There's more to this game than meets the eye;The Knowledge;Further education

3rd December 1999 at 00:00
STROLLING in the woods with a shotgun under an arm and a dog at one's side is the image some young people have of the gamekeeper's life. But it is a far cry from the reality of managing game in Britain today.

Lecturers at Sparsholt College, near Winchester in Hampshire, are quick to disabuse would-be keepers of such Victorian notions. They bring them down-to-earth by mentioning hard graft and long hours in all weathers.

On the plus side, Martin Edwards, head of the college's game, wildlife and countryside management section, says that keeping is a rewarding way of life for people interested in nature.

"We come into contact with a lot of keepers and they all seem to enjoy their lives. If you are that way inclined, it is a nice way to spend your days."

Simon Holloway, a 24-year-old underkeeper on the Somerley Park estate at Ringwood, studied for a BTEC first diploma and then a National Diploma in game and wildlife management at the college. "I originally wanted to be a vet," he said. "But when I looked into how much work it would entail, I looked around for another job and this was the next most obvious."

Jonathan Palmer, aged 35, who is headkeeper at the same 7,500-acre Dorset estate and studied for a National Certificate in gamekeepingwaterkeeping at the college, said: "I always wanted to be a keeper. I had been beating from the age of 11 and was very interested in shooting. I also like being my own boss."

Keepers need an affinity with nature and the countryside, according to Dave Ballantyne, who used to be a keeper in Scotland and now lectures at the college. They also have to be physically fit and dextrous.

Lowland keepers rear partridge and pheasants for the autumn shooting season, control predators such as magpies, carrion crows, stoats, rats and weasels, and manage woodlands, wildlife and deer. Upland keepers manage wild grouse moors and police them for predators.

Keepers also have to turn their hands to practical skills such as building larders for venison and game and are taught how to manage fisheries and rivers.

And because shoots involve the rich, the titled and ordinary rural workers, the ability to get on easily with people is an advantage.

Managing a shoot - organising equipment, transport, beaters and pickers - can be one of the gamekeeper's busiest tasks.

"You have to ensure that people are shooting safely but enjoying themselves. A shoot is quite a stressful event for a gamekeeper," Mr Edwards said. "Then that evening you might be out looking for poachers. Dealing with them is not the pleasantest of tasks. Often they carry firearms and are wanted by the police for other crimes."

Mr Edwards believes that, in the next few decades, gamekeepers might become known as wildlife keepers. "It's not just about rearing and shooting pheasants," he said. "We are concerned about the broader environment."

Academic qualifications are not essential for entry to the national certificate course in gamekeeping, though a reasonable clutch of GCSEs is desirable. The perks of the job include a tied cottage, some kind of vehicle, game to eat and tips on shoot days. The drawbacks are that if you lose your job, you risk losing your house. The hours are often very long - sometimes 70 hours a week - and the salary is low, from pound;8,000 to pound;13,000 per annum.

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