The view from the coalface – part 2

coalface-main

As 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 six more of the most experienced keepers in the industry about the state of shooting in the UK today.

coalface-kevanKevan McCaig – Holkham Estate, Norfolk

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

Producing a surplus of wild game alongside modern farming techniques.

How has gamekeeping changed in recent years?

The introduction of better training and qualifications as well as an increased use of IT gives a better perception of our job to the general public.

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

A complete ban on lead shot, as very few people could afford to buy non-toxic shot for game shooting.

What are your pet hates on a shoot day?

Guns on mobile phones during the drive, having paid for the day's shooting.

A word of advice for Guns?

Pre-season practice on clays certainly helps, and it is always the company that you shoot with that makes the perfect day.

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

The commercialism of shoots. Game shooting can become very business orientated, and as a consequence loses its sporting aspect, with too much emphasis on the bag size.

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

Grey partridge would be my choice because of its ability to bounce back when weather conditions and habitat are favourable. Its capability to starburst as it is driven over a hedge towards the Guns is second to none.

Who is the best Shot you have ever seen?

The Duke of Northumberland or any of the Percy family! The best young gun I have seen is Ned Coke (Lord Coke's son). 

coalface-rabRab Clarke – Buccleuch Estates, Dumfriesshire

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

Legislation designed to make our job difficult. Trapping is almost impossible already as there is so much paperwork and bureaucracy that goes with it. It used to be straightforward – now you have to have ID tags on your traps, area tags, etc. The absolute right to roam in Scotland can also pose its challenges – people walking wherever they like, vandalising cages and traps. 

How has gamekeeping changed in recent years?

The commercial aspect. Looking after larger numbers of game with less keepers so that you can produce more days of shooting adds huge pressure. 

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

Legislation from Edinburgh and Westminster. The Wildlife and Natural Environment Act means that, through vicarious liability, the landowner can be held responsible for any wildlife crimes allegedly committed on their land. That is a worry for us. With 90,000 acres, tenant farmers, several syndicates and a lot of neighbours, it is nearly impossible for us to have total control.

What are your pet hates on a shoot day?

Teams of Guns insisting on high birds and then not being able to deal with them, or complaining that they are too high! Also, wounding a bird with the first barrel and then not giving it the second. And, at the end of the day, Guns who just charge off, don't bother to stop for lunch or even take a game card or a brace of oven ready birds also really annoy me. 

A word of advice for Guns?

Take the scenic route to the peg – enjoy the views, the landscape, the habitat, the wildlife, how the drive works. Take in the whole picture. What lovely offices we have as keepers – we ought to make the most of them. And don't forget to have fun! I wouldn't put up with grumpy Guns! 

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

Shooting purely for the sake of numbers. It should always be sporting, a challenge. I am not against large bags, but they must be sporting. I think it is far worse shooting 100 low ones, just for the sake of making up the bag, than killing 300 good, challenging birds. 

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

It would have to be grouse because it is still the only truly wild gamebird we have remaining in Britain. It's not just the shooting – it's the wildlife, the waders, the plants, the heather moorland, the mosses, the peat bogs, the atmosphere, the unique and special environment. 

Who is the best Shot you have ever seen?

We have had two of the best clay Shots here who both shot very well, and we've also had a few very well-known shooting instructors who shot exceptionally well. But, we do have birds here to test the very best.

coalface-brianBrian Mitchell – Castle Hill, Devon 

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

Educating the public is so important in today's day and age. Just a few generations ago, society was a lot more involved with the countryside and aware of what we do. Nowadays, there's a real disconnection. If I wore my gamekeeper's suit into Heathrow Airport, 90 per cent of people wouldn't have a clue what I do. 

How has gamekeeping changed in recent years?

Modern veterinary science has changed things the most – the knowledge it has given us. We now know that less medication and better husbandry are key to achieving our aims. 

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

The potential lead shot ban could be disastrous for shooting. Down here in Devon there is simply no viable alternative to lead shot. 

What are your pet hates on a shoot day?

I really have an issue with Guns wanting to shoot through and not stop for lunch. And then, after the final drive, they get into their vehicles and head home. Shooting is not just about the killing. Friendships aren't made 40 yards apart on your pegs. Lunch brings friendship, camaraderie, banter and that all-important social aspect to the day. Some Guns just don't seem to fully appreciate that aspect of our sport. 

A word of advice for Guns?

Guns should remember that there is always an element of unpredictability to shooting and that birds aren't guaranteed, despite our best efforts. On certain days, it doesn't matter how deep your valleys are or how well thought through your plans may be, they just won't do what you want them to do. 

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

I would take two weeks off the front of the season at the beginning of October and add them onto the end of February. Years ago things were different, and birds would be more mature and ready earlier than they are nowadays. 

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

High Devon pheasant – if I could bloody hit them!

Who is the best Shot you have ever seen?

Too hard for me to say! There are a number of exceptional Shots out there and any of them would qualify when they're on form. 

coalface-chrisnorthChris North – Arundel Castle, West Sussex

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

Public relations are so important these days. We are under more and more pressure to deal with a general public who don't understand the countryside – they want access onto the ground, but they don't take notice of signs, and, despite being under an obligation to do so, they don't keep their dogs under control. As keepers, people tend to ignore us. So our biggest challenge is PR and being better understood by the public. The number of times I've heard the line: “My dog wouldn't dream of chasing a pheasant.”

How has gamekeeping changed in recent years?

The commercial side of shooting. When I started out, there was no such thing as a commercial shoot – there were just family shoots and syndicates. Modern rearing methods are now very different too.

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

Legislation from governments who don't understand the countryside. If we lose snaring, trapping and the methods we have at our disposal, our job will become impossible. We do have very good people lobbying for us though, such as the Countryside Alliance, BASC and the GWCT. 

What are your pet hates on a shoot day?

A lack of respect for shot game really upsets me. I hate to see Guns walk off straight after the drive, get into their vehicles and then, when they get to the next drive, wonder why the drive hasn't started immediately. This isn't a problem on private or family shoots, it is associated with corporate days. There seems to be a lack of understanding. 

A word of advice for Guns?

Come and enjoy yourself and make the most of the countryside. But remember, it's not just about pulling the trigger. It's so important to take in and embrace the whole of the countryside, and try to gain a better understanding of how it all works and see the bigger picture. 

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

I would go back to private and family shoots and do away with commercial shooting. Obviously this isn't viable, but it is sad that a lot of shooting clients are not shooting people. 

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

Grouse. It's such a challenge, particularly later in the year – for me, two November grouse are worth 50 in August.

Who is the best Shot you have ever seen?

I suppose the best Shots I have seen would be either the Duke of Northumberland or Lord James Percy. 

coalface-lindsayLindsay Waddell – Raby Estate, Durham

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

We must try and convince the non-shooting public, and politicians, that what we do is good for wildlife in general, and that includes managing other species, which seems to be the one topic which sets many against us.

How has gamekeeping changed in recent years?

The pressure for shoots to become financially viable seems to have become the norm in more and more cases, with far fewer shoots accepting that their sport actually costs them money. This has, in many cases, seen staff decline, while at the same time numbers of birds released or produced increase.

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

If we fail to enlighten the general public of the good that shooting does, there is a real threat that legislation will be passed which, while not banning game shooting, will simply make it unviable for the majority. Once it becomes an elitist sport, it is so much easier to attack.

What are your pet hates on a shoot day?

Sadly, it relates to the electronic world with all its associated gadgetry. The phone comes out and they, the Guns, are back in the world of work, with little or no thought for their day's sport, which the keeper is trying very hard to produce for him.

A word of advice for Guns?

Make the most of the day out in beautiful countryside, with friends or family. Leave the day-to-day working world behind and enjoy it, in every aspect, from a passing pipit, to the hum of the bees.

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

There is now more pressure to hit the mark when it comes to bags, which on a grouse moor is no easy task, with an ever increasing number of predatory birds on the wing which are prone to disturbing the beats. It means that even if you have an abundance of birds, they are sometimes not where you want them.

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

The red grouse. Quite simply there is nothing else like it, not in this country at any rate. The whole of the setting of a day on the moor cannot be rivalled.

Who is the best Shot you have ever seen?

I recall as a young man seeing Mr. Guy Morton, who was an elderly gentleman then, shooting grouse in a gale. He was a pleasure to watch, effortlessly dropping right-and-lefts in front, as his back would not allow him to turn around! In the modern era, I had the pleasure of watching George Digweed shoot in similar conditions, he performed just as well and is a multi World Champion to boot.

coalface-paulwilsonPaul Wilson – Bransdale, North Yorkshire

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

Gamekeeping has changed a lot in the relatively short time I have been a keeper. I believe that the vast majority of the public aren't really that interested in the uplands, but there is a minority in the public that, given any opportunity, will try and discredit us and what we do. There seems to be a very negative image towards gamekeepers, and I think more needs to be done to show how our hard work is important in preserving the uplands.

How has gamekeeping changed in recent years?

Expectations. Keepers, Guns and owners now have far greater expectations. When I started, 200 brace was a big day, and there was only the odd moor producing 300 and 400 brace days. Now the bar has been set a lot higher and massive days of 500 brace plus quite often occur.

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

There are too many to list. Pro fieldsports organisations do a great job, and I am certain that if it wasn't for bodies like the NGO, moorland gamekeeping would be very different to what it is now. It is almost certain that if there is a change of government after the next election, there will be significant changes in upland management – and not for the better. We are dealing with people who are as intent and focused on stopping what we love, as we are on trying to make it survive. Could we and should we do more? I think the answer is yes. The uplands, and how they are managed, are a real asset to us all and hopefully (for once) the bureaucrats will let common sense prevail. I won't be holding my breath, though!

What are your pet hates on a shoot day?

Guns and loaders not marking what they have shot, and not telling anyone where and how many they have down. A lot of hard work goes into producing the birds for their day's sport. No-one should want to see any birds get left behind. Also, whining dogs drive me insane!

A word of advice for Guns?

The best bit of advice I could give to any Gun is to try and relax. In an ideal world, when teams of Guns come to us, the rest of the world would stop for the day, but we all know the reality is completely different. It is difficult to leave work and family behind for the day and switch off. However, it will all still be there when the day is at an end, so switch off your phone and switch off from your day-to-day life and enjoy the whole experience.

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

I'm not sure that I would change much at all. People come from all over the world to shoot in the UK, so we must be doing something right. We have to cater for everyone's different requirements and tastes. At the end of the day, we are providing a service to people, and as long as we carry that out as professionally as possible, we should be very proud of our sport.

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

There is something very special about late season grouse, in the pouring rain and a howling gale. I'm also lucky enough to live in an area where there are some top class high pheasant shoots. When you connect with that almost-out-of-shot cock pheasant (not very often for me, I might add) and it comes down, it is incredible.

Who is the best Shot you have ever seen?

George Digweed and Simon Ward have both shot here and are exceptional Shots, very charming and appreciative of the effort that goes into the day. For me though, Simon Ward just edges it. When he shoots it looks so effortless, and his marking is first class – if he says that there is a grouse to pick, it will always be there – and he is an absolute gentleman.

 

Fieldsports uses cookies. If you continue we assume you are happy to receive cookies. Cookie policy.