In the world of rolling news and social media, we need to normalise our hunting culture to save the keeper’s role, insists Charlie Blance
When I left college, I was full of hope for the future of gamekeeping and my own place within the industry. I’ve become slightly jaded since then, but I do still have hope for the future of the gamekeeper in Britain, though our jobs may end up looking a wee bit different than they do today.
Gamekeeping is at heart an amalgamation of various privately funded conservation practices tailored to achieve a goal — a grouse-rich moorland, for example. I’m not going to say all our practices are fantastic in terms of conservation — it would be disingenuous to do so and we should acknowledge that not everything we do is completely devoid of any fault — but this is the same with every human activity.
The current role of the gamekeeper provides hundreds of hours of conservation work at the expense of a private landowner rather than the taxpayer. Through managing grazing pressures, providing habitat and removing invasive and detrimental species, the gamekeeper helps to protect some of our most vulnerable wildlife. Yet this seems to be denied by many of the organisations that claim to stand for wildlife, organisations which themselves implement the very same practices in the name of conservation, such as corvid and mustelid control.
It’s a crying shame because if these organisations could find it in themselves to work with us rather than against us, our native species would reap the benefits.
There is a multitude of factors that seem to be working against the traditional gamekeeper — a changing climate with dry summers and mild winters, wildfires, ticks, new legislation, Government grants and schemes, the rising cost of pheasants and partridges, COVID-19 restrictions, an often biased media and, of course, public opinion.
Both native and commercial forestry is spreading in Scotland. Grants and reforestation schemes can make trees a much more lucrative investment than pursuing grouse for private landowners, so the grouse keeper and ground-nesting birds may suffer as a result. Depending on their individual management objectives, planting forestry can help or hinder deerstalkers — some may suffer, some may gain.
Likewise, how that reforestation is undertaken will determine if the deer themselves suffer or flourish in the long term. Deer fences can disrupt the natural movements of the animals and overintensive or lopsided culls can have a negative effect on the health of a population. There’s a lot of nuance surrounding the issue of trees but by the time I am going grey, I expect the smell of sap and pine will be far more common, in Scotland at least.
Perhaps the roles of the gamekeeper and the forester will merge — not unlike some European countries, where they seem to have far more intensive training that covers all bases of land management instead of specialising in one discipline.
Regardless, as land management objectives change, the role we call a gamekeeper today may evolve into something along the lines of a wildlife manager. There are already some estates rebranding in such a way. However, the title doesn’t matter in comparison with the preservation of rural jobs, our traditions and the unique skills this line of work requires. Things will change and we will have to change somewhat too, but that doesn’t mean we have to lose all the things we hold dear along the way. It is up to us to protect them.
Public opinion and the impact it has on legislation will kill the gamekeeper role faster than any of the other factors at play. But, unlike the weather, it is something we can change — if we put the work in.
Hunting animals is as ‘human’ as caring for our infirm and creating art. It is one of the oldest and most natural ways in which we engage with the world around us — yet in a modernised world it’s becoming an alien concept. It’s not viewed as the universal heritage it is, something that all people, regardless of race, have had in common since the beginning. No, hunting animals is now seen as divisive.
We do not fit in with the sensitive culture of today. Social media has created a breeding ground for misinformation about the natural world and an unreasonable resentment for those who work the land. Outrage is now currency and the tabloids know this all too well. They use the resentment for gamekeepers to generate easy ‘clicks’ by using overly emotional headlines that captivate the attention and foster the outrage of the uninformed and the willingly hateful.
We don’t always do ourselves any favours either. Tone-deaf former keepers stirring up trouble online after a few drams in the name of fighting the good fight isn’t a good look. Over the past few years, I’ve come to the conclusion that debating in Facebook groups is a waste of time. You can have a cordial back-and-forth in the comments section and actually feel like you’re making headway with people… Until some rocket chips in with a photo of headshot foxes and some simplified comment about curlew. This antagonistic streak is one of the many arterial bleeds killing our industry. We need to take responsibility and give our peers indulging in such behaviour a fair skelp around the lugs.
We all need to readdress the way that we present ourselves to the general public, both on organisational and individual levels. Arguments get us nowhere — most people are possessive over their beliefs and will defend them tooth and nail in a quest to be ‘right’. Those who fervently hate hunting — the staunch vegans, the antis, the celebrities who latch on to talking points to gain popularity — are all a waste of our time. We should invest our energy into normal people, the ones who are undecided, unsure or even unaware of what a gamekeeper even is.
And the best way to do that is with entertainment; it is the best way to connect with people. Telling each other stories is how we’ve communicated from the dawn of man — it’s no wonder media is so effective. Make people laugh, make them smile, capture their attention and you will make them think. Shows such as MeatEater on Netflix, podcasts like The Pace Brothers and small-scale YouTube channels such as Scottish Mountain Man are fantastic examples of how we should be promoting our culture. You don’t have to create content like this, however; simply posting positive and respectful things on social media helps: a photo from your last outing, a game recipe or even a video of your dog retrieving. The more often people see something, the more normal it becomes.
The point I’m trying to make is that hunting is a human issue, and humans are emotional creatures — to get people on your side you have to give them something to care about. Fieldsports in Britain aren’t very accessible to the general public, so our hunting culture is weakened. Why would people care about something they have no stake in?
We should look to countries where hunting is strongly rooted in the general culture and take notes; game meat being readily available to the public, local events and competitions to welcome the seasons, positive hunting media, information campaigns broadcast to the public and so on. Some shining examples of people strengthening that culture include Project Artemis Royal Marines, which provides both training and opportunity within the sector. Hind Sight and Ladies Deer Stalking UK are two groups making the industry more accessible to women and Giving Up The Game is a group on Facebook that promotes and facilitates the use of wild meat. These are real people, making real and positive steps forward.
There is so much that could be speculated about the future of gamekeeping and no one can say for certain what will happen. Of course, we won’t all agree on how to fix our problems, but talking about them and sharing ideas — even if it means you ruffle a few feathers — is the first step in the right direction. If we want gamekeeping to have a future, we need to drop the ‘us and them’ mentality, show everyone the positive things we do and be willing to embrace some change — lest we get left behind.
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