Adam remembers some of his less harmonious keepering days
It must be time to unveil a few more moments from the rich tapestry of my keepering days, spent in that tranquil part of Hampshire in the years before it became the overspill area for many of London’s finest (though the planners were already working on it…).
Getting on with your fellow man is an important part of estate harmony, not least when the little patch of heaven in question houses a small team of workers, not all necessarily of one mind. Call it diplomacy, man management, or just plain common sense; learning to live with alternative points of view does make for a more enjoyable and stress-free life.
I suppose you could say I was just unlucky to share estate space with three very different farm managers over a couple of decades, though naturally it was my joy and privilege to work with such gifted paragons. Most keepers I knew of at the time seemed more fortunate, settled with just the one long-term estate servant who did his job to the best of his ability while the keeper did the same, occasionally crossing paths but rarely swords.
I must explain, before feminists start a petition, that I write of the days when, if there were such things as female farm managers and gamekeepers, they had not expanded such forward-thinking acceptance of diversity to rural Hampshire (or not to my knowledge or experience anyway).
The farm manager, well established long before I arrived on the scene, was somewhat less than keen on the shoot. My mentor and predecessor, Stan, had warned me to expect little or no cooperation from Arnold since the shoot, and my job and livelihood, was seen as an inconvenient and expensive anachronism. It was ‘a rich man’s train set’, to be played with but not taken seriously (or not by the agricultural side of things, anyway). No, he had crops to grow and profits to make, with the only downside being that he wasn’t particularly good at it.
So, we basically we spent the first 12 years or so of my keepering life in an uneasy truce, though one or two incidents could be seen as brief periods of all-out war.
One such early skirmish was over the sleeping policemen, or ‘traffic calming integral road-flow improvements’, as they are most probably called today.
The drive to The Big House was around half a mile, starting at my lodge and running straight as an arrow through an avenue of limes, over the river, and on to the house, market garden and stables in the centre of the park. The road was pretty much unbending and, except for meeting
the odd tractor and occasional obstruction, users were inclined to put their foot down. The Boss was never especially overjoyed about this, not least since some of the occasional obstructions were his horses or groups of his pheasants, and so he decided that speed bumps would be the answer to control overenthusiastic drivers.
Naturally, since I was delegated to oversee their location and height, I was blamed for this interruption to accepted behaviour, especially by Arnold, who always drove his Land Rover at high speed to match the importance and urgency of his daily tasks.
Most of the bumps did their jobs and forced drivers to slow, but some – well, Arnold – soon discovered that the first and second could be partially avoided by dropping both nearside wheels off the road and onto the verge to maintain speed. Deep grooves quickly appeared in the sacred turf, and the Boss got huffy with me for some reason (internal politics are not always fair), so I solved the problem by dropping a lump of cordwood about four feet long and a foot across into each of the ruts.
Sacrificing some of my firewood seemed a fair price to slow up Stirling Moss, but I’d not reckoned with the man’s outrage at all this unwarranted interference. Almost within hours, both logs had been hit at speed by the Land Rover’s left front wheel, knocking them several feet through the air, allowing forward progress at undiminished speed, and causing quite severe damage to the nearside front wheel rim, bearing, suspension and half-shaft.
After that the sun shone less brightly from Arnold’s backside; he was relegated to the doghouse, his Land Rover to the repair shop, and that troublesome keeper was, temporarily, in front on points. Actually, a couple of weeks later he won the game outright when maintenance set concrete posts linked by chains across both sides of the drive, cutting off the escape route. Round one to The Shoot.
Even before this confrontation the Boss had made it clear to me that, as his keeper, the buck stopped at my door when it came to who could carry a gun, and when. That’s common sense, and a perfectly normal state of affairs on any shooting estate – you can’t have guns going off, causing alarm bells to ring and time-consuming check-ups to interrupt the daily routine, but that’s just what happened only a few days after I’d started. The forester and the senior cowman thought they’d pop out for a pigeon together, without telling me…
This resulted in a short-lived but huffy confrontation which ended when the agent sent a written directive from on high to all departments. There would, he reminded all parties, be occasions when estate workers might help the keeper, or fancy a bit of rabbiting or roost shooting, but not under any circumstances without prior permission. It wasn’t a blanket ban, just a polite establishing of the ground rules, and that sort of solved the problem. Naturally it also left me labelled a brown-nosed toady, but you have to learn to live with that sort of thing.
When most keepers spend time with their bosses, often walking the drives in earnest conversation, some might see this as simply an opportunity for toadying and back-stabbing. The reality is that they’re far more likely to be discussing how the birds are doing or how a day went, or working out some potential ways to improve the shoot. You just have to accept it: human nature, people who work on country estates, and things in general, are unlikely to change.
Whatever, peace reigned as far as surprise shots were concerned until the day, a few weeks later, when I happened to be creeping up on a crow shouting the odds from a treetop. Unusually, this ultra-wary bird seemed oblivious to any danger – attracting females can often lead to all sorts of problems – and I was about to change that situation permanently when a shot nearby put him into rapid exit mode.
Not a little miffed and pretty primed up to confront an obvious poacher, I ran in the direction of the bang to find Arnold climbing into his Land Rover, gun in one hand and a rabbit in the other.
Gently and politely remonstrating with the gentleman, pointing out that breaking the terms of the ‘No shooting’ agreement was a frustrating inconvenience, I reminded him that he had only recently had a memo from on high outlining the correct protocols in question. His reply lives with me to this day: “Well, of course I saw that memo Adam, but it doesn’t apply to me!” My fault, of course. Any fool should have been capable of distinguishing Arnold’s 12-bore shots from other, very similar but illicit 12-bore shots… but there you go! Some are more gifted than others.
He was in a class of his own, that man, and so in his equally individual way was Arnold’s successor, but that’s another story…
‘Not a little miffed and pretty primed to confront an obvious poacher, I ran in the direction of the bang to find Arnold climbing into his Land Rover’
When Adam was keepering on an estate shoot it led to clashes with the farm manager
The farm manager’s unannounced rabbit control had Adam hunting for poachers!