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The life of a lady keeper

Jaki Evans smells of aniseed. Indeed, everything reeks of the sweet liquorice that is fed to her pheasants as part of a balanced diet. Bruce Springsteen is growling on her car radio. On the passenger seat sits a box of .243 cartridges, a nail file anda possessive terrier called Trix, who will defend its cab with bared teeth. Two Labradors man the back of the vehicle, though they are more likely to lick you to death than bite. Most women keep their daily necessities in a handbag ? Jaki has a truck.

When we meet Jaki she is out doing the final preparations before the first day of the season; ticking off the final check points on her list. She is not in the best of spirits, having just watched a dog walker with a spaniel and golden retriever wander through her pens and covercrops.

?The birds are flighty enough as it is without that happening. The days when you could tell them to sling their hook are sadly long gone,? she grumbles, as we watch her pheasants roosting on a long row of straw bales. The structure is an added obstacle to get the birds flying up over the Guns organic sewelling, if you will ? acting as a flushing point during a drive and a funnel to coax the birds over the middle of the line.

The shoot in Berkshire is a private estate, which hosts a handful of family days during the season. ?I am very fortunate that my boss backs me up financially and trusts me to get the job done. It is a privileged position to have a job where you can go as you please and work whatever hours suit, so long as you produce results. I certainly have no 9am to 5pm schedule. If I?m struggling to sleep at night, then I might go out and see if I can lamp a fox. Likewise, if I feel like a nap in the afternoon, then I can go and take one. There are not many
jobs that have that freedom.?

When Jaki arrived last season, the first task was to implement a covercrop strategy, which she masterminded with local seed specialist David Bright. ?We decided on maize and dwarf sorghum, as we have sandy soil here which is low in nutrients. The local contractors were brilliant. With the warm weather this summer, the conditions were just right and the crops took off a treat. I try to use the least possible amount of drugs and sprays on the shoot, so it can be a case of holding one?s nerve and hoping the plants get away well. The weeds, such as fat hen, did equally well this year, but they provide added cover and bug life for the birds.”

With the September sunshine came the plague of daddy-long-legs that descended on Britain. ?It has been a nightmare year for keeping the pheasants in one place, as they will go miles for the daddy-long-legs. Again, it was a case of don?t panic. Eventually, the colder weather will come and the birds will come back to eat.? As a result, however, dogging-in has been a constant battle and Jaki is grateful to the members of the local gundog club, who are delighted to help out.

She also had to find her own set of beaters. ?I put notices in the local pub and I suspect a few of them came along out of curiosity. I now have a wonderful team who know their own roles, which makes my job so much easier. They also know not to make chit-chat to me before the first drive on the first day. I will be far too uptight to take any notice.?

The only regret is that there are not more dogs in the beating line. ?I am looking to buy a Clumber spaniel as they?re the perfect dog for using in the line. They will hunt, but stay in close. If I was a self-employed beater then I?d likely get a cocker, but they tend to wander if you?re not concentrating on them all the time.?

Without wanting to sound chauvinistic, I asked Jaki if it is safe for a woman to be out in the dark woods late at night? ?Well, they might get a bit of a shock when they see I?m carrying a .22-250!? she said. ?Joking apart, though, I will always be out with my dogs, which are a great comfort. There are plenty of people who think I am clinically nuts doing a man?s job, but I?ve found there are few aspects that I struggle with. Lifting the tons and tons of corn is a problem, and I have damaged cartilage in my knees and strained my neck, but I think that happens to all keepers eventually. I am not too proud to ask for help and many of the beaters are only too happy to help out ? especially if there is some fox lamping in return.?

I also asked Jaki if she found that shooting people can be sexist? ?You do get the odd raised eyebrow or remark, but the majority of folk are supportive and accepting, especially if you do a good job. I would like to see more women involved in keepering. We tend to make good stock people and we have a better eye for detail than most men. I suppose one obstacle would be if you are a mother and you can?t drop everything to deal with a problem. You also have to deal with being cold, wet, lonely and exhausted. And if you want to have fabulous hair and nails, then don?t become a keeper.?

Jaki has also struggled to find the right clothes to fit the job. ?This is a child?s jacket and it is almost impossible to buy trousers that fit. My feet are size five, which is out of most vendors? range, though Hunter do make boots that size, if anyone else is in the same boat.?

Being a single mum has allowed Jaki the freedom to work her own hours. Her son William is now 19 years old and runs the gamecart on shoot days, though he is unlikely to take up his mother?s profession. ?I had to be a father figure for William, too,? Jaki says. ?I taught him to shoot and fish, and this job gave him plenty of opportunities to practise those skills. Of course, he has a great shooting name, so I bought him lots of kit with the William Evans logo on it.?

Shoot manager Henry Maddocks has witnessed Jaki?s success story in Hampshire
and explained how she can mix it up with the boys. However, Jaki still retains her feminine charms. ?She very much maintains her right to be a woman,? he said. ?She does not have bulging muscles or sport a beard, with a rugged weather-beaten face. And, when she wears a camouflage jacket, she does not become a masculine hunter straight off the Steppes of Russia, like the mental picture that seems to be drawn up of women working in the gamekeeping industry.?

Vermin control is one of Jaki?s pleasures and she spends many hours potting rabbits and squirrels with her open-sighted .22 rifle. She also manages the estate?s population of roe and muntjac with a .243, a rifle she learned to shoot in her native Aberdeenshire. ?When I bought the gun, the shopkeeper looked me up and down before announcing that a .243 was a good woman?s calibre. I told him there was no substitute for accuracy, which rather took the wind from his sails.?

But it is the tunnel traps that give her the biggest buzz. Every morning, Jaki hurries out to see what they have caught. ?It?s childish really, but I find it so exciting. My favourite is a network of traps I call the House of Surprises, because most mornings there is a nice surprise waiting for me.? However, the preparation for the season has finished now and the real action started
the day after our visit. Despite all the angst and consternation, will Jaki be able to enjoy the day? ?Oh yes. It is one of the great paradoxes of being a keeper that you put so much time, effort and care into ensuring your birds stay healthy; but then you are delighted when they fly well and the Guns shoot them. When that first shot is fired, I will be greatly relieved.

Each time a good bird falls from the sky I want to wave my arms and shout out, ?would you look at that?. But that wouldn?t look very professional now, would it??