The shooting season for game always ends on 1 February and that is in a sense the start of the gamekeeper’s new year. He has until the next autumn to manage the rearing of the new generation of pheasants and partridges and replenish the stocks for the next season. The first half of February is spent catching up hen pheasants for breeding stock. Then there are some six weeks rabbit-catching. The keepers do a sweep through the woods ‘roughing up’ with terriers and sending ferrets down the burrows to bring down the numbers. Of course, rabbit numbers are periodically much reduced by the terrible myxomatosis virus, but the numbers always build up again on about a four-year cycle as the rabbits become temporarily immune and then need culling again.
In April we will be collecting eggs for incubation. In the old days we used to buy up broody hens for miles around for this job, but now people don’t keep hens any more and we have to use artificial incubators. New cocks are introduced every three years just to vary the strain and thousands of eggs are hatched, though yields are kept down now because the shooting is more selective and sporting. Whereas the guns used to shoot up to 800 birds a day it’s now more like 150 or 200. The chicks hatch in June and are placed in Rupert Brooders, which are protective cages with all mod cons like heating and are surrounded by an electric fence to keep out the foxes. As a final defensive measure we leave radios playing all night in the enclosure the voices on Radio 5 seem to be the best deterrent!
Thurlow Estate paddock
The chicks spend seven weeks in the rearing field and are then released in early August into open-top pens in the woods, where they stay three or four weeks till they are strong enough to fly out. If they want to return to safety, however, they can get back through special funnels in the fence. Then the new season starts again in the autumn: the official date for partridges is the beginning of September and for pheasants the beginning of October, though in fact there’s rarely a shoot before November.
The keeper will have planted special game crops to give the birds both food and cover usually kale, maize, millet or artichokes (all of which also provide food for a host of small birds and other wildlife) and on the day of each shoot he has to take responsibility for managing the whole affair to the satisfaction of the landowner. There will be nine guns in an invited shoot and he stations these at regular intervals between the crops and the wood, positioned carefully to take account of the prevailing weather conditions and let the birds fly as high and fast as possible in order to challenge the skill of the guns. There will be 18 beaters whose job it is to drive the birds toward the guns these are usually local people who are paid £15 a day. And there will be 4 pickers-up with about 10 dogs (labradors and spaniels) to gather in the birds. The keeper is also responsible for all the transport and has to arrange the beaters’ wagon, the gun-trailer and the game cart.
Shoots take place usually on Saturdays and last from 9.15 am till 2 o’clock in the afternoon. There are about 20 a year in the season and so if the bag is 200 a shoot that’s about 4000 birds a season. Many of the guns are very good shots, of course, but not always the ones you’d expect! Each gun is given two brace of partridge and a brace of pheasant and the rest are sold to game dealers. But that doesn’t raise much money now with game being so cheap.
We have to manage the woods as well as the game, of course, and so we need to cull the deer, which are now much commoner than people generally realise. The roe deer are the most numerous, but muntjac have expanded their numbers enormously and we also get fallow and even red deer from time to time. We use the ‘high seats’ in the woodlands for deer control. We also have to keep down vermin of all kinds stoat, weasel, mink, grey squirrels (which must have trebled in numbers since the acorn glut), all of which we catch in tunnel traps which have to be visited every day. Foxes are obviously a problem too, and there’s bound to be some tension about this when there’s an active hunt as there is in Thurlow. The hunting season runs from September to March, so we just have to manage to coexist as best we can. In fact there are fewer foxes than 5 years ago, though more than 20 years ago.
Thurlow Lake and the fish are another responsibility. We have rainbow and brown trout, perch, rudd and crucian carp. The fishing rights are retained by the family, though they have to be shared with the heron, an occasional cormorant and even very occasionally a passing osprey. A few fish find their way into the Great Thurlow House canal and thereby into the river, so the river is quite well stocked too. We have the occasional trouble with poachers but the worst problem we ever had was from a violent thunderstorm in June 1995 which took all the oxygen out of the water and left the big fish dead. The other inhabitants of the lake, of course, are the toads literally thousands of them, which travel there to breed from miles around.
This is a big estate to manage 12,000 acres locally including the Thurlows, Great Wratting, Withersfield and Carlton, but some 16,000 acres in all when you add in the land in Horseheath, Balsham and Ashdon. It’s hard to control properly with just three full-time keepers, one part-timer and one lad. There used to be at least 5 beat-keepers and they knew every inch of their beat. We now travel on four wheels and the territory has expanded, but we still get round as best we can. It’s a dawn-to-dusk job, with some night-watching thrown in just to deter the poachers; and I don’t often take holidays (not as often as my wife would like!). But it’s a way of life as well as a job and I wouldn’t have it any other way. The countryside has changed a lot, of course, and not usually for the better. There’s much less wildlife and fewer birds because of the use of pesticides; just think how the once-common sparrows have become rarer along with the larks and linnets. People sometimes think of us just as hunters and at school our children hardly dare mention what we do because they’ll be misunderstood. But in fact we are great conservationists and usually care more than anyone else about the wildlife and about preserving the countryside and the country ways.