A call for English-style shooting abroad offers fresh options for new keepers, says Liam Stokes
Last summer I was discussing the releasing of duck in Hungarian. Speaking through a translator, my host asked me whether we in England reared and released duck for shooting. I confirmed that we did indeed, and went on to explain that on the college shoot that my students run we release a small number of mallard. I quickly wished I had kept my mouth shut, as the most awesome duck rearing, releasing and shooting operation was explained and shown to me, involving six enormous lakes, duck in their tens of thousands and a profit margin at which I could only guess. I felt thoroughly out-done.
This experience of being awed by Hungarian shooting enterprises was repeated throughout my time there, as I spent a blissful period touring the country with Professor Sándor Csányi, an expert and advocate for game management and conservation. We visited hunting gardens, state forests and hunting-club land, each managed for hare, partridge, mouflon, fallow deer, roe deer and the ubiquitous wild boar. A culture infused with a love of wildlife and of fieldsports was epitomised in our visit to the hunting exhibits in the Museum of Agriculture, right in the heart of Budapest. Yet there was one thing the Hungarians I met expressed repeatedly: “There’s nothing we can teach you Brits about pheasants”.
Now whether or not this is true isn’t the point. It speaks to two global trends that could be of vital importance to any young person entering the game management profession, particularly those with broad horizons and keen ambitions. Firstly, there is a growing enthusiasm in many countries for “English-style” driven gameshooting. Secondly there is a belief that to do this properly, you need to have a British-trained gamekeeper.
A foot on the ladder
While shooting as an industry is in good health in the UK, those trying to get their start in gamekeeping can find themselves in a bit of an employment bottleneck. The jobs are there, but employers willing to take on freshly trained keepers are few and far between, and as a result any such vacancies tend to generate enormous numbers of applications. It’s the old catch-22 in which you can’t get a job without experience, and can’t get experience without a job. This reticence to take on new entrants is, however, much less prevalent abroad, and this can bring opportunities for those trying to get their big break.
Kieran Hale, for example, is a former student of mine who headed for New Zealand the second his course was over. As his extended diploma came to an end he began applying for jobs across the UK before eventually finding one in the Southern Hemisphere.
“At first, looking for jobs abroad seems harder than just looking at home,” he tells me. “There are far more jobs advertised in the UK because the sector is much larger and so there is more demand for gamekeepers. But then you realise every position advertised in the UK is receiving hundreds of applicants.”
And it isn’t just that the number of applicants is lower abroad. It seems employers and Guns outside the UK are genuinely more appreciative of the education our young gamekeepers have received. Whether this is a higher regard for education generally or just an appreciation of the skills being taught in our gamekeeping colleges, Kieran tells me that “even as a newly qualified gamekeeper everyone you meet in New Zealand really appreciates the knowledge and skills that you have.”
Piers Powis, another former student at Lackham College, in Wiltshire, who made the trip out to New Zealand, tells a similar story: “My employer has always had English keepers on the shoot and was specifically looking to recruit another when he took me on.”
Chris Clark, a gamekeeper who has worked in Belgium for the past two years, agrees that UK gamekeepers are held in high regard around the world. “More and more foreign shoot owners are turning to UK land agents and websites to recruit gamekeepers to work around the world. It is vital that the right people apply — anyone who takes a job abroad has a responsibility to uphold the professional reputation of British keepers for the benefit of everyone involved in the UK shooting industry.”
The language barrier
Of course job-hunting abroad isn’t easy. Professor Csányi thinks our laid-back approach to language learning in the UK is proving a barrier to what could be some exciting career prospects in Central and Eastern Europe. Keepering positions in France and Belgium can often accommodate an English speaker, but a reasonable command of French or German would open up so many more doors.
The language barrier in Hungary is probably the highest I have ever encountered, and while I am not suggesting adding Hungarian to the national curriculum, a familiarity with German would certainly help with communication out here.
Even applying to English-speaking countries is not without its barriers. The difficulty of negotiating over long- distance phone calls can be intimidating.
“I think the confusing and complicated interview process can really put people off applying abroad. Not to mention the worry that it’s all going to fall through. Because you aren’t meeting people, it doesn’t seem real until you get out there,” Kieran said.
So what’s it like once you do get out there? “Different” seems to be the consensus. Across the world, landowners are trying to replicate English-style shooting but as Kieran says: “There is always going to be a huge difference from working within the UK. The difference in climate totally changes the behaviour of the gamebirds, which in turn changes the nature of the job.” Piers certainly agrees the job is a change from his experience keepering in the UK.
“The shooting culture in New Zealand is different. The majority of Guns are new to driven shooting and most have no experience in a beating line, because the sport is so young here. This brings a unique set of challenges in communicating with your clients. There might be fewer applicants for each job out here, but in reality there’s probably fewer people who could adjust to the culture and do the job well.”
And it isn’t just the clients who present a unique communication challenge when working abroad. Every shoot in the world relies on its network of helpers, supporters and landowners. Chris says it can be hard to explain to those who have never seen it exactly what driven shooting is trying to achieve. “Comparatively little is known in Belgium about the wider conservation benefits of driven bird shooting. You really need to work to engage with the local community and landowners to spread the word about the positive impact of gamekeeping. You have to be adaptable. You have to accept different working practices and unusual obstacles and draw on your own resourcefulness to overcome them, and you have to do it all without your own network of friends, family and helpers.”
So in the plurality of options a land-based career can open up, it seems that moving abroad could be a great option for many. When asked about the future, Piers, Chris and Kieran all tell me English-style gameshooting is growing across Europe, the US and New Zealand, and the work opportunities are increasing in popularity with it.
Would they recommend it as a career move? “It’s not for everyone, but it is a great way of getting experience on the CV,” Piers told me. “I’ve learned a lot about what to do and just as much about what not to do. Even if I spend only one season here it has been worth it.”
This approach, using time abroad to gain experience before coming back home, is one Chris supports. “It is such a competitive job market in the UK and experience working abroad adds something a little different to your application. It shows you’re up for a challenge, it shows you have character.”
Kieran is now reviewing a plethora of options in the UK and across the world. He’s unsure where his time in New Zealand will lead him, he’s only sure “the experience has been outstanding”.