It's not only the grouse that need looking after

3rd October 2008 at 01:00
Rifle care, PR and dealing with guests - invited or otherwise. Jean McLeish finds out about 21st-century gamekeeping

Fresh faces almost hidden under tweed caps and deerstalkers, the young gamekeepers tramp in a line across the Highland grouse moor.

"Hands out of your pockets," their college lecturer shouts across the heather at some sleepy soul. These student gamekeepers are grouse beating across moorland on Glenavon Estate in the northern Cairngorms, near Tomintoul.

It's like a fashion shoot for Country Life, as the young men march forward cracking flags to raise the birds, dressed from head to toe in tweeds. You're almost expecting Queen Victoria to come over the hill on horseback with John Brown at her side.

But these are very much 21st-century gamekeepers who are schooled in all the arts they will need to manage Scotland's vast estates in the years ahead. At North Highland College at Thurso, they will even learn public relations and customer-care skills to help them handle invited guests, as well as uninvited ones like poachers.

All have jobs on Scottish estates, but attend college in Thurso at intervals throughout the year to study for qualifications in a huge range of skills. There are 62 this year, chosen from more than 100 applicants, all enthusiastic about working outside in the fresh air.

That was the attraction for Daniel Ritchie, 18, from Carrbridge: "The thing I enjoy most is being out on the hill in the fresh air," he says. Daniel works full-time as third stalkerponyman at Gaick Estate at Kingussie and is in his second year on the national certificate course.

Youngsters have the option of up to four years' study, starting with a two-year Skillseekers programme when they are 16. They can then take the national certificate in gamekeeping course and a further year for an HNC. They will learn to care for the ponies which will carry the stags off the hill; master first aid, estate maintenance and how to use shotguns and sporting rifles and care for gun dogs. They will be taught to manage grouse moors and to cross them safely in all-terrain vehicles, be computer-literate and be let into a thousand other secrets of the countryside, passed down from father to son through the generations.

Increasingly, those skills and secrets may be passing from mother to daughter - as a growing number of young women show interest in careers as gamekeepers. There are usually one or two among the annual intake - including more celebrated alumni like Portia Simpson, who made the front cover of The Field magazine after completing her qualification in gamekeeping.

This was the first course launched in Scotland 23 years ago as a Youth Training Scheme. Course leader John Waters became a member of staff during the first year and estimates up to 1,000 youngsters have qualified since and gone on to top jobs in the profession. They include men like Alistair Mitchell, one of the first students at Thurso and now head keeper at Glenlivet Estate, his first job as a teenager 22 years ago.

"I'm not from a keepering background. My father was a telephone engineer. So for me to get a start, I wrote to a lot of estates around Ballater, where I'm from. Half of them you didn't get a reply, so my only option was to go to the Youth Training Scheme keepering course," says Alistair, who takes on students every year and has former Thurso students on staff. "I was 16 when I started and I had always been interested in grouse beating and pheasants. I had ferrets I got from one of the keepers and used to go ferreting. I was no use at school. I was always outside, bunking." But the reluctant Aboyne Academy schoolboy came into his own on the course and working in the countryside at Glenlivet Estate.

John Waters joined the college staff shortly before Alistair: "It was all outside work and young lads did not want to be cooped up inside. That's how this became known as the classroom in the hills."

He and his staff and students are guests at Glenavon Estate, where head keeper Colin Gibson employs former students as keepers and on work placements. They will learn about running a successful sporting estate, where clients will pay Pounds 350 plus VAT a day to shoot a stag.

There are 2,500 people employed in the game sector in Scotland and stalking and game shooting generates around Pounds 240 million a year. A Highland estate will charge customers between Pounds 130 and Pounds 180 plus VAT to shoot a brace of grouse.

Gibson won't let a day unless he thinks he can make 100 brace - which at Pounds 140 a brace will cost his clients a cool Pounds 14,000 plus VAT. But it's not exclusively wealthy aristocrats who are tramping the heather these days. Parties include mechanics, plumbers and builders. "It's not just the upper echelons of country life," he says. Gamekeepers from other estates also visit as paying clients in their free time.

Gamekeepers like Colin and Alistair are involved in the selection process at Thurso, since the new recruits are going to be working on their estates. And with health and safety paramount, hiring staff who have been trained in courses like wild game meat hygiene and first aid is increasingly important.

John says courtesy is critical and guests from all over the world come to have a great day out in wonderful scenery. "I tell the students they are in the entertainment business, because an important part of their job is to keep their guests and clients happy. But you also have to know when to talk to the guests and when to keep quiet," he smiles.

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