed by a system of runners, a bit like in the trenches. In those days, you made a plan and stuck to it, which seems to have gone out the window. Today, people don’t mind if they are running late, because they can ring ahead. Of course, when the blasted phone
doesn’t work, then the system fails.”
Paul remembers the keeper as being the regimental sergeant-major of the estate. “Back then, he was the boss’s right-hand man, a confidant, who enjoyed a very close relationship compared with other estate workers,” he said. “It was certainly a position of privilege, second only in the pecking order perhaps to the boss’s wife! The keeper co-operated with the farm manager, but he had the final say.”
The day-to-day work of the keeper has also changed, according to Paul. “There used to be so many more keepers in those times, so each could be that much more specialised. Today, the keepers have to do everything. Of course, they don’t all have the time to hand-rear birds using bantams like in the old days. They wouldn’t thank me for saying it, but the modern keeper has been forced to become more of a poultryman than the countryman that his grandfather would have been. A lot is made of conservation today, but that has always been part of the keeper’s job, it just didn’t have a title back then. Admittedly, techniques were different and the vermin list was longer, but the biodiversity was every bit as rich as it is now — probably more so.”
Charles Coles, one of the primary founders of what is now the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust in the 1950s, remembers the keepers of his youth being some of the finest naturalists in the country, with an unrivalled eye for noticing signs of animal and bird life. He wonders whether today’s keeper gets the same amount of time to watch and learn. “The major development in my life has been the commercialisation of shooting,” he said. “When I first started, it was all done privately — either on the big estates where the owner invited parties or on smaller local shoots, where the Guns shared the work. Little by little, however, it became more expensive to run a shoot, so owners started offering places for paying Guns. Of course, when estates and farms saw the opportunity to make money from the shooting, prices went up.”
The result has been an increase of pressure on the man in the middle: the gamekeeper. While the keeper was always responsible for presenting the best possible birds for his boss and his guests, the money angle has cranked it up a notch. “It is not universal, but I think there is a change among the landowners themselves in many cases, too,” Charles continued. “In the wild bird days, the owner had usually been brought up on the estate, as
had the keeper, who maybe taught the boss how to shoot. He knew that a bad frost at a certain time resulted in a poor return and he understood why the birds would not fly in a certain wind. Today, there are more absentee landlords, whose clients expect everything to be just right on their big day, so the keeper has to deliver, come what may.”
Dave Hardgrave, a Yorkshireman who runs a DIY shoot over 140 acres in Northamptonshire, lives next door to a large commercial shoot. He does not envy the keepers there at all. “When I was growing up 30 years ago, keepering was a way of life rather than a way to earn a living. Money hardly came into it,” he said. “Now it is all about money and pressure. I call the local keepers ‘pheasant feeders’ because that’s all they seem to do when they’re not actually leading the line. That and lamping foxes — it can be like the Blackpool Illuminations round here some nights. I always thought the art of keepering was to get the fox close enough to shoot it with a tight pattern of BBs, but I suppose I am old-fashioned.”
Another change for Dave is that today’s keeper has to be almost apologetic when introducing themselves in the local pub or village shop. “I remember the gamekeeper being a big, loud, jolly fellow who had the respect of all the community, almost more than the policeman or vicar. You wouldn’t have found him writing risk assessments or discussing health and safety issues!”
There is always a danger, however, with all this reminiscing, that the old ways become romanticised. Would any of the keepers 50 years ago have turned their noses up at mobile phones or GPS devices? Probably not. For Geva Blackett, chief executive of
the Scottish Countryside Alliance, there is no need to get carried away with the “all change is bad” attitude. “If you look at the modern countryside, most of which was sculpted with sporting intentions in mind, you see that it is still in the same shape as it was several generations ago,” she said. “The reason is that the modern keepers care just as much about the countryside as their fathers and grandfathers did. They have been brought up into the profession and so much of the knowledge is still passed down by word of mouth, as it always has been. You still become a keeper for the love of the job, rather than a need to get rich.”
Geva believes that modern education has turned out a more enlightened gamekeeper than his forebears. “They are very aware of their environment and their role in protecting it,” she said, “and they see themselves as custodians of a way of life. Many of the keepers I know are hugely knowledgeable about the land, often using this experience to become accomplished photographers in their spare time. It is true that keepers are under more surveillance and there is more politicisation of their profession, but if it helps engender best practice, then it must be a good thing. I don’t believe all that much has changed. Keepering is still a fine, traditional job with a bright future.”