We talk to gamekeeper George Elliott of the Birkhill Castle estate in Scotland about the demands on his time

Birkhill in north Fife has been a sporting estate since the 1830s. Situated in eastern Scotland, less than an hour’s drive from Edinburgh, Birkhill is an established mix of wooded areas and arable land, with its northern edge sloping down to the banks of the Tay Estuary. Birkhill Castle is home to the Earl and Countess of Dundee and is available to shooting groups. Gamekeeper, stalker and shoot host George Elliott is in his eighth year of leasing the shooting rights here.

Demands on a gamekeeper’s time

The seasonal calendar makes many demands on a gamekeeper’s time and there is no doubt the role on a lowland sporting estate is wide-ranging and varied. 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.”

gamekeeper setting a trap Setting and concealing a Fenn trap by a pen. Vermin control is a constant battle and victory is elusive, despite hours of consistent effort.

Before the birds arrive at Birkhill there have been many months of preparation to give them the best possible start. The rhododendrons have been thinned, areas around the pens strimmed and maintenance carried out. A number of old pens have been taken down as they have been in the same location for a number of years and are moved to fresh ground. It is critical to get all the groundwork completed before the birds arrive, as 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 pen can really help the birds out.”

Creating a new drive

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 has Glen helping him to take the pen down and rebuild it 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. George is hopeful the new pen location and drive will work well:

“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.

Fighting the growing buzzard population

Pest control and predator deterrents feature heavily in a gamekeeper’s day. Keeping the birds safe from threats is continual. 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.”

It is estimated there are between 15,000 and 20,000 breeding pairs of buzzards in Scotland. Dealing with this is just one of the many challenges faced by keepers nationwide.

It is estimated there are between 15,000 and 20,000 breeding pairs of buzzards in Scotland. Fife’s mixed countryside of open land and woodland provides the 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. In Scotland, new snaring legislation has been implemented (Wildlife and Natural Environment Act, 2011, and The Snares [training] [Scotland] Order 2012). After January 2013 users have to be accredited and all snares must be fitted with a unique ID number, which will be prefixed with the letter of the animal you are intending to catch. The new legislation states that records must be kept to include location details, the date each snare is set, all catches and dates of any catches. If you set snares without completing the snaring course you will be committing a criminal offence.

Typically, April and May are busy months for fox control. As the crops grow and the ground cover increases, the 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.

After mink and moles

Here the Fenn trap is positioned on a crossing point to catch a murderous mink.

Pest activity is high. Grey squirrels are being caught in the live traps and a mink has been seen near a burn in the woodland, not far from the castle’s main drive, so George sets up a Fenn trap and positions it over the crossing point. The wooden tunnel, keeping non-target species out, is placed over the trap and is securely pinned down. Mink established a home in Britain after escaping from fur farms in the late 1950s. Although they are not often seen on the estate, their mass murderer reputation puts them high on the pest list, especially when the poults are in the pens. The following day we return to find a mink in the trap.

George has also been trapping moles around the castle drive and formal lawns. However, the mole is a different type of pest and its trapping is carried out for purely cosmetic reasons.

The human invaders

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.

“These are the people who put peanut feeders out in their gardens – they think they’ve done their bit for the bird population!”

George looks for mole runs, sets the trap and enjoys successful results.

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.

Roadkill warning

“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.”

Precious cargo

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, explains:

“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.”

On a wing and a prayer

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 shooting season starts in October.”

Interested in finding out more about gamekeeping? Do you want to become a gamekeeper, are you already doing it part-time or are off to agricultural college, then our Gamekeeper Day with Liam Bell on the 25 July 2016 would be perfect for you. Book today as places are strictly limited.