Keepers aiming at new targets

Chris Wild the chairman of the Yorkshire and Cleveland branch of the National Gamekeepers Organisation
Chris Wild the chairman of the Yorkshire and Cleveland branch of the National Gamekeepers Organisation
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Gamekeepers have had a reputation for being hostile towards birds of prey, but according to Chris Wild, this has changed.

“The modern gamekeeper has become much more tolerant,” he says. “We have a healthy population now of buzzards, to the point where each year they’re getting pushed further and further apart.

“If one family sets up, it will have an area where it needs to hunt and it will have two or three chicks which, in turn, will need their area.”

Chris runs a pheasant and partridge shoot covering 1,500 acres near Skipton, and he isn’t alone in his opinion about the benefits gamekeepers can deliver.

He has the figures to support it. Nearly 1,000 gamekeepers replied to a survey commissioned by the National Gamekeepers’ Organisation and collated by the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust.

They were asked to report the numbers of raptors or birds of prey living on the land they managed, as well as the species of quarry and other wildlife.

“There are plenty of organisations out there that have done their surveys and what we wanted was a survey of our own,” says Chris, who is chairman of the National Gamekeepers’ Organisation for Yorkshire and Cleveland

The new findings revealed that, nationally, almost all shooting estates have at least three species of raptor present, and half of them have five.

According to the study, the most common raptors on keepered land are kestrels, buzzards and sparrowhawks.

Keepers reported that the buzzards and the sparrowhawks had a detrimental effect on both wildlife and game-birds.

Chris Wild admits that keepers are having to learn to live with that.

“It’s a difficult one. The only method you’ve got is to try to scare them. Legally, you can’t touch them. A few shoots may release a few more birds expecting them to lose a percentage to the buzzard. You’ve just got to take it on the chin.”

The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds says it acknowledges the role that gamekeepers and other land managers play to encourage more bird numbers. They point to the way grouse shooting can benefit such species as curlew and golden plover.

But Dr Pat Thompson, the RSPB’s senior uplands policy officer, picks a hole in some claims. “Birds of prey, like the hen harrier and peregrine falcon, are all too often missing from apparently suitable areas.

“Why is it that these birds are often missing from some areas managed for game?” asks Dr Thompson.

“The RSPB suggests that all those with a direct interest in land management should be working more closely together to achieve the best outcomes.”

Chris Wild says that many of the environmental schemes for farmers help encourage wildlife, game and birds of prey.

One estate where this has happened is Harewood, near Leeds. The resident land agent, Christopher Ussher, says: “We took advantage of the original stewardship scheme. We have planted 15 miles of hedgerows over the past 10 years. We have left margins round our arable fields to encourage game chicks, so that they have plenty of insect life to live on. We’ve reduced spraying and left stubble from over-wintered crops.”

He says that the estate managers decide on which environment scheme to apply for, and then work with the keepers to determine how the requirements of these schemes can best serve wildlife and game birds.

“We discuss with the keepers where a particular game crop might be, or we take a corner of a field and put it down to a pollen and nectar mix.”

He agrees with the NGO claim that keepered land benefits wildlife as well as the game birds for which it is maintained.

“From my own experience, if you do not have the support from the key people such as the gamekeeping staff, the wildlife will not benefit.”

Some birds of prey are turning to keepered land because their traditional habitats are disappearing.

“The kestrel is in decline because all of the brownfield sites, the scrub-land where it used to live, has disappeared,” says Chris Wild.

“The brownfield sites were the perfect habitat for the shrews and the voles which the kestrel lives on.”

He says the way the land he manages is farmed helps the kestrel – a bird which he says does no harm to game – because the small mammals on which it feeds can thrive in cover crops and patches of scrub left to help game birds.

He says he hopes the new study will change a few opinions about gamekeepers.

“I would like to think that the survey puts out what is actually out there.

“The gamekeeper is no longer a secret person who skulks around in the dark. The modern keeper’s got to be very open to the general public.”