Coronavirus: Scottish Gamekeeping Perspectives

Jake Swindells

Jake Swindells

Jake is BASC’s Country Officer in Scotland and the secretariat to the gamekeeping and wildlife management working group. Jake has a background in policing, gamekeeping and bushcraft, and is a keen deer stalker and spear fishing enthusiast.

As the first lockdown loomed closer and uncertainty hung over the shooting season in 2020, members of the gamekeeping and wildlife management working group (GWMWG) put pen to paper to consider how they saw this season panning out. Now, ten months on, we talk about how things have really affected us over the course of the year and throughout the small game season.

For as long as I can remember, I haven’t seen a year like 2020. There have been years where we didn’t shoot and years where hard weather severely affected our activity and the wildlife we are charged with managing.

This year has seen unprecedented rules and regulations, travel bans, confusing regional restrictions, and a nationwide lockdown. To ensure that our members and the wider shooting community remained safe, and that the valuable work of wildlife managers and gamekeepers continued, BASC launched a Covid-19 shoot visit service.

Delivering free shoot guidance visits

Delivered UK-wide by country and regional officers, these free visits focused on keeping shoot staff and visiting Guns safe, while ensuring that shoot days continued and run as closely to normal as possible.

During the visits I conducted, I found that most shoots and estates already had a good strategy in place and that an amount of planning and preparation had already been done.

Working together, we were able to refine certain issues and work to overcome some difficulties surrounding such things as transport, hygiene and, of course, the eagerly awaited shoot lunch. It was impressive to see first-hand just how seriously Covid-19 preparations were being taken, and the uptake of the shoot visits reflected this, too.

But don’t just take my word for it – here are some insights from the members of the BASC Scotland GWMWG.

Mike Holliday, Gamekeeper and Chairman of the Gamekeeping and Wildlife Management Working Group.

“Firstly I hope everyone and their families are well and have coped with the varying challenges this season has brought us. Here on Glenample the main thing is client-based stalking and in a normal season we would have about 80 days with guests.

The way the regulations changed from area to area we managed 6 days at stags, but the one I was most hopeful about, which is the hind and doe stalking, has been a none-starter. One day is all we could do as all my clients were from out with Stirling council area. So, this coupled with the low price for venison, is leaving us with about a £50,000 shortfall.

On the pheasant front things worked out better, only losing 3 let days and the two family days. The thing that helped save the season was the syndicate are all local and able to shoot at short notice and therefore we managed to get all their days completed.

In the words of the great Monty Python – “Always look on the Bright side of life”. I am feeling much more positive about next seasons prospects.

I have spoken with a lot of my regular guests and the diary is operational from July 2021 and is almost full. So we keep our heads down and stay safe with our families and look forward to a prick in the arm and a dram with fiends”

Steve Toft, Gamekeeper

“Our season here at Hoscote has not been too badly disrupted as we managed to get in most of our days in before major lockdowns! We have lost 4 main days in total.

Since the beginning of January, we have managed smaller 2-gun days with guns from the main house and estate staff beating. I did however get in touch with our local police officer and explained what we intend to do. He emailed me an official letter stating that we were ok to carry on and that they were happy for us to do so under the official guidelines set out by BASC. So, we have had some really enjoyable smaller days.

I have now also decided on a feeding plan for all the birds I have left, which is a lot. February will be taken up moving hoppers and trying to break up the birds off the main feed rides.”

Falcon Frost, Deer Stalker.

“We decided at Glenfalloch that we would cancel all our let stalking days at hinds before the hind season started. We were confident that travel from different parts of the UK was going to be limited and difficult.

Only the first couple of days did I have one of the estate owners out stalking when restrictions allowed but from then on, I shot the remainder of the cull myself.

Even though the price of venison is very low (£1 a kilo) we agreed early on to try and achieve our cull targets which was agreed by the two DMGs we are members of and the advice from ADMG and NatureScot.

I achieved our cull targets for both the DMGs on the 20th of January. I will now concentrate on going round our natural regeneration woodland blocks and SSSI sites and continue to cull to the end of the season.

We have also managed to have some peatland regeneration work completed to.”

Mike Hardy, Gamekeeper.

“The season started off OK, all guidelines were followed and social distancing/hygiene rules adhered to. When the tier system started, and some guns were in a different area, then the problems started. I did not let January too hard as I thought if we needed to move days I could still fit them in. Unfortunately, when the recent lockdown started that was it for us.

To date we have had no financial help from the Scottish government and have been knocked back twice from some of the financial schemes.

Pheasants still on the ground and we usually still feed into April.

Next season we will try to reduce numbers and look after what we have surplus on the ground. Rearing costs look like they will be up. Gas is up and feed looks likely to be up around £50 per tonne at least. Cost of wheat looks likely to be more too.

Guns certainly want to shoot, and are showing commitment, but things are tough indeed for a lot of people.”

Garry Dickson, Borders College Gamekeeping Lecturer.

“We here at Borders College are back to online learning only. Prior to the Christmas break we were able to carry out practical outdoors lessons one day per week, with the rest being online.

Some local estates reorganised their shoot day programmes to have more days earlier on anticipating a full lockdown. Fortunately, the students were able to participate in some of these days before the full lockdown was in place.

The management are set to announce a further statement on the 8th February. This is with the hopeful anticipation of some return to practical face to face teaching resuming on the 15th easing of lockdown permitting..”

There is little doubt that the hard work and the patience of all shoot members and estate staff has been instrumental in ensuring that we shot at all this year. Thanks to all who played their part in ensuring a safe season in extraordinary circumstances.