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Holkham Hall Norfolk’s lady gamekeeper Catherine Leach

Holkham Hall lady gamekeeper Catherine Leach proves that although gamekeeping is male-dominated the ladies can still hold their own. By Mary Bremner.

Catherine Leach Holkham Hall

What springs to mind when you think of Holkham Hall in Norfolk? The fabulous beach featured in Shakespeare in Love? Perhaps the tremendous 25,000-acre estate that covers miles of shoreline and some of the most beautiful parts of Norfolk? What about the Victoria Inn, where you can sit and listen to the constant gaggle of geese when the pinkfoots appear in the autumn? Or the magnificent shooting? Holkham Hall is of course renowned for its wild grey partridge shoot and famous drives.

With the shooting comes the gamekeepers, resplendent in their estate tweeds and famous bowler hats.  Invented, very sensibly, by William Coke, a nephew of the first Earl of Leicester, the bowlers acted as a hard hat to protect his gamekeepers’ skulls from the attention of poachers. They are still worn today, though more for tradition than protection.

Holkham Hall

The view from Catherine’s ‘office’ – spectacular Holkham Hall.

At the time of writing there are six keepers employed by the estate. But look closely at them. Rather than six strapping men, one of them is the small, slight and blonde Catherine Leach, Holkham Hall’s lady gamekeeper.

Originally employed as an underkeeper straight from college, Catherine has been at Holkham Hall for two-and-a-half years. Last March she was given her own beat incorporating 1,600 acres of pheasant and partridge ground within Holkham Park and on the National Nature Reserve, where she controls the vermin throughout the spring and summer. As well as her beat she is responsible for the deer park, where she manages the herds of red and fallow and controls the moles. Catherine also helps the team in the task of supplementing the stock of the estate’s wild grey partridge; she picks up eggs from vulnerable nests, hatches them under broody hens and then encourages pairs of barren partridge to adopt a brood. In addition to all that she runs the game larder with all its associated paperwork.

Come summer Catherine’s day starts at dawn, where she’ll be found in a high seat controlling muntjac numbers on the estate, and finishes at dusk when she might well be up another high seat after more muntjac or out checking her traps. She will then, quite probably, be out lamping after dark just to round her day off. That’s her quiet time of year. On a shoot day during the season she’ll be out at about 5.30am checking her traps (it can take up to three hours to get round them all) before donning her tweeds to be ready for an 8.30am briefing with headkeeper Kevan McCaig before the shoot.

Kevan McCaig

Holkham headkeeper Kevan McCaig was impressed by Catherine’s strong work ethic.

So what makes someone like Catherine – an attractive, well-educated girl – want to join the male-dominated, and probably often sexist, ranks of gamekeeping? It has to be said many keepers are not the most forthcoming individuals in the first place, and let alone to the female of the species…

“My grandfather was a keeper in Herefordshire and I spent a lot of time with him when I was growing up,” Catherine explains. “I loved helping him, setting traps and being outside in the countryside in the peace and quiet. I knew there was nothing else I wanted to do.”

Hailing from Berkshire and from a long line of tractor drivers, Catherine was brought up on a dairy farm. After taking her A-levels she headed to Sparsholt College in Hampshire to study gamekeeping. Her family and friends thought she was mad but there was no stopping her. Catherine is quiet, calm and unobtrusive but obviously determined and, in many ways, fearless, as she’s very much a minority in her world.

While at college Catherine volunteered at Yattendon to gain experience and then set about applying for jobs, 60 in total, before landing the role at Holkham Hall. “I was beginning to lose heart and thought I would have to take a job at a game farm when I saw the job at Holkham Hall advertised at college,” she explains.

Opportunity knocks at Holkham Hall

So why did Holkham Hall take her on? Headkeeper Kevan, who is from Dumfries and Galloway and came to Holkham Hall via the Duke of Northumberland at Alnwick and Sandringham, says: “She was the best applicant. She wrote the best letter and sailed through the test I gave them all. I allowed them just under an hour to set some traps and snares and to build a tunnel. Catherine handled it all really well and was the obvious choice. It doesn’t worry me that she’s a woman, it’s how she does the job that counts. As long as they don’t expect special treatment I am more than happy to employ women. Female keepers are good because they tend to listen and learn.

Holkham Hall

Catherine’s responsibilities at Holkham Hall
include managing the red deer population.

“I was looking for a young keeper to help me on my beat initially, which is what Catherine did. She grew into the job and now has her own beat. Catherine has the most varied job of all the keepers as she does so many other things such as the rearing, vermin control on the reserve as well as controlling the larder. She is also an expert mole catcher, something she learnt from the old deerkeeper. She’s good at her job,” he adds.

So what about the really heavy jobs?

“I use a winch for hanging the deer,” Catherine explains. “Everything else I can usually manage myself. There’s nothing I can’t do, I just have to approach some things differently. But I did have to ask for help dragging a red deer I’d shot out of a standing crop of wheat. The other keepers are always willing to help if I ask them, but it’s unusual. I don’t like to be beaten.”

“She won’t be beaten!” agrees Kevan.

Ably assisted by her two springers and a livewire Patterdale terrier, Catherine is a familiar sight around the estate. On shoot days she is now in charge of the stops but walks in the line instructing the beaters on her own beat. She says: “I can’t shout as loud as the others but I can make myself understood. The beaters and pickers-up are great. I felt the pressure in the first season but it doesn’t faze me any more. You learn from your mistakes.”

Catherine looks very smart in her tweeds and bowler hat, and adds a touch of femininity to the outfit in the form of some girly socks. Part of her beat is on the nature reserve that runs along the coastline. “My favourite bit of the job is the vermin control,” she tells me. “I love being out at first light trapping. I do the vermin control in the spring and summer on the reserve, which protects the nesting birds. I’m getting quite good at spotting the unusual visitors now, ably assisted by the three wardens who tell me what to look out for.”

From moles to surfing

“I enjoy the shoot days but prefer to be out patrolling my beat on my own. I have 10 strips of cover crops that are made up of a wild bird mixture and utopia with fodder radish interspersed. My beat has 200 hoppers to fill and all my traps need to be checked daily. I have reached my DSC Level One and use a .243 to control the deer, something I have learnt since coming to Holkham Hall. My least favourite part of the job? Mole catching [pity she’s so good at it], but it’s not too bad. I can’t believe I have ended up at Holkham Hall. I never thought that would happen when I was at college.”

When Catherine isn’t out trapping or feeding she’s a dab hand on a surfboard. She doesn’t get a lot of free time but when she does she’ll head to Cromer to catch some waves and spent her summer holiday surfing in Devon.

So what about the future? Is Catherine’s ultimate aim to have Kevan’s job? “I love being at Holkham Hall, and can’t believe my luck,” she says. “I want to stay here for many years but would never want to be a headkeeper. My ultimate aim is to run a single-handed shoot where I can be my own boss. I’d say to any girl who wants to be a gamekeeper, and this applies to men as well, don’t give up, keep at it. Look where I ended up.”

This article first appeared in the March 2015 issue of Shooting Gazette