Back in 2016, Shooting Gazette interviewed gamekeeper George Elliott of the Birkhill Castle estate in Scotland about the demands on his time. It's a near perfect explanation of how a gamekeeper spends his time.
We asked gamekeeper, stalker and shoot host George Elliott to explain a gamekeeper’s job description. Here’s what he said.
A gamekeeper’s job description
First off is the ability to manage on a few hours of rest and sleep in a car. I ask George how many hours he works during his busiest months. He shakes his head, saying:
“I’ve never added them up but I know it’s a lot because my Land Rover becomes my bed. It’s not the most comfortable place I’ve slept, but when you’ve put in the hours each day tending to the birds, comfort doesn’t come into it because you’re so tired you drop off to sleep where you sit down. It can be as little as four hours of snatched sleep.”
Next up is maintenance of the grounds and pens before the birds arrive. George says:“Once your birds are here you can’t make a bad thing good, you have to do it beforehand. If we have a spell of bad weather, a good quality pheasant pen can really help the birds out.”
Building the perfect pen
Carpentry skills are also part of a gamekeeper’s job description. Early one morning the work starts dismantling an old pen because it sits in a north-west position, lacking sunlight and enough aerial cover for the birds. George and his team rebuild the pen further east in the wood, where the aerial and ground cover will give the birds more shelter. This new pen position is more accessible, with a natural feed ride getting the sun all day long. The new location has also enabled George to create a new drive: the guns will be facing west so he plans to drive the birds east around midday when the sun is high in the south. The ground drops away so the birds ought to fly well, and like the guns, they won’t have sun in their eyes. He comments: “You never can tell how the drive will go – you have a pretty good idea but you can never really tell until you do it.”
But he is confident the birds will settle in the new improved pen location, as it gives them more protection from aerial attacks by raptors.
Dealing with dog walkers and predators
Pest control and predator deterrents feature heavily in a gamekeeper’s job description. Keeping the birds safe from threats is continual. (Read GWCT advice on how to keep predators out of your pheasant pen.) George says:
“It is difficult to name the single biggest threat as it’s a really close call between buzzards and foxes here, but humans also feature high on the list, especially the ones who have no control over their dogs.”
Fife’s mixed countryside of open land and woodland provides buzzards with an ideal habitat. They are very well established here and even on a short journey you are certain to see at least one sitting on a fencepost or telephone pole. It is also a common sight to see them engaged in aerial combat with a number of crows above woodland.
“All I can do is use deterrents to keep the buzzards away, but it’s a constant battle to identify something that works because they quickly adapt and the deterrent becomes useless. They are very bold – one morning I arrived to the pen and counted 13 buzzards,” says George.
With buzzards providing such a big threat to the poults, I ask George about the types of deterrents he employs:
“I tie string from one post to the next to hang CDs so they move in the breeze and glint in the sun. With a particularly problematic pen I leave a spare vehicle parked up but the buzzards soon get wise to that too. I have changed the feeding pattern, made sure I am around more than usual but I still see them and other raptors hanging around close to the pens and often inside.”
Tackling the foxes
Fox cubs, like young buzzards, are a serious problem: they kill for fun and not for food. Once the cubs are active and moving around they can be a huge pest and are likely to kill in bigger numbers than an adult. Both fox and buzzard take the heads off pheasant poults. George wants to identify what was responsible so he strips any dead poults to see if it has teeth or talon marks and records the details in his diary. He says:
“I have found buzzards to be more persistent: they come back every morning and night, although many appear to favour the morning because they seem to hit the poults when they come off the roost.”
The fox numbers are controlled by snaring and lamping. Typically, April and May are busy months for fox control. As the crops grow and the ground cover increases, the fox lamping activity is reduced. Foxes have been seen hunting during the day and the tell-tale paw prints confirm their presence, so snares have been set along fox runs. The traps are checked daily and within 48 hours a vixen is caught and dispatched.
Other pests that need dealing with are grey squirrels and mink.
The human invaders
Diplomatic skills are also needed in a gamekeeper’s job description. Since the “right to roam” under the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003 came into force on February 9, 2005, many shooting estates have experienced walkers using the land to exercise their dogs. According to the Scottish Outdoor Access Code, dogs must be kept under close control, meaning your dog responds to your commands and is kept close at heel. George says:
“It’s not the dogs’ fault, it’s the owners’. Just because you have the right to roam doesn’t mean to say you can let your dog run wild around pheasant pens and surrounding release areas. They think the dog isn’t doing any harm because it hasn’t caught any pheasants.”
Some dog walkers fail to understand the impact their dogs have on the birds and other wildlife on the estate. The gamekeeper will have spent weeks settling the birds in but a dog running around will frighten them and cause them to scatter, making it difficult to locate them and bring back in. Scared birds are also going to be more exposed to other pests and predators.
On a keepered estate you are naturally going to have more bird life because the rat, fox, mink and weasel populations are being controlled. Over half of Scotland’s birds nest on the ground, so all the conservation work a gamekeeper carries out allows the bird life to flourish.
“We have a drive where we feed the birds over a road, it’s not the M1 but it produces a good pheasant drive.”
He has placed signs by the roadside warning motorists that game birds are about and asking them to drive carefully. George says:
“The signs are there for the safety of both the birds and the motorist. We don’t want someone flying along the road, pheasants suddenly appear, driver panics, slams on the brakes and has an accident.”
George purposely leaves any dead birds on the road as it naturally slows drivers down.
“The carrion also gives the buzzards something to eat during the day and hopefully keeps them away from the pheasants.”
The birds are seven weeks old when they make the journey from Wales. They travel 30 to a crate overnight to Birkhill, arriving early in the morning. Richard Crofts from Welsh supplier Bettws Hall, Powys, explained:
“We crate them the night before because it is better for them to travel overnight – it keeps them in the routine of sleeping at night. We arrive at first light, which means we can put them straight into their pens.”
However, before the birds are delivered the weather is watched very closely. If there is a wet spell the birds can be held back for a time and delivered when the weather improves. George says:
“You can’t beat the rain, it is a big panic when it rains day after day. The first 14 days of the poults arriving here is crucially dependent on weather, so we are always watching and hoping it stays dry. I have three staggered deliveries of birds because we shoot later on in the season in mature woodland – that means I need to wait until the leaves are off the trees. If the weather is looking good I get the birds in. If it is not looking good I talk to Richard and we push back the delivery date.” (More key tips on looking after pheasant poults here.)
George’s day starts at sunrise with feeding, watering and checking the birds. After breakfast he starts filling up the water bowsers, as there is no mains water at the pens. Each pen has a holding tank to fill so he has a spare tank on a trailer hitched to his Land Rover, which means he can pump the water across to each one of the 13 tanks. It can take three hours to get around them all before the second feed starts, and everything else needs tending too. After the months of preparation, I ask George how he feels when the pheasant poults arrive. He says:
“It is just like getting every last pound note and penny you have in the world, then opening your wallet on a windy day and letting it all blow away into the woods and over the estate, hoping it will still be there when the game shooting season starts.”