As more young keepers compete for fewer jobs, women face even greater difficulties when trying to break into the still male-dominated profession
Starting out in gamekeeping is a difficult task for anyone, man or woman, not least because colleges turn out each year a stream of wide-eyed, aspiring young keepers who, when combined with limited job opportunities, make for fierce competition for every vacancy. It rather exacerbates the uphill struggle many women face even getting through to the interview stage. Most women coming into keepering do so via other routes, such as helping on an estate or game farm or with the blessing of a family member or acquaintance already in the job.
It is still very much a male-dominated profession, though there are now considerably more full-time lady keepers than when I began almost 14 years ago. It is plain that tradition still stands in the way of most young women putting a foot on the ladder. That said, however, in all the time I have been in the shooting world I’ve rarely been ungraciously greeted. Indeed, to the contrary, as most of those I meet, Guns or beaters, are pleased — and curious — to find a woman doing the job.
There is no escaping that the role of the gamekeeper has changed through the years. As a consequence, keepering nowadays undoubtedly holds more appeal for women than it would have done in days gone by. I wouldn’t have wanted to have done the job in the Victorian era when pitched battles with poachers were the order of the day. ATVS and technology in general have also revolutionised things and made aspects of the job easier. In my time in keepering I’ve never found a task that I can’t do, even though I’m smaller and not as strong as the average man.
As a woman in the industry, sometimes you must be prepared to push yourself that bit harder to achieve the same result. I am often asked how I manage certain things; the truth is over the years I have discovered that there is a knack to everything, be it swinging a big hammer, wielding a chainsaw or carrying tonnes of feed. The answer is not always brute strength; sometimes the key is to stand back and solve the problem rationally. And you can learn an awful lot by watching others and asking questions.
You do need a sprinkling of tenacity, too, as there are some elements of keepering that no college course, however good — and there are many fantastic courses — can prepare you for. Each day is different, and who knows what nature might be planning to throw at you. Pushing on through the busy periods when you are tired and your joints are aching does test resolve, but when everything comes together there is job satisfaction like no other. I have also learned that apart from 54 • Shooting times & Country magazine determination you need adaptability and to be a jack of all trades — plumber, mechanic, forester, joiner and tractor driver.
But it is not a job for the fainthearted. There are long hours of hard graft, often battling the elements, and many things to contend with outside your control. When it goes well, it is the best livelihood in the world but catastrophe is never that far away. Keepering can be tough on men as well as women. Of the lads I went to college with only a couple I know of are still in full-time keepering, but I am so glad I have stuck with it. Any woman reading this, hankering to give it a go, should think long and hard, but I’d say the rewards amply repay the blood, sweat and tears.
Two days into the current season, we have had a great start, albeit both windless and bright in the sunshine, poor weather from a shooting point of view, but it is still a pleasure to be out. The first couple of times are nerve-racking but our birds flew well, the new game crops did us proud and, with a few changes to the gun stands, should be a huge success. We are moving on to some of the bigger let days, mainly doubles where the Guns stay overnight in Underley Grange. Most teams come back year after year. It’ll be good to see them again.
“Tradition still stands in the way of most young women putting a foot on the ladder”
ATVS and technology have made parts of the job easier and Jude finds there is no task she cannot do