Harry Grass - the pheasant king

Known in shooting circles as “the pheasant king” because of his superlative rearing, driving and organisational skills, my cousin, Harry Grass, was one of the most outstanding gamekeepers of the 20th century. A member of the famous Grass family, who have been involved in keepering since the 1750s, his remarkable career spanned a period of seven decades during which he witnessed the transformation of gamekeeping from a labour intensive occupation which used traditional methods to produce large numbers of pheasants and partridges for wealthy sportsmen, to a modern industry which embraces science, technology and nature conservation to provide sustainable stocks of gamebirds for the benefit of shooting enthusiasts from all walks of life.

Although Harry is best remembered today as head gamekeeper to Earl Mountbatten of Burma at Broadlands in Hampshire - where he created a world class pheasant shoot - he was also an accomplished artist, writer, guitarist, furniture maker and amateur wrestler! Always a progressive man, he worked in close co-operation with the Game Conservancy for many years, trialling innovations such as ‘electric hens' for pheasant rearing, and, as an advocate of education for trainee-keepers, was one of the founding fathers of the first full-time residential gamekeeping course in Britain, set up by Sparsholt College in 1972.

Born on December 4, 1908 at Houghton Gate Lodge on the Lambton Castle Estate in County Durham, where his father, Matthew Grass, was employed as an under-keeper by the 3rd Earl of Durham, Harry received a basic education at the nearby Flatfield Elementary School. He started keepering as a child, helping his father in his spare time, and later assisted the Lambton keepers on weekends and during his school holidays in order to earn a few pennies for his family after his father was killed in action in 1918.

Harry began his full-time gamekeeping career as a kennel boy at Lambton Castle in 1922 on a wage of 7/- (35p) a week. Within a year he had been promoted to trainee keeper, then served as under-keeper both at Lambton, renowned for its high pheasants, and on the nearby estates of The Heritage, a mixed shoot, and Herrington Hall, where hare coursing took priority over game shooting!

Keen to progress in his chosen profession, Harry left the North East for Suffolk in 1933 to take a beat keeper's position with the 6th Lord Henniker at Thornham Hall near Eye. He was responsible for rearing 150 coops of pheasants annually on his beat, as well as all vermin control and poaching prevention. He records in his diary that daily bags of around 500 pheasants were often shot on the estate, with the bulk of the birds being sold to a local game dealer at a rate of 3/- (15p) a brace for ‘bests', 2/3d (11p) for ‘seconds' and 1/9d (8p) for ‘thirds'.

Having spent five seasons at Thornham, Harry then moved to Symonds Farm at Great Saxham near Bury St.Edmunds in March,1938, to become headkeeper to George Gittus, a gentleman farmer. Here, according to his account book, he was able to put on a 200 to 300 bird pheasant day for his employer and guests, mainly members of the Jockey Club, for under £7, including the cost of employing beaters at 3/6d. (17p) a day, dog men at 7/6d (37p), and the provision of free lunches for all - usually pork chops, bread, cheese and beer.

Following the outbreak of World War II in 1939, Harry disbanded pheasant rearing at Symonds Farm and concentrated on vermin killing, especially rabbits and pigeons which could be sold for high prices on the London markets. He contributed to the war effort in other ways too, serving as a lieutenant in the Home Guard and billeting land girls in his house.

In 1945, Harry left Symonds Farm to take over as headkeeper to Lord Milford on the 5,000 acre Dalham Hall Estate near Newmarket in Suffolk. His brief was to revitalise the Dalham shoot, converting what was once a famous partridge manor, which had been decimated of game birds during the war years, into a first class pheasant shoot.

Through diligent vermin control (he and his staff killed 3,849 head within four months of his arrival), vigilant poaching prevention and the introduction of the ‘Cotswold' system of pheasant rearing, Harry increased the annual pheasant bag taken at Dalham from 542 pheasants in 1945 to 1,886 in 1946 and to just under 5,000 in 1947. Under his management, the shoot soon began to yield daily bags of between 250 and 1,000 pheasants and 150 to 200 brace of partridges. However, all hares on the property were strictly preserved for the benefit of the Cambridge Coursing Club.

Having achieved success at Dalham, at the end of the 1957 shooting season, Harry decided to look for pastures new. His boss, Major Phillips (who had succeeded Lord Milford in 1950) told prospective employers: “Harry Grass has worked this shoot up to one of the best in England. I can strongly recommend him as a first class rearer of pheasants and a very good organiser. All of the arrangements can be left to him with confidence, and he is an artist at handling his beaters and showing the birds well.”

Harry secured a job as headkeeper to Lady Janet Bailey in April 1958, taking charge of the 3,000acre Lake House Estate near Amesbury. However, he soon became disillusioned with this post after finding that it revolved predominantly around partridge shooting.

Fortunately, Harry was ‘rescued' from Lake House in 1959 by Earl and Countess Mountbatten of Burma who headhunted him to rebuild the pheasant shoot at Broadlands, their 6,000acre estate at Romsey in Hampshire, then in an extremely rundown state. The Mountbattens not only allowed him to develop their shoot along the lines that he thought best without any interference, but told him that he could not possibly spend all of the money that they were prepared to give him! 

Harry immediately set forth with a will to turn Broadlands into a first class shoot. His first task was to control the enormous vermin populations on the estate. He recruited two experienced under-keepers from Suffolk, - Gordon Edwards and Dennis Bough - to assist him in his duties and persuaded his employers to pay them a ‘vermin bounty' for every head or tail produced, in order to encourage effective predator management. He even took the drastic step of banning fox hunting at Broadlands despite the fact that in his first year on the property a total of 196 foxes were shot!

Having got to grips with the vermin problem at Broadlands, Harry turned his attention to improving the pheasant stocks on the estate. He began by rearing between 3,000 and 4,000 birds per annum using brood hens but soon increased these numbers to between 12,000 and 14,000 birds after changing to ‘electric hens'. He was, in fact, probably the first gamekeeper in Britain to use ‘electric hens' for pheasant rearing purposes.

In order to provide optimum shooting conditions at Broadlands, Harry worked very hard to plan new drives on the estate as well as monitoring cropping patterns on the farms and suggesting ways to improve the woods and coverts in the best interests of game management. Although the shoot was laid out principally for pheasants, a certain amount of partridge, duck and woodcock shooting took place together with a couple of large hare drives which were held every February.

Harry quickly succeeded in turning Broadlands into a big bag shoot where the Guns could expect to bring down between 700 and 1,000 pheasants in a day. His best ever day, November 28,1970 yielded a total of 2,139 pheasants in four drives with the Prince of Wales single-handedly shooting 584! In 1970, his best season, a total of around 9,000 pheasants were shot on the Broadlands estate.

Shoots were held every Saturday throughout the season during Harry's time at Broadlands, as well as on Boxing Day and a few others. Shooting parties usually consisted of eight Guns, including members of the Mountbatten family and their friends and between two and four fee-paying guests. Amongst the regular visitors were H.M. the Queen, the Duke of Edinburgh, the Prince of Wales, King Constantine of Greece, Sir Thomas and Lady Sopwith and the Countess of Brecknock.

On a typical Broadlands shoot day, Harry would employ between 20 and 30 beaters - all local men. If Royalty were present he would be consulted about security arrangements so that they did not interfere with the shooting and he would make his house available for luncheon purposes. At the end of the day he would make sure that all of the game shot had been accounted for and despatched either to the mansion, the Guns or to a dealer in London.

Throughout the period that he worked at Broadlands, Harry had many skirmishes with poachers ranging from “local characters in pursuit of one for the pot” to armed gangs who had travelled down from London to steal pheasants to order. However, his no nonsense approach to members of the poaching fraternity, which often involved hands-on treatment of miscreants, gained him their respect and the nickname “Mad Harry Grass”!

After spending 23 years creating one of the finest pheasant shoots in the country for Earl Mountbatten of Burma and his grandson, Lord Romsey, Harry Grass retired as headkeeper at Broadlands in 1982 aged 74. He was provided with a free house for life, along with a small pension. He passed away in 1990, but his memory lives on in gamekeeping and shooting circles today.


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