Back to the beginning

gamekeeping_history_mainDavid S. D. Jones rewinds the clocks to a time when gamebird rearing and preservation for sporting purposes was still very much in its infancy in the UK.

Gamebird rearing and preservation for sporting purposes was still in its infancy in 1815. Shooting at this time was something of a minority activity being restricted, by property and financial qualifications, to wealthy landowners and leaseholders, their eldest sons and their authorised gamekeepers – a situation which remained unchanged until the passage of the Game Act in 1831. Indeed, game shooting was considered ‘vulgar' by many of the elite of society who thought that hunting and gambling were superior recreations for ‘men of rank'!

Few landowners at this time employed more than one gamekeeper to look after their property, however large, and paid an annual deputation fee of £1-1/- (£1.05) to the local Clerk of the Peace for each man in order that he could legally apprehend poachers, confiscate unauthorised guns and dogs, and seize “nets, snares and other engines for taking and killing game.” Keepers were usually paid in the region of £25 per annum and supplied with a free cottage, a green velveteen frock coat, waistcoat and velvet breeches and hat, but were often expected to provide their own gun!

gamekeeping_history_1Gamebird preservation in 1815 consisted of little more than vermin control on many estates. Gamekeepers were expected to destroy all predators and were encouraged to do so through a system of generous cash ‘bounties'. For example, in Dorset, keepers employed by Lord Rivers received a variety of ‘head' and ‘tail' payments ranging from 2/6d. (12p) for a fox and 2/- (10p) for a ‘house cat' to 6d. (2p) for a crow and 4d. (2p) for a jay.

In addition to eradicating vermin, gamekeepers in 1815 worked hard to protect their game from poachers, employing man traps, spring guns, dog spears and other lethal devices as a deterrent. Anyone caught poaching at this time was likely to be sent to prison, transported to Australia for seven years, or even executed in public, depending upon the severity of the offence.

The common or grey partridge was the principal quarry bird in 1815 and was not only shot but also netted and hawked. The practice of artificial partridge preservation through nest management was carried out on a number of the leading estates in order to minimise egg and chick losses in the wild. Under this system, farm labourers, shepherds and others were paid a cash bounty of 1/- (5p) for reporting the location of a partridge nest to a gamekeeper, who then kept a watching brief over the nest during spring and early summer until the eggs had been hatched and the chicks had appeared.

gamekeeping_history_2In some parts of England, particularly in East Anglia and the south-eastern counties, sporting landowners had already introduced the French or redleg partridge as an additional quarry species by 1815 in order to augment existing grey partridge stocks. Consignments of eggs were imported from France on a regular basis and, artificially incubated beneath broody hens, the resultant chicks were released into the wild at poult stage. However, a considerable number of sportsmen considered ‘Frenchmen', as the birds were commonly known at the time, to be vermin and shot them on sight if they came anywhere near their property!

Pheasants, which were relatively scarce in many areas of the country in 1815, were generally preserved through nest management along similar lines to the grey partridge. Bounty payments to nest finders, however, were significantly higher. For example, in Oxfordshire and Hampshire, men were paid at the rate of 2/6d. (12p) per nest at a time when the average weekly agricultural wage was in the region of 8/- (40p)!

gamekeeping_history_mantrapsA number of wealthy landowners had already started to artificially rear and release pheasants for sport by 1815, using broody hens to incubate pheasant eggs that had been collected from nests in the woods and hedgerows, although this practice appears to have been mainly confined to estates in the Midlands and the south of England. Eggs were hatched in sitting boxes on shelves in an outbuilding or a wooden shed. The pheasant chicks were subsequently taken to a specially-built pheasantry, constructed of wattle hurdles with a netting top, where they were housed in coops and nurtured until the point of release. Contemporary records indicate that the Duke of Marlborough, the Duke of Richmond, the Marquess of Bath and the Earl of Powys were all actively involved in this activity.

Game farming for pheasant production was also being carried out on a limited scale in 1815 by the Dwight family at Buckland Common in Buckinghamshire. Originally farmers, they had hit upon the idea of keeping female pheasants in pens and introducing wild male birds for fertilisation purposes in order to develop a lucrative business selling eggs to local landowners. The eggs were subsequently incubated beneath broody hens alongside pheasant eggs collected from nests in the wild in order to boost estate stocks for shooting purposes.

gamekeeping_history_partridges2It goes without saying that artificial pheasant rearing was something of an experimental activity at this time, with gamekeepers feeding young birds on everything from corn, dried beans and acorns to fresh herbs and mutton greaves (a by-product of the candle manufacturing industry). However, the first formal guidelines for pheasant rearing were provided in 1815 in Colonel George Hanger's book, Advice to all Sportsmen, Farmers and Gamekeepers, which contained not only advice on how to rear, breed and feed pheasants, but also how to ‘cure their disorders'.

Surprisingly, the great bustard was preserved for sporting purposes in 1815, too. In some parts of Wiltshire the birds were actually artificially reared by shepherds who took eggs from nests, hatched them out beneath broody hens and then sold the young birds to sportsmen and gamekeepers for substantial sums of money. Extinct in Great Britain since the early Victorian period, the great bustard – which had a legal shooting season which ran from September 1 until March 1 – was highly prized, both for shooting and coursing, and was considered a table delicacy by the aristocracy and the gentry of the day, who were prepared to pay between £2 and £5 for a bird.

gamekeeping_history_partridgesGamebird rearing and preservation costs in 1815 were relatively modest in comparison with modern times. For example, Lord Rivers spent a total of £70 on running his game department at Sturminster in Dorset, paying his gamekeeper, Henry Maidment, an annual salary of £25. Game accounts kept by Colonel George Purefoy Jervoise, M.P., at Herriard Park in Hampshire at this time, list various items of expenditure, including the purchase of 172 yards of wattling at 3d. (1p) a yard for fencing a small pheasantry, 12 rabbit traps at 5/- (25p) each, a spaniel puppy at 5/- (25p), and 6/6d.(32p) for a consignment of ‘young hares'. Similar accounts for the Broke Hall estate in Suffolk record that a year's supply of powder and shot cost £3-6/- (£3.30), that 17/- (85p) was paid out in nest bounty money, £1 was paid for ‘acorns for pheasants', £7-7/- (£7.35) was paid for ‘netting for the pheasant house', and that a total of £25 was spent on ‘keeping five dogs for one year'.

gamekeeping_history_printAlthough game shooting was still a relatively low key affair in 1815, the sport was, nevertheless, becoming increasingly popular and within a decade or so had really begun to take off in Great Britain following the introduction of the ‘battue' or driven shoot from the Continent. Who could have predicted that almost a century later, in the years leading up to the outbreak of the Great War in 1914, that shooting would be the most prestigious sport in the land, occupying royalty, the rich and the famous throughout the autumn and winter months each year; at the same time providing employment for around 23,000 gamekeepers who worked long hours in order to artificially rear and preserve pheasants, partridges and other gamebirds. A sport that continues to thrive to this day.

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