Game management – what changes will the future bring?
Aspects of game management have changed over the years, and David Whitby has a few thoughts on what else may need to see changes
Some years ago, I joined a group of gamekeepers on a visit to Austria and Hungary to look at their shoots and game management, as well as sample the product of their local vineyards, though not necessarily in that order. All had either a vested or keen interest in what is the king of lowland gamebirds, on a par with grouse. This is the grey — or, as it is sometimes known, the ‘Hungarian’ — partridge.
It was a fascinating insight into what constitutes game management in another country. Its different techniques and array of traps were reminiscent of something seen in the UK a century ago. I know that historically Hungary was once a Mecca for grey partridges. Their agriculture consisted of a patchwork quilt of small farms with mixed harvests, and game thrived. How very different it is today, with its vast open fields and monoculture practice, just as we find in the UK. Game was evident, but nothing like the heydays of the past when, according to my grandfather, Sandringham purchased 3, 000 partridges from Hungary just to change the strain.
Along with game was the evidence of game management — elaborate artificial fox earths that incorporated an ingenious live-catch trapping system, the aforementioned spring traps, somewhat reminiscent of a gin trap on steroids, and feeders and cover/feed crops in certain areas. The interesting thing is that, in most cases, this management was carried out by keen part-time gamekeepers, on a vastly different scale in most places to the shooting we have.
It was also very apparent that large game played an important part of every shoot. Deer and wild boar were of significant importance, along with hares and rabbits. In many areas the bags would be modest, but everything shot would be of great value, just as it was with us.
I remember reading a piece by the late, great John Humphreys where he was describing the excitement of his first pheasant, tracked in the snow and shot over an unruly dog. There was a statement that I found so very meaningful. To paraphrase: “If that is how exciting it is to shoot one, think how it must feel to shoot 10 or 20, but of course it is nothing like.”
I have been fortunate to shoot all my life. I remember my first woodpigeon, pheasant, partridge, mallard, snipe, stoat and fox all before I reached my teens. Though nothing can compare to a ‘first’, the thrill of hunting with friends or family for the pot, or just walking with a dog is where my sporting memories lie. In truth, I don’t think I can recall any birds on large driven days. I never kept a gamebook, so have no recall of personal numbers shot or standout drives, but I do remember memorable shots and company. I remember bringing home game, wildfowl and conies to the delight of a family who enjoyed such meals, and the disappointment of missing my first grey goose on the Wash when visits resulted in returning with the same number of cartridges I set out with.
Shooting used to be not so much ‘look how wonderful I am when I manage to bring down a ridiculously high bird’, more that of the 10 shots fired, seven were clean kills, one was a runner that was picked and two were missed. A consistently high clean kill rate makes for a wonderful Shot. The excitement and anticipation of standing on a peg and hoping for a shot far exceeds that of standing knee-deep in cartridges and expecting, if not demanding hot barrels — at least, it does for a true sportsperson.
With the increasing pressure placed upon driven game shooting, the need for change becomes greater. Lead has to go, all but the blind must see that, but even then it remains doubtful that a justifiable use of dead game will account for the enormous surplus that we currently have. Surely we have to scale down to a level that our end product once again values.
Then there is the ongoing disease problem. Borne from overproduction in unhygienic crowded conditions, the appalling way we have treated our gamebirds requires strict rules that must be enforced. Our release density in many areas is unquestionably damaging to the environment. The omnivores that we put out into the countryside in their millions are having a negative impact on both flora and fauna.
The organisations that advise us must get down off the fence and give an absolute maximum density for perfect habitat, below which every release must lie. In short, we need to change, or we will go the way of foxhunting, or at the very least endure even harsher restrictions.
This means an end to commercial shoots. Economies of scale will render them unprofitable, but I question whether game should ever have featured as a business. Surely to do so means a reduction in animal welfare and unacceptable damage to the environment. I do not mean an end to selling the odd day or letting syndicate Guns to help with finances, more so the shoot that operates several days a week with a release number to sustain its schedule.
To those who persevere with wild game, I hold nothing but respect. They create and maintain an environment that helps so many struggling creatures.
In an ideal world, keepers would be allowed a ‘zone defence’. Within their given area, they should be allowed to control whatever is necessary for the good of so many creatures.
If I had to predict the future of game shooting, I would suggest it will again be small informal days, perhaps a walk-one, stand-one basis with a keen part-time keeper. There will hopefully be full-time employment on driven days, but with modest bags and fewer days in the calendar.
To the wild bird shoots, may I reproduce words from The Partridge of the Fur and Feather series, 1896. “Our English meadows would seem to be bereft of one of their most potent charms if there were no ‘brown birds’ to be spied stealing away through the wild profusion of orchids and other wildflowers that scent the air so heavily.’’ But for you, there would be no ‘brown birds’, and far fewer orchids and wildflowers.