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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.

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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.

Changing times

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.’

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