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Thursday, 12 October 2017

Applied Bushcraft; The Gamekeeper

Dogs help a Scottish gamekeeper keep watch in Aberfoyle, Scotland
A traditional image of a keeper surveying his 'beat' with his dogs.
By Photographes du National Geographic ( [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

While 'bushcraft' is a modern word the skills that have been adopted by modern recreational bushcrafters have been practised for centuries. Some bushcrafters are in my opinion preoccupied with a the idea of the ancient or primitive aspects and often forget that the skills and equipment we use as bushcrafters now represent the pinnacle of their respective technologies. Knives with fancy steels, ferocium rods and light weight tarps are not ancient or primitive and while bushcraft might be a refuge for some primitive and traditional skills it's not quite as primitive as some would like to think it is nor does it have a monopoly on traditional skills, with the revival of the Bushcraft Education blog the 'Applied Bushcraft' series is back to look at those professions which still use skills associated with bushcraft on a daily basis. Today we will be looking at Gamekeepers and the 'bushcraft' skills that they use every day.  

My oldest didn't realise just how heavy a goose
was. We clearly don't buy our Christmas goose
as you can see, this one is going to be the outer
layer of a multi bird roast which will also include
duck, pheasant, coot, partridge and pigeon
Game keeping is a very old profession but it hasn't always been called game keeping, back in the day when the only around 5000 people lived in the British Isles and survived in hunter gatherer societies hunting was a daily part of life carried out as a vital part of survival. It is likely that successful hunters were celebrated and honoured and it is also likely that hunts were considered enjoyable and exhilarating but they would not have been a recreational activity just as going to the super market today is not considered recreational (in fact it's closer to a cruel and unusual punishment, I'd rather hunt my food). As time went by and agriculture became the mainstay of subsistence hunting still played a part to supplement the regular diet provided by agriculture but as agriculture became more and more efficient so hunting became less and less necessary for survival and became a recreation. While hunting and gathering is often a 24/7 job farming doesn't have to be which allowed societies to develop. Hunting for food never died out but the recreational element of it gradually became the most important part. In the British Isles we do not even have any cultural traditions that relate to the eating of game at certain times of year, compare the Icelandic tradition of  eating ptarmigan at Christmas (although hunting ptarmigan is now banned in Iceland due to declining populations), or the Rajput tradition of game curries. But in the UK now the closest we come to a game eating tradition is the vague idea that goose is an alternative to turkey at Christmas and those who do choose goose will invariably buy one. 

As hunting became a recreational pastime providing that recreation became a profession for others.  As far back as 3,500 BC the ancient Egyptians enjoyed hunting as a pastime and professional hunters would have tended the hunting equipment, horses, dogs and chariots that would have been used in the pursuit of leopards, lions, barbary sheep, antelope and other game pursued for the table or purely for sport. Much later in medieval Britain the foresters would have served the crown and maintained the royal hunting estates know as forests and chases. The word game keeper was not yet in common usage but the foresters did similar work, largely they were responsible for the protection of game from those not allowed to hunt, the collection of fines and the preservation of game. It is strange that while game would once have been pursued by all as an integral part of their daily lives and ultimately their survival that as people became more 'civilised' that right was reserved for at least the rich or royal and in the case of some parts of the medieval period solely the King. During the medieval period particularly under the rule of the Plantagenet kings the 'beasts of the chase' (deer, boar etc..) were reserved for the King or those with his specific licence and permission, nobles hunting without permission would be fined and peasants often brutally punished and sometimes executed depending on the perceived severity of their crime. For example the taking of a roe deer carried the punishment of blinding until they were reclassified as a 'beast of the warren' in 1338 and became fair game to all who wanted to hunt them (this ultimately led to their extinction in most of England and Wales until concerted efforts were made to re-introduce them in the 1800's). Medieval sport always revolved around the deer and boar and although pheasants, partridges and grouse were found in the British Isles they were not valued as a sporting quarry until much more recently and it is with game bird hunting that we associate the 'game keeper'. With a decline in the vast space required for hunting in the medieval fashion and the invention of effective breach loading firearms driven shooting started becoming popular in the 1800's and now forms the mainstay of organised shooting and 'hunting' in the UK.  The word hunting needs some discussion at this point, in the UK the word hunting would normally be used to reference the hunting of an animal with dogs and possibly also horses whereas all other forms of hunting are normally described as 'shooting' often with the appropriate quarry name attached or 'stalking' (see a post from a few years ago for more info). 

With the growth of game bird shooting the game keeper became an integral part of the rural landscape and even today uses a whole raft of skills which we associate with bushcraft as part of their daily routine. 

Weather it's determining the cause of death of a pheasant from it's remains, working out where a fox earth is, tracking a wounded deer or tracking poachers a game keeper is constantly interpreting the sign he sees in the countryside. Being able to tell the difference between a nest of hatched eggs and one which has been raided by a crow or badger is vital as is being able to tell the difference between a fox print and a jack russell print or mink and otter prints or between the trail left by a badger and a fox. All these skills relate  directly to the work of a gamekeeper. Perhaps we need to make sure we are setting a legal snare on a fox run rather than a badger run or identifying the right spot to set a snare on a rabbit run based on it's foot falls. Maybe we need to determine whether there are otters in an area so we can decide whether it is safe to set lethal traps for mink or live catch traps in case we accidentally catch an otter. Keepers and pest controllers use a specific piece of equipment to catch the signs of these animals; 

Image result for mink raft
These 'Mink rafts' catch the footprints of animals that use them which can then be used to determine the appropriate course of action, if mink are present and there is no risk of catching non target species such as otters or water voles lethal traps can be used, replacing the clay/sand mix with something like a mark 6 fen trap or if other species are present a live catch trap could be used instead to ensure that non target species are not harmed and can be humanely released in case of accidental capture.
A mink raft set and ready for action. 


I'll refer you to our bushcraft and the law series for this particular topic because although trapping may interest the bushcraft fraternity there is rarely justification for the use of traps in recreational buschraft and it is particularly important to remember that the primitive traps that we as bushcrafters are most interested in are actually illegal. Gamekeepers however do often use traps as part of their regular routine and have to abide by certain laws and guidelines regarding the types of traps that they use and how often they are checked and what species you can use them on. There is already a lot on this blog about trapping and you can view the relevant posts HERE. Mostly game keepers will be trapping pest and predators which if uncontrolled would devastate wildlife populations things such as corvids (Crows, magpies etc..) using larsen and ladder traps. 

Foxes will primarily be controlled by shooting but snares and live capture traps also play a significant part in their control. Historically gin traps would also have been used but these have been illegal in the UK since 1957. 

A gin trap; these were designed to hold the captured animal by the foot or leg and often led to severe injury and escape, animals were even recorded to have bitten off their own legs to escape. They have been illegal since the late 50's in the UK. 
Spring traps come in various shapes and sizes and licence for use against specific quarry depending on their size, power and design. This specification can not be deviated from and if a trap of the wrong design is used on quarry that it is not licensed for the law has been broken. For example a fen mark 6 can be used to trap mink but a mark 4 can't as it is too small and not powerful enough. Much of this trapping legislation is in the process of significant change at the moment and the fen traps and magnum traps that have been the mainstay of a keepers pest control equipment for the best part of half a century are about to be outlawed and replaced with new traps which are even more human and which satisfy the condition of the International Humane Trapping Standards. For more information check out some previous posts on trapping HERE and HERE.

Providing Food;

Ultimately the work of a game keeper culminates with the shooting season when pheasants, partridges and grouse are shot. While many participate in this shooting as sport ultimately what is produced is food and a lot of bushcraft revolves around the finding, production and cooking of food. A keeper needs to be able to bring down game, or more often vermin,  it's the paying guests that should be shooting the game, which can enter the human food chain. The pheasants and partridges shot on the shoot are a sought after luxury product, although sadly many retailers no longer accept wild game that has been shot preferring to import for example venison from farms in New Zealand. Much of what the keeper shoots can be eaten too; pigeons, rabbits, jackdaws and squirrels are all delicious and even the less sought after game species which are rarely shot on shoots but when they are generally just get fed to dogs and ferrets like coots and moorhens for example all make a good meal. There are other vermin I would not recommend eating; fox for example in my experience tastes like bitter spam. Whether the animals and birds are shot as game by paying guests or by the keeper as vermin they are food though and the getting of food is an important part of bushcraft as well as one of the outcomes of the keepers work. 

Fur and Feather;

Bushcrafters often pride themselves in not wasting anything and keepers are much the same, I have often paid a significant percentage of my annual shotgun ammunition bill by selling squirrel tails, pheasant tails, jay wings and other resources harvested from game or vermin to people who use them to make fishing flys. Game yields far more than just meat and while the average keeper or deer stalker may not make hide glue or use animal bones to make needles and other tools as would have been done prehistorically they do make a lot of use can be made of the skins and other products of a shot animal. Rabbit skins become dummy's for dog training, non trophy deer antlers become dog chews, whistles, key rings and walking stick handles, hare's are carefully skinned so the short hair from their faces can be used for fishing flies, deer hooves become traditional walking stick handles and very little is wasted.  

Environmental Awareness;

As bushcrafters we pride ourselves in being able to identify plants, trees and other wildlife, in understanding what the changing seasons means for the countryside and in recognising the subtle signs of the wildlife that lives there. We know the best places to look for certain plants and wildlife and the best time of year to find them. Keepers have been the guardians of this information for many years and before bushcraft became a popular recreational activity they along with farmers, foresters, thatchers, terrier men and other 'country folk' would have been the ones who had a monopoly on this information, in fact I would hazard a guess that there isn't a single half competent bushcrafter who hasn't learned at least a few things from an old keeper, farmer or 'country person' over the course of their careers. Keepers need to know where to go to find the fox that's been bothering the pheasants, or the best place to set a trap for a stoat or a snare for a rabbit or the best time of year to shoot crows and the right time of year to catch pheasants for breeding and a whole host of other things and this knowledge only comes through regular time spent outdoors in all weathers and seasons and spending that time outdoors is part of a keepers job.  

So that's a little insight into the bushcraft skills used by game keepers, there will be more coming soon as we expand out applied bushcraft series. The other once regular series of the Bushcraft Education blog will all be back soon as well with a Bushscience post all about why common ink caps are poisonous when combined with alcohol but absolutely fine to eat at other times due out next week. 

I hope you are enjoying the new content and we will keep it coming, you can expect at least one post a week. 

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