Interviewed by Angela Foster, 2002
I am 54 years old. I was born on the 6th February 1948 in Haddington, East Lothian. The youngest of three boys I attended Knox Academy. I was always interested in the countryside it seemed to be in my blood. My father’s family were great fishers and shooters. My grandfather was a fisherman. He was a legend in Haddington. Edward Docker was his name. When I left school there was no future in gamekeeping. The golden years had passed and it was very hard to get a job. I left school at 15 and worked on one of my fathers’ friend’s holding. I enjoyed the work. This I did for about a year. Then I got offered a job as a hairdresser which was a completely different career. I just fancied it at the time. I was a hairdresser for ten years. I went to Day Release College in Edinburgh and worked in a shop in Dunbar. I enjoyed the outdoors and went fly fishing in my spare time. I enjoyed hairdressing and I met lots of smashing people. I got as far a managing the shop then I got disillusioned. I didn’t feel that I was getting anywhere. In 1970 I was now living at Luggate and married with a young family. On my days off I used to go and meet the gamekeeper from Whittingehame – George Jeffrey was his name. He would take me out for the day and it was a great change from working in the shop. The opportunity to start working as a gamekeeper came through hairdressing. I heard from a client that the gamekeeper at Biel was going to retire. George Jeffrey gave me a reference and I got the job. The keeper that I took over from was called Alistair Leech and he stayed on and guided me for a year. That guidance couldn’t be replaced. He came from a long line of gamekeepers. He taught me so much in that year that it was unbelievable. Alistair was my mentor. He was a great guy. I was green when I started out and he taught me so much. It had nearly all been private shooting in his day and there was a lot more gamekeepers with smaller beats. When I started as a gamekeeper economics played a large part of the job and gamekeeping jobs were hard to find.
The working hours are almost impossible to give. It’s a seven-day-a-week job. Sometimes you’re up all night then up again early in the morning. It’s a great job though and I love the life style.
A gamekeeper’s job is to look after game and make sure that there is surplus game to shoot. First you have to control, legally, certain types of vermin. In the 1970s you could kill a lot more vermin than we can now. It’s quite strict now. There is a huge difference in the amount of birds of prey going about now though. When I first started birds of prey were just coming back after DDT and they were just starting to recover. The main enemies of game birds are: carrion crows, foxes, stoats and rats. To catch crows legally we use a thing called a Larson trap. It lies on the ground and you put a live carrion crow in it. Carrion crows cannot bear to have other crows in their territory so they come down onto the cage and are trapped.
You police the estate for poachers. When I started at Biel there were quite a few poachers. People came from Dunbar and the surrounding areas. One particular chap who was from Wallyford was famous for poaching. One night one of the tractor drivers came to my house and said that that the van I had told him about had been seen in the drive.
We went to see if we could apprehend the man but he was gone, the moon had come up early and he had cleared one drive completely of birds. Poachers would use guns with silencers on them. The birds would be up in the trees and as it was wintertime there would be no leaves to give them cover and they would be shot where they were roosting. Pheasants like larch trees, which would unfortunately let them be seen against the moon.
There were some poachers from West Barns and Dunbar. Most of the guys that came poaching on Biel were trying it on as they had heard that I was a hairdresser and they thought that I wouldn’t be out at two o’clock in the morning. But of course I was out and ready. It was quite hairy at times. No actual violence but there could have been. In the 1970s poaching was for fun and only occasionally for food. There wasn’t much money to be made unless you managed to kill an awful lot of pheasants. Most of these guys just got one or two. But if you take that collectively it can add up to quite a few. You had to be around in the shooting season too, especially when the moon was up with white cloud behind it as the birds would stand out against the sky.
The main game birds we had at Biel in the 1970s were pheasants and some grey partridges. Grey partridges are almost at the stage of being protected nowadays. Farm pesticides have just about wiped them out. It is a better eating bird than the pheasant. A gamekeeper cannot do his job if he hasn’t got a supportive wife. It doesn’t work. I have been very lucky in Frances. If l went away to a shoot she would feed the birds and look after the home when I was away a lot.
Part of my job was to go to other shoots. My boss would be invited to a shoot and he would say right, I will bring my keeper. Normally I would go to beat or to pick up. Sometimes, it would depend on the kind of shoot. Sometimes I would go to load. My favourite task was working the dogs. Some shoots you go and work the dogs with the beaters sometimes you go to pick up. Beaters have their own dogs. A lot of guns don’t have dogs so the pickers up are behind the shooters. And they are picking up as the birds get shot. A good dog will do both beating and picking up. When you go on shoots you meet keepers from different areas. It’s great to see them and catch up on the news. You can get a team of beaters and they are often also keepers. So they help each other and you beat for them then they will beat for you. We have what is called a keepers’ day at the end of the season.
I bought my own gun it was not handed down to me. It’s a Winchester over and under 12 bore. That’s one on top of the other. I am the only one that uses it and I don’t carry it round all the time.
One of the changes that I have noticed is that in the 1990s people were shooting because it was the fashionable thing to do and some of them were not that safe, or pleasant. Now usually the guns I meet are very pleasant and we all get on. Occasionally you get the odd obnoxious chappie but normally we all get on.
On a well-run estate you will get lots and lots of songbirds. Lots of wildlife. Most gamekeepers know and love the countryside and they know all the butterflies and plants.
Since the 1950s there is not the numbers working on the estates, economics have made it so. Biel used to have five or six full time keepers and one part time keeper. It’s all scaled down now.
It wasn’t a well paid job in the 1950s. You got your house, your logs and a suit. Today keepers are paid the standard agricultural wage but they still work long hours. I worked for ten years at Beil then in 1979 I got made redundant. They packed the shoots in. I had to get a job as I had a young family. I took a job at Belhaven Brewery and stayed there for 20 years. I still kept my interests in game keeping up and have been involved with shoots for the past 32 years. I would go to shoots every weekend that I could and kept in touch with all the changes.
Another change I have been aware of is that when I started at Beil I started with 20 broody hens. New pheasants would lay once a year, anything up to 20 eggs. But the survival rate is not good. The weather and predators play a big part. If you keep the hens in a laying pen and take the eggs away they will just keep on laying. The males keep on fighting each other and so on keeper’s day, at the end of the season you mostly try to shoot males.
Syndicate shooting has been on the go for years now. It’s more common now because everybody shares in the costs. It means that a lot more working guys can take part in shoots. They all put cash and effort into it. They pay for the shooting rights on a farmer’s land. It doesn’t do professional gamekeepers any good as these guys can’t afford to employ gamekeepers.
One big change in shoots is red legged partridges from Spain. They were birds that we used to think were hopeless. They would run along the ground and would not fly. Now with changes in the releasing of them they are turning out to be an important bird making a big difference to a lot of shoots. The whole organisation of shoots is far more mechanised now with fewer gamekeepers covering larger areas.
Long ago gamekeepers would look after an area that was called a beat. On a large estate you will have more than one keeper each to look after his own beat. A drive is the area that you take the pheasants through on a shoot. A drive could go through more than one keepers beat. The head keeper would oversee the whole area.
Each year you can only shoot the surplus birds this is important. A breeding stock must be maintained. A spring count is taken of the birds. This will give you an idea of the number of shoots there can be that season. The surplus is worked out year by year. A good year will mean an extra shoot. You can make sure of a surplus by rearing birds. As they are wild they could wander off. It is your job to watch the birds and keep them in your territory. In the past Beil estate would be big enough to have grouse shoots but in the 1970s it was only pheasant and partridge shoots.
A low ground keeper only looks after pheasants and partridges. I was a low ground keeper. Pheasants can live for several years. They can also walk for miles. Today 20-30% of shoots are reared birds, the rest are wild birds.
A gamekeeper’s year
In February you’ve to look at the dogs’ kennels and clean them out daily. Then it’s out and about to check your traps. Vermin needs to be controlled, usually with traps and guns. Pens for the new birds need to be got ready. Feeders must be sterilised. Everything must be clean as the birds easily succumb to ailments. The pens are sterilised at the end of the season then sterilised again at the beginning of the next season. The young birds are fed on prepared pellets. From six to seven weeks old they are introduced to wheat and that keeps them going all through the shooting season. By seven weeks old you can tell the sex of the birds. The young birds are kept in a pen for protection. It is covered in netting. Once they are six to seven weeks old they are moved to the woods and put into another release pen but it is open-topped, no roof. You need to contain the birds’ area as they have a tendency to wander. In the breeding time they have a territory. But before the breeding season they wander. So this pen is an anchoring area. It’s a lot bigger than the first pen as they tend to feather peck each other. They need cover to escape from predators and feel secure and a sunny area and a dusty area. There needs to be an area
where they can get up to roost, so that the foxes can’t get them. For the first two weeks they will sit on the ground until it dawns on them that they can go up to roost. Then they gradually leak out of the pen and you place feeders around to keep them within an area. A pheasant is mature in 20 to 30 weeks. You need to be up early to feed the birds. The old method was to hand feed them three times a day. Just enough to keep them on the hungry side. Then down to twice a day then once a day.
Nowadays you have got what is called hopper feeding, where the birds just help themselves. This is still a debatable method. Some keepers just have to use hoppers as they have such a large ground to cover. The hoppers give you a wilder bird, which gives you a more sporting bird. A wild bird will tuck in and hide on the ground – it’s a natural thing for it to do. It will do anything but fly.
In June and July the ground cover needs attention. On big estates it’s the forester’s job to look after the ground but if you are on an area just by yourself and the ground is a bit thick with growth then you might clear areas of ground for the beaters to walk through. The first shoot of the season is the most nerve wracking for any keeper. A whole year’s work is resting on it. I couldn’t eat anything on my first shoot of the season. We always shoot the outsides of the area first as you get the wild birds and the partridges on the outskirts of the estate. As the days get more intensive, the bigger bags, you move inwards towards the reared birds giving them time to mature.
An average shoot on Biel would have seven guns, about nine or ten beaters, at least two pickers up, and from one to four dogs. Biel doesn’t have a gamekeeper now. There is a chap that does a bit of vermin work. But they only shoot once or twice a year .Now most shoots in East Lothian are syndicates. They shoot alone or let a day out to recoup some money. After a shoot the birds are hung in racks in the back of the game trailer. Firstly, to keep the pheasants’ bodies out of the mud and then to cool the bodies down. Long ago there would be a gamecart keeper who took away the fallen birds.
Game could be looked at like a crop from an estate. On any shoot, a percentage of the birds get away and in between times they are living a fairly natural wild life.
I love training the dogs and I love the shooting and the quality of the lifestyle. My son is training to become a gamekeeper working with grouse. I hope that there will be a good secure future in it for him. I hope he gets as much enjoyment out of it as I have done.