The keeper’s year

Billy Wilson
Hilcot, Gloucestershire

Billy Wilson has been gamekeeper at Hilcot, a relatively small estate in Gloucestershire that offers spectacular shooting, for well over three decades. He took me through a typical day in the season.

Well, the shoot here is hopper fed, but when we get near a shoot day I like to feed one or two drives from the bike. Just for my own benefit, I’ll go around and feed them from a bucket, just to get a feel for how the birds are and where they are. We put enough birds down for nine days with a decent margin over and above the average bag for a day. We aim for 180-200 bird days, shooting over 550 acres. It’s not a big shoot, but we’ve got three valleys which provide ideal pheasant shooting. We do five drives a day, with a maximum of six guns.

The first task as the day approaches is to ring round and make sure all the beaters are attending. I have twenty beaters, and four pickers-up, and then I have another person doing the game cart, so roughly twenty-five people on the day.

The cart’s a John Deere Gator with a welded rack in the back. Doesn’t stay out all day, he’ll come back and empty when needed.

The guns sometime walk between drives, but mostly use their own vehicles so I have to make sure the routes are clear and free of obstacles. Just like checking our beating lines to make sure there’s nothing needs doing, because it’ll be too late once the guns are in place. Maybe a flushing ride needs looking at, or undergrowth needs a track put through it. That’s all done well in advance, but I’ll do a last-minute check a day or so before the shoot.

I don’t dog in: I don’t have to. We’re long, but we’re very narrow, and we’re situated right smack in the middle with shoots all round us. I’ve got five pheasant pens on the estate, and whichever one you go to there’s our boundary on the edge of the field. Dogging in would do more harm than good. So birds might go from us to them, and them to us. With our three valleys, if pheasants do come on to us they tend to stay. It’s very pheasant-friendly and they like it here.

I’ve not fallen out with any of my neighbours in all the time I’ve been here, but to be honest we keepers don’t see that much of one another. Especially once the shooting season starts. During the season I go out two or three times a week picking up for friends. I go to them, and they come to me. That’s how it works, we show loyalty to one another. Nothing formal. If they’re short I’ll go to them, and they’ll do the same in return.

I’ve got four dogs, all sprockers. I’ve got two puppies, well they’re just over a year old now, so they’ll be out this year. It’s been ongoing over 35 years. When one comes to the end of its career you replace it. My dogs are all trained by myself, and the family. My daughter, she does her bit. It’s all in house.

A few days in advance of a shoot me and the boss [owner David Kennedy] will have a meeting and decide what we’re going to do, plan the drives for the day. Obviously it’ll depend on the expected weather conditions, mainly the wind, on where the birds are, who’s coming and what sort of day he wants. We only shoot once every nine or ten days, so we’re not overshooting the land.

And on the day the guns arrive, and the boss lines them out, and I bring the birds to them. Simple as that, eh? I’m in the line with my beaters, making sure they’re where they should be at the right time. I’ve got a radio in the middle, and three others in the line have radios so we’re in constant contact. Sometimes we have to adjust our plans to bring the birds together, but it works very well. We’ve got our own beaters, and some of these lads have been coming here longer than I have. It’s quite an elderly beating line, but that’s great. They’re local, so they know the territory and they know what’s required. And they’re loyal, which matters a lot to me.

Then when I decide the drive’s come to an end I blow a horn to tell the guns to stop shooting and put their guns down. And we move on.

I go to the game dealer before we shoot, and at the end of the day we offer the guns a brace of oven-readies. The boss insists, and if anyone doesn’t take any I’m supposed to tell him who it was. Sometimes if a gun’s going on to another shoot they might not want them, but otherwise they’re pretty good. But like others we did find they were much more likely to take oven-readies than pheasants in feather.

“that’s the challenge, doing as much as you can to get the things you can control right

We deal with a game dealer at Fairford, I take them over and – well, give them to him really. We’re not talking big numbers compared to some shoots but the boss and I are both really keen that they’re disposed of properly. To be fair, our guns are of the same mind. They’re all friends of the boss. I call them The Old Guard. My boss is 84, and most days they’re all his age group. Proper old school. And in their heyday, they were good. Ten to fifteen years ago I had a team that was the equal of any shoot, anywhere. But obviously they’re not so quick any more, and I don’t care what you’re doing, it doesn’t get better with age.

And I’m lucky, because they’ve seen it all the way up through – most of them have got shoots of their own, or used to – they know how much work goes into the job, and they’re very appreciative at the end of the day for what you’ve done for them. And if you get a bad drive they understand. You can’t control the weather. Of course it’s frustrating, and no-one wants it. But some drives, you’ve got one way of doing them, and if the weather’s wrong you know it’s going to be difficult. But that’s the challenge, doing as much as you can to get the things you can control right.

So on the morning of the shoot, I always go and meet the boss at twenty past nine and then I have a word with the guns in the yard before we set off. And ever since I’ve been here, after the day me and the boss have a meeting in his office to talk about how it went. Has he got any observations, anything he wants to bring up. Because he sees it from a different angle to how I see it. I see it from the beaters side, he’s seeing it from the standing guns side. Usually we’ve got it off right, but sometimes he’ll say number so-and-so didn’t get much shooting, and we’ll have a think about it for next time.

But generally it goes very well. I came here for the interview in 1985. I’ve seen the boss’s grandchildren grow up, we’ve gone out and walked the boundaries together, I’ve helped them learn to shoot, things like that. And I’m still here, so I must be doing something right. //

Kat Hutchinson
Temple Estate, Wiltshire

I was very lucky to join the team at Temple Farm in 2010 full time as assistant keeper, working alongside head keeper Phil Holborow. Gamekeeping isn’t just looking after the game and running shoot days, it is also all about wildlife management and conservation too. Here at Temple we do a huge amount of conservation work around our songbird, hare, lapwing and deer populations. When my boss bought the estate it was like an arable prairie, a wildlife desert, and he had this huge vision to make Temple what it is today and we were very proud to win the Purdey Award for Game and Wildlife Conservation in 2013. Time’s passed since I started here and I am so proud to have been promoted to head keeper, with Phil supporting me.

For a gamekeeper, the winter months are the rewarding ones, when all the hard work from Summer to early Autumn is now paying off. At this time of year the birds are 100% reliant on us for food and water. With the temperature low, sometimes with frost or snow on the ground, there is no natural food around, so we feed the pheasants twice a day from the ‘Dribble Box’, and the partridge are fed in Manola feeders with some eating the dribbled wheat too. This also helps all the other wildlife through the hunger gap.

Going into December the shoot days are in full swing with most of the sold days fulfilled. I’m still learning the skills of presenting and managing the birds over the guns – you never stop learning – and I’m so lucky to have Phil (the expert at presenting birds) as my Shoot Captain. Once he has pegged out the guns on each drive he stands behind the line and gives me a regular report by radio of where the birds are flying. This is invaluable, because when I’m in the beating line managing the beaters, I can’t see what happening over the guns. He is my eyes.

Every keeper needs a lot of willing helpers to make a shoot successful. I was very lucky here at Temple because I had already worked with Phil’s beaters and pickers up, so when I became head keeper it made it easier because they knew the lie of the land and how the drives work. They just had to get used to me giving them instructions instead of Phil! A shoot day is stressful for a keeper as there is a lot to think about in advance. Before the day starts you have to sort out the paperwork for beaters and pickers up wages, health and safety, and catering numbers for the end of the day. Above all, you need to plan your day; see which way the wind is blowing which affects which drives to do and in which order. This then knocks on to where elevenses might be served and on arrangements for the kitchen staff to have lunch ready at the correct time. Of course, the shoot day comes, the two-way radios are charged, the beaters and pickers are gathering for breakfast, and just as Phil leaves to go and greet the guns all the planning goes out of the window because the weather has changed: surprise surprise, it’s raining again! This is where communication is key to get the different teams of beaters to the right place at the right time, which is crucial in making sure birds don’t break out of the side door or fly over the guns too early. And it is always good when you get the first drive right as it seems to set the tone for a good day.

“ Every keeper needs a lot of willing helpers to make a shoot successful

At the end of a shoot day it’s hopefully gone successfully, and we have all enjoyed our meal whilst sharing stories of the different drives. The beaters and pickers up have drifted off home and I’ve chatted to the guns and said goodbye. The shooting may have finished, but that’s not the end of the day for the gamekeepers. It is now time for final checks and to shut the pens if they have been opened for the day’s shooting, and hopefully Phil has managed to get away in plenty of time to feed the pheasants before dark. Before I put up my feet I make it my business to contact all the beaters and pickers up to thank them for what they have done – a day’s shooting is not possible without them – and book them in for the next day.

Having put so much time and effort into rearing the birds and keeping them healthy, I believe it is very important to see the meat put to good use and not wasted. However, things have changed with the game meat trade, until eventually the dealers were charging us to take birds off our hands. This naturally made us think about what else we could do with our bags. Now, after every day’s shooting some of the beating team stay on and help us prepare the meat for the freezer. With the exception of the birds the guns take home themselves everything shot at Temple is used for dinner parties at the house (often the night before a shoot), for sausage rolls and Scotch eggs at elevenses, for lunch, or in the guns’ and beaters’ meal at the end of the days, with estate venison adding to the variety of ingredients we offer.

And then, running down the curtain on the gamekeeper’s year, the season comes to an end. A clear-up day on 1st February completes the cycle and we’re off once again, repairing, renewing, and preparing for the challenges that lie ahead. //

Nick Pacey
Belvoir Castle, Leicestershire

Nick Pacey is shoot manager and head keeper at Belvoir Castle, seat of the Duke and Duchess of Rutland and one of England’s most celebrated sporting estates. We asked Nick about the period between one season and the next.

We generally plan for 120 shoots a year, allowing for 8 guns on each day. That’s a lot of guns to keep satisfied. It’s a big estate, 17,000 acres, with over 300 acres of planted game cover, and we use the whole estate. And it’s a long shooting season, every day from September through to February, and as soon as we finish one season we start getting ready for the next with repairs and other maintenance before the new birds arrive, so there’s no breather before the year begins again.

We’re in the middle of the rearing season now (we were speaking in mid-June). We’ve got all our partridges in, we’ve had the chicks from the first week of April which is pretty early but we want the birds to be strong and well advanced, 22-24 weeks old, by the time the season starts in September.

We get the pheasants in round about now as poults at about 7 weeks old, and put them straight into the release pens up until the first two weeks in August. While the birds are in the pens the main threat obviously would be a fox getting in. You know what foxes are like, they won’t just kill one or two, what they need to eat. They’ll kill three or four hundred in one raid. It’s happened a couple of times over the years, but overall we’ve got a pretty good record. Our pens are kept in very good order and we do a lot of work on them to keep them right. All have two strands of

electric trip wire right around the perimeter, we’ve all got testers and check the wires every morning to make sure they’re clean and clear and working properly. They’re pretty big pens, one of them, over by where I live, is over a mile round. Because we really do not want to let a fox get in.

Once the birds are in the pens we’ll leave them for two to three weeks to get settled, then gradually we leave the gates open and they’ll start coming out. Most of the pens are down on lower ground for safety and convenience, but by the time the season begins we want them to be up on the tops in the right position for the drives. So what we do is draw the birds up to the tops, up in the hills. It’s all done with food and water, especially water if it’s a dry year.

Basically, you stop feeding in the pen and feed them where you want them to be. I look at it this way. If you come out of the pub at the bottom of the hill at closing time, would you go to the kebab house opposite or the one at the top of the hill? So we don’t give them the choice. We shut the shop at the bottom, and the birds have to climb the hill to feed.

Now the birds will naturally tend to want to go back to the pen, because that’s their home, that’s what they’re used to and they’ve grown accustomed to feeding there. And let’s face it they’re not that bright. It takes a bit of time to get them used to the idea, but once they’ve got it they’ll come off the roost in the morning and head on up. It gives them something to do as well.

While all this is going on we’ll be keeping a close eye on the cover crops, checking for pigeon damage or beetle activity, and making sure the drives are ready to receive guns. And of course we’re keeping down the vermin all year round. Larsen traps for corvids, we’re pretty hot on them, and going out at night with rifles with thermal image scopes to make sure there’s no foxes around the pen areas.

There are five of us including me in the permanent keepering team, plus a trainee. I’ve got a senior beat man who organises the beaters, makes sure they’re all ready before and during the season and he handles the beaters’ line on the day. I’ll peg out and be with the guns. We don’t leave pegs out from one day to the next, we recce and place them each day depending on conditions, how the wind’s going. There are 80 pheasant and partridge drives on the estate, which gives us plenty of flexibility.

I deal with the decisions about the drives on a day and the general management of the estate. The Duchess and Phil (Burtt, Belvoir’s estate manager) obviously have the final say, but when they asked me to come here I said thank you, I’ll do it as long as you leave me alone, and they do. It’s been great. They let me get on with it, and never say ‘No you can’t do this or can’t do that’. They trust my judgement and it works really well. Now obviously if I wasn’t doing my job well they’d both have something to say and I wouldn’t still be here, but I love it and they seem happy to leave it to me. //

Nick Weston
Shipton Slade, Oxfordshire

A shoot reborn.

Mark Hodson, publisher of Talking Game,sets the scene.

My father Patrick bought Shipton Slade in 1970 and established a game farm. In conjunction with a neighbouring farmer he then set up from scratch a small shoot of around 650 acres. This was developed over the years with Patrick Osborne (Oz), who both managed the game farm and keepered the shoot, releasing pheasants and partridges for three mainly partridge days and three mixed days a season. Their combined efforts provided for many very enjoyable days with a record partridge day of 51 brace and a total of 212 for the best mixed day. Always shooting through, lunch very often carried on into dinner and the early hours.

Time marched on, and a few years back my father and Oz decided to give the main shoot a break, putting down only a hundred pheasants to provide an annual small day for the grandchildren. Last season we noticed a surprising stock of wild birds on the land, and it so happened that Nick Weston (Oz’s grandson) had returned from Devon. Nick told us he was more than happy to feed the birds and run a one-off day for the grandchildren.

The day was a huge success, with 32 birds shot. Inspired by this, with my two brothers, Puds and Ru, we got together with James Price, the owner of the surrounding farmland. Keen on our plans to restart the shoot, very enthusiastic about conservation, James has planted more wild bird game cover than the shoot has ever seen. Crucially, Nick has agreed to formally take up the role of part-time keeper,

making sure the wild birds had wheat throughout the Spring and completing countless tasks in preparation for the coming season.

Releasing primarily pheasants with a few partridges on top, we look forward to having three main days, only shooting six guns. And yes, there will always be a grandchildren’s day.

Nick takes up the story.

We’d had a bit of a knock-around over Christmas, just a small family day. I hadn’t put any birds down last season, just put some hoppers out and started feeding the wild stock from about mid-November. After the day I had a get-together with Mark and the boys and we decided we wanted to have a go at re-starting the shoot. It had been shut down for the best part of nine years, so there was a fair amount to do. I’d spent some time keepering down in Devon. The main difference between there and up here is that it’s flatter. You don’t have to worry about rolling the quad bike every thirty seconds. And the winds aren’t so strong, which makes life a bit easier.

Once we decided to give it a go I’ve been working to the normal calendar, but with extra complications. As soon as the season finishes in February you start getting your bits and pieces, your pheasant feeders et cetera in for a general clear up. Make sure everything’s clean and in working order and repaired if necessary. Same goes for vermin control, making sure the larsens are all in place and ready, trapping squirrels, all the pest species that cause us problems.

At this time we’d normally be doing pen repairs, making good any wear and tear or damage that’s happened over the winter. In this case I had to take one of the two pens down and completely rebuild it from scratch, all new posts and wires, electric fence, everything. The other pen was in reasonable condition, so that just needed repairs. That’s taken from around the end of March till mid-June. Then we’d be looking at cover crops, what planting we’ll be needing cover-wise for the following season. The whole shoot is just over a thousand acres, two pheasant pens and four partridge pens, which given I’m here on my own will keep me busy enough.

The pheasants will turn up at the beginning of August, and the job then is welfare, protecting and feeding them. But always the task is to make sure the birds are in the right position at the right time to fly over the guns. Dogging in plays a big part, basically making sure they’re where you want them to be and the birds haven’t wandered off. That means quad bike, flag, dogs.  You’ve got to think like a pheasant.

Where would I go if I was one? Obviously you check the hedgerows, check the fields, but you learn places where birds disappear, and where they tend to go. Keep going round, keep pushing them back to where you want them.

And they’re creatures of habit. Once they find a place where there’s food, and some noisy idiot isn’t coming after them with dogs and a big flag, they’ll decide to stay there. A lot of people say if you dog them in hard enough at the start you shouldn’t need to worry about it too much later on. But nothing’s ever as simple as that. Different years bring different things. You can finish dogging in at the beginning of September one year, and still be hard at it at the end of October the next. It varies, but then that’s the nature of the job. Nothing goes like clockwork, which is why you need experience to do the job.

As to vermin, after so many years without any control I’ve had some catching up to do. Foxes are a massive problem everywhere, so at the moment it’s a case of seeing if we can find any litters of cubs and try to manage the numbers we’ve got to keep on top of them. We’re doing OK at present. I go out lamping when I can, but it’s harder when the crops are up. It’s a case of doing what’s possible. I do a lot of evening stuff, mooching around. The lone ranger.

We’ll only be shooting a few days this year, being our first season back. As time goes on and we get re-established we can increase that, but that’s totally dependent on what the boys want to do. We’re hoping for around a hundred bird days to start with, which from where we are starting from now is ample.

My gramp used to, and still does, work for the boys’ dad, he was second in command on the game farm he was running. And it suits my character to be working in a close-knit community, where personal loyalty plays a large part, both ways. I’m looking forward to how it goes. //

“ You’ve got to think like a pheasant. Where would I go if I was one?