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What does a gamekeeper do on a shooting estate?

The gamekeeper performs myriad tasks before, during and after a shoot day, many of which are challenging, all of which require a lot of preparation.

Chris Warren

Always chat to the gamekeeper afterwards

I have visited a lot of shoots for Shooting Gazette and interviewed and photographed many a gamekeeper, but I have never spent the entire shooting day with a gamekeeper seeing the shoot day from his point of view. As the gamekeeper is the core around which a shoot rotates that seemed a little odd, so we decided to rectify the matter.

Gamekeepers as a breed are… singular. They are all passionate about what they do – there aren’t many nine-to-fivers in their ranks – but not all are keen on publicity. I remember one who wouldn’t be photographed on any account despite my charm and wit. There are some that are hardly seen by the guns, but others operate more on the hosting side of things and I needed one of them. I wanted to be able to see what happened during the drives, not stuck in a wood with no idea of where and how the birds were flying or how the guns were faring.

William Nobles was ideal. I’d met him, knew him to be a good communicator and had seen him in action. Will is the headkeeper and shoot captain at the Tarrant Shoot Club in Dorset, where they shoot over 6,600 acres in the rolling downland north of Blandford. He, with shoot secretary Barrie Taylor usually co-host the days, so I’d get a good view of the action. He readily agreed and a date was set four days before Christmas on the Eastbury Estate Shoot, a mixed day of pheasant and partridge, though the shoot is particularly known for its high-flying redlegs.

If you fail to prepare…

Will’s day begins at 6am, though that’s more to do with exercising the dogs than the shoot day itself. “If you’re not organised by the day before you’re probably in trouble,” he told me with a grin. The beaters and pickers-up are ready to go by 8.30am and Will goes over the day with them before greeting the arriving guns in the comfortable shoot room. Will seemed very relaxed and I asked him if he felt stressed at all. “It’s the little things that would stress you out,” he said. “If the gunbus was short of diesel or you hadn’t got enough beaters organised for the day. Basic mistakes that have been made in the past but we shouldn’t be making them now. We’ve been doing this for a long time and we do it a lot. We’re in the groove now. Stress only comes from lack of preparation.”

The gamekeeper’s role on shoot day varies depending on personality, but whether introvert or extrovert it’s a long day with plenty to worry about…

The gamekeeper’s role on shoot day varies depending on personality, but whether introvert or extrovert it’s a long day with plenty to worry about…

It wasn’t going to be a particularly easy day as it was the shortest day of the year, so time was of the essence. Also Storm Desmond was moving in and, with it being the Christmas holidays, four of the nine guns would be children inexperienced in shooting game (although they were accompanied by qualified loaders).

With the arrival of the last team member, Barrie delivered the safety talk and, after the draw, all boarded the gunbus, an ex-military DAF. With Will in the driving seat, we were off to the first drive, Bussey Down.

Finding the right level

On the journey I asked Will how easy it was to judge the level of ability of a team of guns. In his experience one drive is usually enough: “Especially if that mixture’s there with some zippy partridges. You can start with a drive of standard pheasants and see how they cope with that and you can also watch people trying to shoot the partridges. You can normally gauge what the team will want during the rest of the day. If a team is significantly better or worse I don’t necessarily alter the choice of drives but I can change where I put the guns and alter where we flush the birds, that sort of thing.”

The first drive on this day had the guns stand in a typical Dorset wave-shaped valley, with a wood behind and cover crop on top of the slope in front. Two teams of beaters worked the woods on either side to push the birds into the maize and then joined a third group to push the birds over the guns. Will was on the radio before he’d placed all the guns, fine-tuning the beating line. With the breeze already strong he got the two guns on the downwind side of the line to walk with the beaters to their pegs and catch the inevitable early birds breaking back with the wind. Throughout the drive he stayed behind the guns and up the slope so that he could see everything, get the flankers in the right position at the right time, and control the speed of the beating line. He didn’t relax for a moment. The drive went well, with a good range of pheasants for the boys, some better ones for the adults, and some wonderful, arrow-like partridge that would please anyone. When the whistle was blown, Will was quick to make sure the picking-up team had no problems and swap banter with the guns before persuading them back to the gunbus.

Something in the wind

On the second drive Will was, if possible, even more proactive. Again he positioned the guns himself. “Not a big fan of pegs,” he told me. “We have too many variables to always have guns stand in the same place every time. And I prefer it that where the guns stand should look natural, not trampled by a previous gun.” He further explained: “All season we have been battling with this strong southwesterly wind and you have to be canny with your placement. You may end up with one gun 150 yards away from the next but I know he will get some nice shooting there. I want a happy team of guns.” With the guns sorted it was back on the radio, as well as taking an active role as a sort of mobile stop. And gosh, we covered some ground.

A cheerful team of experienced beaters will be a huge asset, whatever the weather throws at you.

A cheerful team of experienced beaters will be a huge asset, whatever the weather throws at you.

Early on in the third drive Will noticed the strengthening wind was taking the birds away from the left-hand side of the guns but a quick word on the radio and all was well again. As we walked back to the farm for elevenses I asked Will about his beating team. “My two head beaters who always run a flank line for me are Roger Stephens and David Stewart-White. Both have been beating at Eastbury since the 1970s and have a deep knowledge of the ground, which I find invaluable. All of our beaters are regulars who take great pride in doing a top job in showing our guns super birds no matter what the conditions. Quite often they are on it before I ask them to do something. It’s all about communication.”

No comforts for the gamekeeper

Following Will about meant that after the break, on Dungrove, I spent an uncomfortable half hour standing utterly exposed to the driving rain because Will’s chosen vantage point, where he could also be of use as a flanker, was right in the middle of a field. The things I do for this magazine (Ed. Your medal is in the post, Chris). I was impressed by the way the beaters, with guidance from Will, worked methodically right to the last square yard of cover. “There is never any great rush,” said Will. “The drive is going to last around 45 minutes or whatever, so there’s time to stop and change to get it right. When you rush things go wrong, you get a big flush and when those birds have flown, they’re gone, you can’t get them back.”

The secret ingredient

With a nice partridge drive to finish, a happy team returned to the shoot room for a beautiful lunch prepared by Will’s wife, Emily. While Will filled in the shoot cards, I asked him what he thought was the most important aspect of running a shoot day. “After preparation it’s pacing the day, building the bag. We’re always keen to say that people buy a full day’s shooting; so they don’t get three drives, shoot heavily and go home after lunch, they get a full day. Early in the season when there are lots of birds about, that may mean letting birds run back through the cover. I won’t blow the whistle and pull the drive, the guns understandably don’t like that.” As I left, Will and his helpers were getting ready to do some late feeding, put the shot birds in the chiller, refuel the lorries and go over the plans for the following day.

It had been fascinating seeing how it all came together, how planning, teamwork and dedication resulted in a fine day’s shooting in hardly ideal conditions (thanks to Storm Desmond). The fact they do this three or four times a week throughout the season is fairly mind-blowing. I am certain every gamekeeper has their own way of doing things but I am sure they all share these strengths with Will: attention to detail, an ability to think on their feet, stamina and a team of beaters and pickers-up they can trust.

By Chris Warren