In Britain, the Golden Age of driven shooting reached its zenith in the years immediately prior to World War I, and it is generally agreed that the 40 or so years from 1870 saw an escalation of keepering, rearing and shooting. By 1911, the greater part of England and southern Scotland was intensively keepered. A census for that year disclosed a peak of 23,056 full-time keepers, a figure that meant a well-keepered shoot would have an average of 2.5 keepers for every 1,000 hectares (2,500 acres).
However, the advent of World War I saw not only the loss of an entire generation, but also the collapse of the rural economy and its associated class structure. The days of the great Edwardian shoots and massive bags were at an end, while unemployment and changing attitudes over the ensuing years dealt estate owners and shooting a reverse, which meant that by the 1980s the numbers of keepers in full-time employment had fallen to 3,000. That figure remains much the same, supplemented by a further 2,000 part-time keepers.
An ill-informed observer could be forgiven for assuming that the days of the professional keeper and the driven shoot are drawing to a close. How wrong he would be. The number of full-time professional gamekeepers may remain at around 3,000, but they are today thriving and, under the aegis of the National Gamekeepers? Organisation (NGO), a force to be reckoned with.
The NGO, now with a growing membership of more than 10,000 members, was founded a decade ago, in 1996, by a group of 10 keepers who were of the opinion that their profession was not receiving adequate representation and that, unless action was taken, the future was bleak.
Ken Butler, for 45 years a professional gamekeeper and chairman of the NGO, told me: ?We were concerned about our livelihoods and the future, so a group of keepers met in a pub in Staffordshire, agreed that something needed to be done and each put in a few pounds to get the thing going. A year later we had a stand at the Game Fair and haven?t looked back since.?
Ken, as chairman, has four vice-chairmen who report to him, so that if an emergency arises he has four people with whom he can consult. Each vice-chairman is also a regional chairman, of which there are 20 in total. At the moment, as not every county has a chairman, there are areas where two or three counties are linked together under one chairman, but the important aspect is that the whole of England and Wales is represented. There are four meetings a year to discuss current events, and a finance committee with its own chairman. In addition, the NGO is efficiently represented by a public relations company run by Charles Nodder, well known in the world of shooting and conservation.
Apart from defending shooting and keepering, Ken Butler is convinced that education is a priority. An education committee has a brief to promote an understanding about matters connected with keepering, shooting and conservation among children and adults. There is also a charitable trust whose remit is education among children up to the age of 16. Last year talks were given to some 50,000 school-children and, in addition, a DVD and CD have been made. These will be placed in schools to help educate children about the sport and conservation.
Gamekeeper membership and the right to vote require applicants to confirm that they are, or were, professional keepers and they must state their place of work. There is also a supporter member group, but those members do not have a vote, thus ensuring that the organisation is run only by professional keepers. The annual subscription for a full-time keeper and associate member costs £25.
The NGO is not the only organisation devoted to the welfare of keepers. BASC also runs its own department devoted to keepering and wildlife management, so I asked Ken Butler whether he thought there was a duplication of effort and also whether the NGO co-operates with BASC.
?The NGO does co-operate with BASC,? he emphasised, ?but the difference is that the NGO is run purely by professional gamekeepers and that, of course, is not the case with BASC. If, for instance, a recommendation is put forward by the BASC keepering section, but the Council, chairman or chief executive doesn?t like it, then it will go no further. That was the prime reason for establishing the NGO.?
Ken is equally forthright as far as public perception of keepering is concerned. ?There?s no doubt that a lot of gamekeepers are still living in the past ? we?ve somehow got to drag them, kicking and screaming, into the 21st century. We?ve got to change some of our ways and I believe that some restrictions are better than having nothing at all. Every time a keeper is caught using poison to kill a bird of prey, our case is set back.
?Somehow we have to get politicians and governing bodies to listen to us as practical men. For instance, the badger issue has got to be addressed. Never mind TB, the badger population is expanding to such an extent that it will eventually develop a virus which will wipe it out. We have to deal with a countryside that is being shared by far more people than when I first started gamekeeping, and we either co-operate or get nowhere.?
What, I queried, is the NGO attitude to some shoots which choose to shoot what, in the public perception, may appear to be unnecessarily large bags? Ken adopts a pragmatic approach to the issue and believes that provided shoots follow the guidelines on rearing and stocking densities advocated by the Game Conservancy Trust, then it is of little consequence if a shoot kills 1,000 birds in a day or 100. ?It may not be popular, but that doesn?t matter, because if they kill the larger bag in one day instead of in 10 days then it can be forcefully argued that they are doing far less damage to the environment and it should be their choice.
I think this approach can be sold to the public, which, I believe, is not really bothered whether 1,000 birds or 10 are shot. I know it?s a subject which worries some Guns and I?ve listened to them talking about it at lunch and suggesting how bad it is to shoot big bags, but when the birds are pouring over, they can?t get their cartridges in quick enough.?
Today, the NGO offers its members a wide range of services, including advice sheets and ?How to do it? videos on gamekeeping, in addition to ties, badges, tags for deer and gamebirds and legal notices from its shop. There is also an informative and well-produced quarterly magazine.
The NGO has two mottos: Run by gamekeepers for gamekeepers and Keeping the balance or, as Ken puts it, ?Our aims are to preserve our sport, to see that it is carried out in a respectable manner and to make sure our jobs are safe for ourselves and future gamekeepers.?
Membership cost: £25 for a full-time keeper and associate member
Date founded: 1996
Number of members: More than 10,000
Education: Last year the NGO gave talks to 50,000 school-children and
a CD and DVD have been produced, which will be placed in schools to help educate children.
Public perception: The NGO realises the importance of the public?s perception
of keepers and strives to promote more understanding and attention from politicians and governing bodies.
Badgers: The realisation that the badger population is exploding and something must be done. The NGO using this as a focus point.
Big bags: The NGO does not take a stance on the size of the bag, but on
the quality ? if shoots follow rearing and stocking density guidelines, big
bags should not be an issue.
Advice: The NGO provides a wide range of services, including advice
sheets and videos, and has an informative quarterly magazine as well as a shop selling badges, ties and deer tags.
If you would like to know more about the NGO or join the organisation, contact: NGO, PO Box 107, Bishop Auckland DL14 9YW, or visit www.nationalgamekeepers.org.uk