Gamekeepers and their teams are the eyes, the ears, the very soul of the shoot, says Robert Gibbons
For those of us who shoot, it is the nature of the sport that you come into contact with that unique and special brand of individual, the gamekeeper. But what do we really know about the men or women who have devoted themselves to the job?
With the increase in recent years of commercial shoots and a great many more people shooting, when a day is taken it is often the case that a Gun never meets the gamekeeper at all on the shoot. The shoot manager is the one who meets and greets the guests, informs them of the programme for the day and deals with the drawing of pegs.
Often as not, the gamekeeper is not even introduced except at the end of the day to receive the tip — and even that’s not always the case. So the most important person on the shoot often goes unnoticed.
On a private shoot, things are usually different. The host makes a point of introducing their gamekeeper to his guests and leaves it to the gamekeeper to explain the arrangements for the day, while the host does the draw. There are no celebrity gamekeepers, but there have been legendary gamekeepers whose prowess is still talked about and missed.
What about the gamekeeper himself? There are, in my opinion, three sorts of gamekeeper: good, bad and useless. There is no value too high to be put on a good gamekeeper. Generally, he is one of nature’s gentlemen — well-mannered and, to use that old-fashioned word, sound. The bad gamekeeper is a menace. We then come to the useless gamekeeper, but the less said about them the better.
For fear of retribution, I do not wish to over-define this last sort, but those who organise or are responsible for a shoot are well aware of their existence, sadly often not until it is too late. I have a friend who, after many years, lost his headkeeper, only to have a real problem in finding a replacement.
It is almost impossible to assess the competence of a potential gamekeeper by his references or by his own description of his attributes. The proof of the pudding is in the eating. My friend, having at last taken on a new headkeeper, discovered too late in the day he was useless and, unable to make a change mid-season, had to put up with the ensuing chaos.
So what does determine a good gamekeeper? So much depends on the gamekeeper’s character. For my money, a good gamekeeper must be an optimist. To be anything else bodes ill. It almost goes without saying that a gamekeeper should have worked and learned the basics of the job as an underkeeper before going on his own, and have gained knowledge and understanding of what is involved. Yet I know a number of gamekeepers who, even after years in the job, never seem to improve — what is worse, they forget all they have learned, ignore all new ideas and simply stagnate.
There is nothing worse in a gamekeeper than the lack of adaptability and the failure to implement changes that he should have anticipated.
Some things have changed. What has been discovered, for example, is better care of the game and its preservation and, above all, improved ways of bringing it to the Gun. A good gamekeeper must show himself amenable to new ideas and try to keep in touch with the latest views and benefit from them, including the minefield of up-to-date legislation.
No shoot is an island and a good gamekeeper makes sure he gets on well with the neighbours. This is not always easy, but if there is a problem with the shoot next door it is often the gamekeeper’s fault — feeding in the neighbour’s pheasants, that sort of thing, does not make for good relations.
Similarly, the gamekeeper and the farmer have always, since time immemorial, had their disagreements. A good gamekeeper’s job is to work with the farm. The most common example is when it comes to the positioning or planting of game crops on the farm. I have never met a farmer yet who is happy with what and where the crop is. It is the gamekeeper’s job to try to sort out this age-old problem, otherwise the shoot suffers.
Optimism apart, enthusiasm, basic good manners and a sense of humour are all qualities a good gamekeeper should embrace, as is an ability to inspire those who work with him and those who take part in the sport themselves. There is nothing more unsettling on a shoot than to have a gamekeeper who gives the impression of being bored by his work, going about the task grumpily scowling at the Guns. The day’s shooting in his company is usually a failure.
Fortunately, you seldom come across such individuals, but I can recall occasions when I have — and I expect the reader can too. Such as the day I was consistently placed where it was uncomfortable to stand or involved wading through a stream to get to a peg. In my case unwelcome, as I wear shoes. It is a gamekeeper’s job to ensure a Gun is looked after, not invited to go on each drive as if it were an assault course.
A few years ago I accepted an invitation to be a guest on a syndicate shoot that a friend of mine had joined. He was able to invite a guest on the day I went.
It was a 250-bird, single gun day. I have been fortunate in always having someone with me when I shoot to act as my loader. After the second drive, the gamekeeper came up to me and reprimanded me, pointing out that as it was a single gun day, I should not have my man loading for me, putting in the cartridges. He then stormed off.
After the third drive we stopped for a break and I mentioned the matter to my host, who was horrified. He pointed out that the gamekeeper was new that season and it was only their second day. I was to carry on as I wished — but it rather soured the day.
Then there was the time a couple of years ago when, after two excellent days at the grouse — the bag being about 100 brace each day — I tipped the gamekeeper £100. Crushing the two Bank of Scotland £50 notes in his hand, he held them up to me, asking me if there had been some mistake. The expected tip was £100 per day. I pointed out that it had not been explained to me that I was required to supplement his wages and deftly retrieved my tip. For a good gamekeeper, the sheer joy of the sport is in getting a good bag while remaining calm and deliberate in carrying out the organisation of the day’s sport. Better to lower expectations and over-deliver is not a bad maxim.
There is one aspect of gamekeepering that readers may agree with. It has always been my understanding that an important adjunct for any good gamekeeper is to keep an efficient, well-trained gundog(s). In recent years, this practice seems to have deteriorated. Those of us who have our own dogs know only too well the importance of having and enjoying a well-trained dog. It is part of the enjoyment of a day’s shooting.
However, there is nothing worse than being on a shoot where the gamekeeper deploys a lot of inferior dogs. Wounded game not being picked-up or, worse still, an insufficient number of dogs to complete the task. I have the impression that the training of their own dogs for some gamekeepers is no longer a priority and those who have dogs possess a standard far below what it ought to be. It is part of a good gamekeeper’s duties to be able to train a dog both for the moor and the field, just as well as he can rear pheasants or trap vermin. Of course, there are gamekeepers who train a gundog and make an admirable job of it.
Buying a dog from a gamekeeper and hoping he is trained does not always bear fruit. How many times have I been on a shoot and seen a particularly badly behaved dog drive his owner to despair only to be told, “I bought him from a local gamekeeper.” Then watch the animal disappear at the end of a drive into a wood, never to be seen again until the last whistle.
I know of a gamekeeper who for years has had the reputation of breeding and producing some of the best Labradors to the gun you could find. People came from far and wide to take his dogs, and still do. His secret, which he learned from his father, was to slip the odd collie into the Labrador gene pool to sharpen up the breed, which is why on a number of northern shoots the long-legged lean black Labrador is much in evidence — and what great gundogs they are — as opposed to the otherwise short-legged plump version. Some readers will not be at all happy with this. However, the gamekeeper in question produces a dog fit for the purpose. Isn’t that the job of a good gamekeeper?
Above all, a good gamekeeper must be humane. Not only in the way he looks after his gundogs and other animals in his care, but also to extend gentleness and consideration to prevent unnecessary suffering to the quarry. A cruel gamekeeper is very bad news indeed.
I have been fortunate in having had for the past many years a good gamekeeper. I do not wish to boost his ego as he does read my articles, but I would like to finish by saying that, despite ups and downs, we have both managed to agree on most things. Where we haven’t, we always end up doing it his way — sound familiar?