The Gamekeeper: Professional Countryside Manager
Foreword by Barbara Young, Baroness Young of Old Scone Chairman, English Nature
Gamekeepers play an important role in the management of the British countryside. The many joint projects mentioned in this document show that shooting estates and their gamekeepers make significant contributions to biodiversity and the conservation of rare species. Sadly, we are all too aware that some of our bird of prey populations have been adversely affected by illegal killing.
English Nature and the British Association for Shooting and Conservation (BASC) are committed to the cessation of such illegal actions and the promotion of positive game and wildlife management. Much can be achieved by sharing our love and knowledge of the countryside. By working to reverse the recent declines and experimenting with new land and game management techniques, gamekeepers are in a unique position to create a diverse British countryside where both shooting and conservation work hand in hand.
Game shooting and the countryside
The countryside which we all enjoy has been shaped and managed by man for thousands of years. Without sympathetic management, many of the habitats and species which make the British countryside so diverse would not survive. The management of land for game shooting not only maintains and creates important habitats but also directly contributes to the survival of other wildlife. This is officially recognised by the statutory conservation bodies – English Nature, Scottish Natural Heritage and the Countryside Council for Wales.
“Sporting shooting interests make positive contributions to creating and maintaining habitats for wildlife”
– English Nature 1994 – Joint Statement of Common Interest and Co-operation with the British Association for Shooting and Conservation
The Gamekeeper’s role
To many, the gamekeeper is an anachronism from the Victorian era: an indiscriminate destroyer of wildlife, providing sport for a privileged few. In the case of the modern gamekeeper, nothing could be further from the truth.
Today, there are some 5,000 full-time gamekeepers employed in the UK. In addition, there are many who spend their leisure time and money, rearing game and maintaining habitats on their own small shoots. While today’s gamekeepers are still responsible for the husbandry of both reared and wild game for sporting shooting, they are also land managers. Their skills play an important part in shaping the countryside in both upland and lowland areas.
A recent survey conducted by the British Association for Shooting and Conservation, the gamekeepers’ national representative body, showed that gamekeepers manage around 7.3 million hectares of land in the UK – an area almost the size of Scotland. The gamekeeper works closely with the farm manager and forester to arrive at estate management policies which are economically viable whilst at the same time conserving both game and wildlife.
Shooting and the rural economy
With over 700,000 regular participants, shooting generates Over £400 million* to the rural economy. Revenue from game shooting is often essential in helping maintain an estate’s overall viability and thus providing an important incentive for the maintenance and development of a wide range of habitats.
*Source: Countryside Sports – Their Economic, Social and Conservation Significance. Cobham Resource Consultants 1997.
A modern profession
Traditionally, gamekeeping was a family occupation with the know-how being passed down from generation to generation. Today gamekeeping is a profession with codes of practice and agreed national standards through a Gamekeeping Vocational Qualification. Also many colleges now offer land based management degrees and courses which include gamekeeping.
“Many valuable wildlife and landscape features are created or
maintained through the actions of those managing sporting estates”
– The UK Biodiversity Action Plan
Protecting wildlife habitats
Different species of gamebirds require different habitats. For example, the pheasant is a bird of the woodland edge, whilst the grouse requires heather moorland. In conjunction with farmers and landowners, gamekeepers manage diverse habitats including broadleaved and coniferous woodlands, improved lowland pastures, upland grass and heather moorland, lowland heath and boundary features such as hedgerows, ditches and cereal field margins.
These are all key and important habitats identified by the UK Biodiversity Steering Group Report. The report recognises that many broadleaved woods are retained, and new areas planted due to landowners’ interest in game shooting. This makes a valuable contribution to the survival of a wide variety of mammals, plants, insects and birds including bluebells, the nightingale and the purple emperor butterfly.
“Game managers assist in the survival of rare and endangered species”
– The UK Biodiversity Action Plan
The report also states that Britain’s moorlands are an internationally important wildlife habitat. Only a small proportion is held by nature conservation bodies and managed exclusively for nature conservation. In contrast, some 1.7 million hectares of Britain’s moorlands are managed for grouse shooting. Careful rotational heather burning by the gamekeeper maintains a mosaic of heather of variable age. This not only supports grouse but also a range of characteristic breeding bird species such as golden plover, merlin, and twite.
Managing prime wildlife sites
Gamekeepers are also contributing to the management of many of our most important conservation sites, including Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) and National and Local Nature Reserves. The gamekeeper plays a key role in ensuring close links between game and other conservation management. Management for game is also a strong incentive for the uptake of agri-environment schemes such as Environmentally Sensitive Areas (ESA). Again gamekeepers are key players in delivering management on the ground.
Creating wildlife habitats
BASC and English Nature have a common goal for the improvement of upland and lowland habitats for all wildlife. Game shooting interest has been a primary reason for creating some new habitats,for example, hedgerows which are the most significant wildlife habitat over large stretches of lowland UK. They are an essential refuge or feeding area for a great many farmland plants and animals, being especially important for butterflies and moths, farmland birds and dormice.
Conserving vulnerable species
The targeted control of foxes and corvids by gamekeepers helps protect stone curlew, little tern, grey partridge, black grouse and other vulnerable ground nesting birds. Regrettably, some species, notably birds of prey, have been affected by the illegal control of predators. BASC and English Nature are totally opposed to such illegal actions and expect today’s professional gamekeeper to fully respect the protected status of birds of prey and control predators by legal means only.
Many shooting estates and their gamekeepers are actively contributing to a number of species conservation projects. These include the re-introduction of the red kite and the protection of the stone curlew and the red squirrel. Gamekeepers are also an important source of information on a wide range of wildlife matters, assisting, for example, in research on the status of animals such as the polecat
“Game-keepers are an important ally in the fight against rural crime”
Mick Brewer, Deputy Chief Constable,
Warwickshire Constabulary and Joint Chairman
of the Partnership for Action Against Wildlife
Crime Steering Group
Fighting rural crime
Rural crime is on the increase. Poaching, theft of livestock and game, illegal hare coursing and badger digging bring the criminal into the countryside. In many areas the brown hare, which is acknowledged by the UK Biodiversity Steering Group as a ‘threatened/declining species’, is under increasing pressure from illegal hare coursing.
The police recognise the important role gamekeepers play as the ‘eyes and ears’ of the countryside. The gamekeeper is an important ally in the fight against rural crime. Gamekeepers are actively initiating and participating in Poacher Watch, Farm Watch and Country Watch programmes throughout the country.
The gamekeepers view…
Gerald Gray is headkeeper on the 1,300 ha.Hilborough Estate owned by Mr Hugh van Cutsem situated in the heart of rural Norfolk. The estate is managed as both a farm business and a game shoot.
Natural habitats include woodland, wetlands,many kilometres of hedgerows and part of the nationally important Breckland Heaths SSSI.
“I am the fifth generation of gamekeepers in my family. During that time there have been many changes. My employer’s vision at Hilborough and my role as a head gamekeeper reflect the modern approach to game management. The estate supports the wildlife it does, not by accident, but by design. With careful use of set-aside, wildlife field margins and well-managed hedges, grey partridge, barn owls, skylarks, tree sparrows and other declining farmland birds thrive alongside intensive crop production.
Run as a sporting estate, Hilborough has very little disturbance from humans. This, together with targeted control of foxes and corvids, makes it a haven for ground nesting birds such as stone curlew and lapwing. We are delighted that the RSPB, the British Trust for Ornithology and others are undertaking research projects on the estate which will benefit conservation as a whole.”