August 29, 2022

On a late September afternoon last year, I drove south across Cumbria to visit a retired gamekeeper. I had wanted to speak to Lindsay Waddell for some time about the fraught battle to save Britain’s disappearing birds.

Waddell started as a gamekeeper when he was 16. He was brought up by his uncle who was a farmer rather than a keeper, but he remembers him as a man who had terrific respect for the natural world. “ There was a generation of gamekeepers like that, men who were great naturalists,” he told me.

During the time Lindsay was a keeper, his profession transformed. Shooting used to be a pastime that depended on harvesting a small but sustainable surplus of wild game, such as grey partridges and hares. But over Lindsay’s career, it became big business. In the uplands, medication was used to sustain artificially high numbers of grouse, and in the lowlands, more and more reared game birds were released to sate ever-growing demand. In the early Eighties, it was reckoned that 10 million pheasants were shot in England during the season. Five million of those were reared and released, and five million were wild. Forty years on, it’s estimated that we shoot some 70 million pheasants each year, of which only a very small percentage will have bred naturally. “There were people in the Nineties who were just upping the ante all the time,” Lindsay told me, as we watched oystercatchers wheeling through the rain beyond the window, “it was man’s greed that took over.”

This summer, there has been a steady drip of news stories about gamekeepers losing their jobs because of avian flu on the Continent. Agricultural intensification means it’s almost impossible, in many parts of the UK, for wild hen pheasants to find quiet, insect-rich corners where they can raise a brood, and intensively rearing game birds in the UK is banned. Consequently, in normal years, shoots import some 20 million pheasants and 15 million partridges from France. The weather there is better suited to rearing game. We’ve destroyed vast swathes of habitat in under 100 years, but no matter: importing birds allows us to keep shooting while pretending everything’s fine.

Or it did anyway, until the spring of this year, when Defra announced a temporary ban on the import of game birds from parts of France where bird flu was running rife. Almost 13% of shoots have said that they aren’t going to operate at all this season and the National Gamekeepers Organisation believes that 111 keepers have been let go. Every time the papers cover the story, Shooting Times, gets tagged in jubilant posts on social media. The Twitter consensus is damning: shooting is awful and keepers deserve every bit of misery they get.

There can be little doubt that the sport has become bloated, and it’s generally recognised that releasing excessive numbers of hungry birds denudes the land of invertebrates and flora. But it’s absurd to suggest that gamekeepers are the architects of shooting’s explosion. When Lindsay was a boy, many more keepers were employed, and far fewer birds were shot.

I know one keeper who has been at the same estate in East Anglia for 30 years. Initially, he had two lads beneath him, and they were tasked with running a wild bird shoot, which at that point, was let to an old bachelor who was happy to pay vast sums in the hope of a day or two of good sport. When the grey partridges on the estate bred well, he shot, and in poor breeding years he didn’t. All these years later, on that same estate, they sell three shoot days a week, 200 French partridges a go, and the keeper works singlehanded.

Like Lindsay, that East Anglian keeper is a naturalist at heart, and he’d love to be running a wild bird shoot. But when the old bachelor died, he was replaced by a shoot tenant who is a businessman first and foremost. Admittedly, there are fewer and fewer people able to fork out for shooting as it used to be. Britain is a different country now — the rural rich aren’t as rich as they once were, and labour is expensive.

Last Christmas, Gerald Gray, formerly the headkeeper at one of Norfolk’s best wild bird shoots, told me he’d spent his life managing his boss’s expectations: often, he had to deliver the news that they wouldn’t be shooting at all, because the weather hadn’t been kind and the chicks hadn’t made it. If they’d gone ahead and shot, they’d have killed all their breeding stock for the following year. With reared birds, nature has been taken out of the equation and there’s no requirement for delayed gratification. Late capitalism promises us that we can have what we want, whenever we want — cherries in December and a 300-bird partridge day just as soon as the cheque’s made out.

It’s not that there are leagues of keepers out there wanting to go bigger and bigger; it’s that the people employing them make money out of doing so. When those Twitter users attack gamekeepers, they’ve got the wrong man.

Demonising gamekeepers can have grievous consequences. It’s tough and lonely, and keepering is a career with a suicide rate that’s three times the national average. On more than one occasion recently, I’ve been told by keepers who are under pressure that the struggle is often compounded by coming home to a slew of uninformed vitriol on social media. The natural word has been destroyed, the narrative runs, and it’s all their fault.

Of course, not every keeper is an angel. There are still people out there illegally killing badgers and birds of prey, to limit the loss of game — but I’m not convinced they’re hellbent on destroying the natural world. Shooting has been turned into a numbers game and, too often, jobs depend on those numbers adding up. But I’ve met impressive keepers over the years who’ve handed in their notice when they’ve been asked to do things that go against their principles. The shooting world is a small one and walking away from a salary, a truck, and a place to live takes grit.

This year, my book on Britain’s endangered birds was published. It only took a couple of weeks for people to start telling me I’d wasted my time. One conservationist said that, frankly, he was disappointed I’d spent so much time talking to keepers about saving wildlife rather than organisations like the RSPB. I’ve met some wonderful RSPB staffers, but the myopic elitism of suggesting we should ignore a group of people who spend all their days, from dawn until often long after dusk, caring for a patch of ground is shameful.

While some who purport to care about wildlife take to the internet, gamekeepers are hard at work out there. They maintain woodland and hedges, manage moorland, and plant crops for game birds that provide sustenance for other wildlife. It’s hard to put a price on what they do, but the Scottish Gamekeepers’ Association reckons that the UK’s 3,000 full-time keepers carry out roughly £140 million’s worth of conservation work every year. When bird flu puts 111 keepers out of a job, we’ll lose a few who are doing things they shouldn’t. But we’ll lose many more who are doing their best to save endangered species, including the curlew, the capercaillie, and the black grouse. Farewell to them all.