The view from the coalface – part 1

main-keepersAs managers of much of the UK's countryside, gamekeepers see the shooting industry from the inside out, giving them a unique perspective. Marcus Janssen spoke to some of the most experienced keepers in the business about the state of shooting in the UK today.

gerald-grayGerald Gray – Hilborough Estate, Norfolk

What do you consider to be the greatest challenge of the modern gamekeeper?

The general public's lack of knowledge about our profession, and also the lack of education given to youngsters today, regarding conservation and where their food actually comes from.

How has gamekeeping changed in recent years?

The commercialisation of shoots, i.e. the number of birds required to make a shoot commercially viable through the season.

What would you say is the greatest threat to game shooting in the UK?

Legislation, brought about by organisations outside of the industry, lobbying politicians and Europe.

What are your pet hates on a shoot day?

When Guns walk away from their peg after the drive is over and do not tell the pickers-up where the birds they have shot are. This is very disrespectful to the quarry.

A word of advice for Guns?

Always have a smile on your face and then everyone around you will be happy.

If you could change one aspect of game shooting in the UK, what would it be?

Greater emphasis on quality over quantity.

If you could shoot one species of gamebird for the rest of your life, what would it be?

The grey partridge. If you get the habitat management right, it benefits a range of other wildlife species too.

Who is the best Shot you have ever seen?

Without doubt, the man I worked for for 25 years, Mr Hugh van Cutsem, who sadly passed away last year. He has four sons who are increasingly rivalling his prowess with the gun.

jake-fiennesJake Fiennes – Raveningham Estate, Norfolk

What do you consider to be the greatest challenge of the modern gamekeeper?

The constant changes in legislation that affect gamekeepers carrying out their traditional duties, such as the dispatch of game and vermin. What is considered to be vermin to a gamekeeper, is not necessarily the perception of an ill-informed general public.

How has gamekeeping changed in recent years?

The role of the gamekeeper has changed with the advent of agri-environmental measures in modern agriculture. The gamekeeper now has a particular interest in ensuring that this is managed effectively, for the benefit of game. Control of pigeons, rabbits and hares has also become an increasingly important part of the gamekeeper's role.

What would you say is the greatest threat to game shooting in the UK?

Poor press.

What are your pet hates on a shoot day?

When game is dispatched by swinging the bird's neck in a circular motion until broken. A clean, sharp tap to the head would be more effective. Another pet hate is unbroken guns.

A word of advice for Guns?

Arrive with no preconceptions and leave content knowing that you have had a day out in the UK countryside, whether under the tap or not. It is about the quality of the day and not the size of the bag. It also does not take much to thank the beaters at the end of the day.

If you could change one aspect of game shooting in the UK, what would it be?

Greater interaction between all of those taking part in the day. On the continent, everyone is treated as equals.

If you could shoot one species of gamebird for the rest of your life, what would it be?

Snipe, because they are uncommon, difficult to see unless you know what you are looking for, and they are a small target.

Who is the best Shot you have ever seen?

For a hired assassin, Johnny Goodhart. For class and panache, Lord Francis Stafford.

trevor-baileyTrevor Bailey – Murton Grange, Yorkshire

What do you consider to be the greatest challenge of the modern gamekeeper?

Trying to cope with the ever increasing pressures and demands put upon us by the public and government bodies.

How has gamekeeping changed in recent years?

I think the growth of commercial shooting and new money has brought with it much higher expectations of keepers to produce the goods. And the results/returns are scrutinised more closely.

What would you say is the greatest threat to game shooting in the UK?

Controversial practices within the industry bring bad publicity. We must put our own house in order before giving someone else the chance to do so. The proposed lead shot ban, if it comes to the fore, may also prove to be a more serious threat than we imagine.

What are your pet hates on a shoot day?

I think without doubt my pet hate is Guns using mobile phones while in the shooting field, especially in the middle of a drive. This to me is not only distracting for all around but disrespectful to the keeper, his staff and the quarry.

A word of advice for Guns?

It would be to concentrate more on enjoying the day rather than bag watching. Enjoy the company and, very often, the wonderful surroundings. Also try to understand how the day works and the hard work and planning that goes in to producing it.

If you could change one aspect of game shooting in the UK, what would it be?

I would not want to change too much at all, as it has changed enough with time. Most of our overseas visiting Guns are envious of our game shooting in the UK and we should be really proud that we all work hard to hold on to such a great sport.

If you could shoot one species of gamebird for the rest of your life, what would it be?

I think after hard deliberation it would have to be grouse, as this truly wild, indigenous bird can, in late season with a good wind, be a fantastic and exhilarating challenge.

Who is the best Shot you have ever seen?

I have seen many great Shots over the years, from the late Lord Lambton and Sir Joseph Nickerson to the present Duke of Northumberland and Lord James Percy. Then you get the likes of Simon Ward, George Digweed and Richard Faulds, all superb Shots and a pleasure to watch. And there are a lot of new Guns coming on to the scene who will now give the above a run for their money!

phil-holbrowPhil Holbrow – Temple Shoot, Wiltshire

What do you consider to be the greatest challenge of the modern gamekeeper?

Keeping a balance with today's pressures to produce more and more days of shooting. Here at Temple Farm we shoot twice a week, whereas, in an ideal world, it would be best to shoot fortnightly. Also, the constantly changing rules and regulations that we have to abide by make life difficult. I was delighted to see Princess Anne put her head above the parapet on Countryfile (April 6) with regards to the control of badger numbers. If I could shake her hand I would. We have to maintain a balance of ALL species across the board, and legislation from Westminster makes this increasingly difficult for us, as land managers, to do. 

How has gamekeeping changed in recent years?

The ever changing rules and regulations that we have to abide by mean that gamekeeping is always changing and is becoming increasingly office-based with the amount of forms we have to fill in and the paperwork involved. 

What would you say is the greatest threat to game shooting in the UK?

Big bags for the sake of it – this is drastically wrong.

What are your pet hates on a shoot day?

I hate it when Guns shoot pigeons before the drive has started. We will be trying to bring in the partridges, ready to push them, and the sound of gunfire will send them back over the beaters. But here at Temple we are lucky as we are not a big corporate shoot and we generally know all the Guns who shoot here. Never in the 16 years that I have been here has anyone ever been rude to me. 

A word of advice for Guns?

Shoot with your friends – shooting is all about the camaraderie, the company and the friendships; one must never lose sight of that. 

If you could change one aspect of game shooting in the UK, what would it be?

I think we need to get more ladies shooting. When I first started keepering, it was just men, nowadays we have a few ladies who shoot, but there is no reason why there shouldn't be more of a balanced mix. I would love to see more all-ladies days. I have a brilliant underkeeper – the best I have ever had – who happens to be a woman, and we really should be seeing more lady keepers too. 

If you could shoot one species of gamebird for the rest of your life, what would it be?

For me, it would have to be pheasants. They are easier to rear without disease, and with our topography they're a real challenge. 

The best Shot you have ever seen?

No question about it, Tony Ball. A great man.

graham osbourneGraham Osbourne – Boughton Shoot, Northants

What do you consider to be the greatest challenge of the modern gamekeeper?

Trying to break even and keep everyone happy on a commercial shoot. The truth is that it's very difficult to make money in shooting. 

How has gamekeeping changed in recent years?

When I started, less than 25 years ago, there were family shoots, syndicates or rough shoots – I didn't know what a let day was. The improvements in infrastructure and transport have made it much easier to travel greater distances, which has contributed to the commercialisation of shooting.

What would you say is the greatest threat to game shooting in the UK?

The lead shot ban. Escalating costs are also a real threat. There's too much emphasis on the number of birds shot, rather than enjoyment of the day, now. I did a training program for young keepers for many years and when I ring my old students up now and ask how they've got on, they will respond with the bag size. That isn't what I asked. 

What are your pet hates on a shoot day?

It really annoys me when Guns walk straight back to the gunbus after the drive has ended, without helping to look for their birds. It's bad etiquette. I was lucky enough to work for a family who would spend twice as long looking for dead birds than they did shooting. People who have no respect for their quarry might as well go and break clays instead.

A word of advice for Guns?

Practice. Go and have some lessons with a good coach – as a good golfer would do. Take Peter Wilson – even at his high level, he still has lessons with a coach. 

If you could change one aspect of game shooting in the UK, what would it be?

I'd like to see greater interaction between the Guns and everyone else involved in a day's shooting; we're all there to enjoy ourselves, people should remember that.

If you could shoot one species of gamebird for the rest of your life, what would it be?

Easy one for me – wild fen pheasants driven from the end of a sugar beet field on a windy day. I grew up with that sort of shooting and it is so special, there is nothing like it.

Who is the best Shot you have ever seen?

I have stood with the great and the good and the Duke of Northumberland and Lord James Percy are both great Shots, but no one comes close to George Digweed – I saw him on pigeons and he was incredible. On clays he is just in a different league.

garry-whitfieldGarry Whitfield – Alnwick, Northumberland

What do you consider to be the greatest challenge of the modern gamekeeper?

Bureaucracy! Doing our job within the realms of what seems, at times, like impossible legislation.

How has gamekeeping changed in recent years?

Like every industry it has to move with the times, so just about everything has changed, although funnily enough we are still basically doing all the same things they did in the early days. Only now we seem to have an army of advisers, trainers, consultants etc., and an office full of files.

What would you say is the greatest threat to game shooting in the UK?

Those who are in power who oppose it. It's so easy to misguide the masses when it comes to country sports. It takes a lot more effort to get the actual situation or the real side of the story across.

What are your pet hates on a shoot day?

Obviously safety issues, but you could write a whole article on that.  The most annoying thing is a Gun wounding a bird with the first barrel and then standing and watching it fly off into the distance (usually with his mouth open to look even more gormless) without at least trying to bring it down with the second barrel! Guns' vehicles also seem to be the bane of my life. It is usually the lone driver who “needs” to take his vehicle, with the 40 inch alloys and slick racing tyres. He will drive into a bog hole in the absolute perfect place to disrupt the next drive, and then can't understand why he is stuck because he has his ‘deep mud' button pressed. It is this sort that will get out, slam the door, make as much noise as possible after being told to be quiet, and then complain as there was “not much in that drive”. He will also be the one to pull up in the middle of the road, blocking the irate local – probably the farmer who owns the crop he has just ploughed the headland out of, as he did not want to drive on the track that everyone else drove on. 

A word of advice for Guns?

If it's at Alnwick, don't come to me and ask when we will next be in phone signal! 

If you could change one aspect of game shooting in the UK, what would it be?

Spent plastic cartridge cases left lying around. I know we all pick up cartridge cases on shoot days, but there are all those other times we pull the trigger – pigeons, rabbits, crows etc. Leaving spent cartridge cases lying around is no different than throwing a plastic bottle out of a car window, we should all remember that.

If you could shoot one species of gamebird for the rest of your life, what would it be?

Grouse, more for being lucky enough to be on the moors on those glorious August days. 

Who is the best Shot you have ever seen?

I feel I can't mention any of the Percy family as this could start a family feud and the Percys have a bit of previous when it comes to warring! I was told Rob Fenwick was an extremely good Shot, however this was proven untrue after his visit to Alnwick last season! So I will have to go with Mr. Thomas Crosbie-Dawson who is undoubtedly the finest Shot in the Glendale valley.

 

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