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Headkeeper David Whitby examines The Gamekeeper at Home by Richard Jefferies and the vivid story it tells of the profession in the 19th century.
to tell you how hard gamekeepers work in order to bring us our sport each season. David Whitby, a headkeeper in West Sussex, and fierce defender of his profession, pores over the pages of a book on gamekeepers from a bygone era. While the pressures of the modern shoot are many, it must be said that life was a lot harder for the rural folk of the mid- to late-19th century and that is brought home in this enthralling article.
Like most gamekeepers who are passionate about their sport, the countryside and all within it, I have collected an enormous amount of ‘stuff’. With the realisation that in the not too distant future I will be downsizing, this hoarder is hardening his resolve and parting with the less precious articles that ‘they who do not understand’ would describe as junk. It was the turn of my shelves of books last week, most about game, songbirds, deer, shooting, fishing, stalking and a very early 1950s copy of a ‘gentleman’s magazine’ that showed fair maidens in swimsuits.
It was whilst I was deciding whether to keep Sea Angling with A Baited Spoon that a book called
The Gamekeeper At Home, by Richard Jefferies, first printed in 1878, caught my eye. I have never opened its pages and have no idea where it came from. It is a fascinating insight into the keepers of old and the obvious class system that existed on estates. One gets the impression that any keeper being less than hard as nails would simply not do. ‘There is a solidity in his very footstep, and he stands like an oak. He meets your eye full and unshirkingly, yet without insolence; not as the labourers do who stare with sullen ill-will or look on the earth,’ writes Jefferies. Make of that whatever you will, but the next paragraph will no doubt put a smile on the face of my guns and the countless other guests who have shot with keepers the length and breadth of the country. ‘Perfectly civil to everyone, with a willing manner towards the guests, he has a wonderful knack of getting his own way. He has a voluble “silver” tongue, and is full of objections, reasons, excuses, suggestions, all delivered with a deprecatory air of superior knowledge’. It then goes on to say that nine times out of 10 he is right - good to know that over the years some things never change. When describing his rude health and fitness, even in later age, his secret is the following: ‘It’s indoors, Sir, as kills half the people and taking too much drink and vitals. Eating’s as bad as drinking and there ain’t nothing like fresh air and the smell of the woods.’ He takes but two meals a day, breakfast and supper, and puts that as a major reason for good health, ‘fresh air, exercise, frugal food and drink and the odour of the earth and trees’. It would appear the keepers of old knew a thing or two. Apparently, he has his faults: a hastiness of temper towards his under men, labourers and woodcutters who cross him. He is apt to use
his ground ash stick rather freely without thought of consequences. When he takes a dislike or suspicion of someone, nothing will remove it, stubbornly inimical, unforgiving and totally incapable of loving an enemy. He also believes that ‘nothing reveals a gentleman’s character so much as his tips’. I can’t argue with that.
His duties would include the collection of skins - otters, grebes, kingfishers, woodpeckers, jays and magpies, the latter being described as rare. He was commissioned to shoot birds for taxidermy and cat skins were valuable. Barn owls were kept in sheds and barns to control rodents and there was a market for the young, along with young red squirrels and bird’s eggs.
The book describes how the number of keepers has much increased since ‘the flood tide of commercial prosperity’. Game had become a marketable commodity, ‘bought and sold as one might buy a standing crop of wheat. Poor land which used to be of very little value has, by planting of covers and copses and the erection of a keeper’s cottage been found to pay well. Game, in short was never so much sought after as at present’. Remarkably they are speaking of the revenue not from let shooting but from the sale of dead game. The dead game that today is seen as a by-product of little financial value. It was the keeper’s job to provide a constant supply of game for the family and have it sent to their town dwelling. The author speaks of pheasants ‘pairing off’ early in the new year when the weather is mild. We may deduce from this that Jeffries was not a keeper himself.
We are all familiar with the ‘little bit of bread and no cheese’ song of the yellowhammer, but I had never heard of the woodpigeon’s ‘take two cows, Taffy’ or ‘Joe’s toe bleeds Betty’ when it’s about to rain. The author also speaks of the increasing rareness of badgers and their fondness for the nest of the ‘humble bee’. Today, of course, it is the ground nesting ‘humble bee’ that is increasingly rare, whilst the badger explodes in number.
Jeffries takes a full two pages to explain the importance of leaving old, dead trees, listing many of the birds, bats, insects and plants that benefit from the decaying limbs and trunk. He tells how ploughboys smoke the porous roots of the elm tree and the ‘lower classes’ gather and dry the leaf of coltsfoot as pipe tobacco.
The book is full of interesting and occasionally inaccurate observations of a keeper’s life and the countryside. Great sections relate to poaching, everyone was after a free meal as food was scarce for most people. The gangs who came from towns were dangerous and severe injury due to both beatings and shootings were common. In the book it states how the keeper prefers to give local poachers a ‘good leathering’ rather than a summons. The gangs were a different matter and high fines or jail were given. Undoubtedly a tough life but, in those days, life was often tough.
“It’s indoor, Sir, as kills half the people… Eating’s as bad as drinking and there ain’t nothing like fresh air and the smell of the woods.”
The writer's copy of a gamekeeping classic.
An illustration from the book: ‘The keeper’s son shooting left-handed.’