The Real Robin Hood

Unlike most people I have met Robin Hood. Not the figment of the medieval imagination, but the real flesh and blood Robin Hood. When I met him he was a man in his fifties. A tall distinguished looking man with greying hair, with a ruddy complexion typical of many countrymen and whose eyes betrayed an obvious intelligence. Rather than being a romantic hero, he was more like the real medieval Robin, a villainous man who was hung for theft. He earned his name because he stole from the rich and gave to the poor. However the poor he gave to was principally himself. It was said by those that knew him that he did not need to drive his car to the pub and the route from his house was so well worn that the ruts in the road would direct the car there.

I should explain how he earned the name Robin Hood. He was the gamekeeper on a large estate not far from my home. The estate was owned by a man who had been a war hero, a man who had founded one of the elite special units in the British army. However I doubt many elements of the wartime exploits of this man, as if he was so clever why was he constantly outsmarted by our local Robin Hood. When I read that this man was captured by the Germans on his first mission behind enemy lines, my suspicions were confirmed.

To understand how Robin Hood earned his name and reputation, I must first explain the nature of the gamekeeper’s job. The pheasant the preferred target for aristocracy on their organised shoots was not a native of Britain. I should one of the reasons for the pheasant being the preferred target, was not so much its flesh, as it’s poor flying skills. When alarmed the pheasant preferred to run away, so many times the unaware pheasant was caught by a pursuing fox. When the pheasant flew it choose a relatively low trajectory and flew in a straight line. Unlike other game birds it did not adopt that difficult trajectory that would make them hard to hit. The poor pheasant was a relatively easy target.

This bird not being a native of this country was relatively ill adapted to life here. If those pheasants that had been originally imported from the East were left to become naturalised, because of the ill adaptation to the natural environment there numbers would have remained small. Consequently keepers were employed to breed these birds in their thousands, so that the landed gentry would have plenty to shoot. The mortality rate for these birds was so high that even if a thousand poults were released into the woodland, only a few hundred would survive until the shooting season.

Therefore in spring the gamekeepers would trap the remaining birds and use them as breeding stock. What my father and other keepers did was catching these birds and was to put one cock pheasant into each breeding pen with a number of females and then collect the eggs these birds laid. Then when sufficient eggs had been laid, they would be put beneath a hen to hatch. The female pheasant was so ill adapted to a life in captivity that they made poor mothers. This was a slow a relatively inefficient way of breeding pheasants, so the hens were replaced by incubators. These incubators could accommodate a hundreds of eggs. When these pheasant chicks were born they were so ill equipped for a life in the wild, that they had at first to be placed in a warm pen heated by infra red lights to protect them from the cold. When they had matured sufficiently usually after four or five weeks, they were taken to a protective pen in the woods. This pen was surrounded by a high wire fence that would keep predators such the fox away from the vulnerable chicks. These chicks were so lacking in the skills for survival that they would actively court disaster. Sometimes when a fox prowled around the pen they would stick their heads out to see what was happening. What happened next was inevitable the poor chick would lose its head to the fox.

What the keeper feared most was rain. These chicks that were newly released into the wild would lack the feathers necessary to keep that warm in adverse conditions. Shelters were built within the pen to protect them from rain, yet lacking any natural instincts, they would fail to seek shelter when they first encountered rain. If it rained just after they had been released into the wild, many of these foolish birds would get a chill and die of the cold. Eventually these birds learnt survival instincts and could be released from the pen into the wild. However even when they had mattered some would be reluctant to leave the sheltered pen for the wild and had to be driven out of there find a home elsewhere.

There are to my knowledge no statistics available on the likelihood of artificially reared pheasant chicks on reaching adult hood. It was this situation that gave Robin Hood the opportunity to rob the rich and give to the poor. He first came to my notice when I heard distressing tales from my father about this unfortunate man. Regularly he lost pheasant chicks to floods, theft or natural predators. Every year this unlucky keeper would contact men such as my father to enquire if they had any surplus chicks he could buy. Working on such a large estate he always needed to purchase thousands of chicks to replace those lost. A demand my father and other keepers could not meet. He would then reluctantly contact one of the large commercial breeders of pheasant chicks for replacement birds. Buying chicks at such a late date meant that he had to pay over the odds for these birds.

What later we came to learn that these unfortunate chicks were not lost to flood, rain or natural predators, but were sold to one of the many large pheasant breeding companies. Given the vulnerability of pheasant chicks to any number of natural hazards, it never occurred to any of the managers on the estate that they were being hoodwinked. The money he got for these chicks he spent in the local pub, were he was a popular figure. What was surprising was all the pub regulars and most of the local villagers knew what he was doing, but none ever informed on him! He was a popular local figure, as he was never found wanting when it came to his turn to buy his round.

Not standing your round was the one act that would have made you unpopular. I can remember a story printed in our local newspaper of a man being barred from a pub, because he never bought sufficient drinks. He was notorious for not wanting to pay for his drinks. He would try to persuade others to buy him a drink with the promise that he would buy one in return, which he never did. One of the regulars justified his banning on the grounds that he was a queer bird on account of his being a vicar’s son.

This story should be put into context. The money Robin Hood made from his illicit sales was never that great. While young pheasant chicks fetched a good price, the money from their sale would never have made a man rich. The wages paid to their staff by country landowners was never generous. Throughout my childhood there was the Agricultural Wages Board, that ensured that such people paid their workers a fair wage. When an employee such as Robin Hood put one over on his employers rather than earning censure, he was accorded the respect of his fellow workers and the villagers. In fact who was the real villain, I would suggest it was the large pheasant chick breeders who knowingly bought these illicit chicks for less than the market price.

Robin Hood was a man of real charm, which is perhaps why he got away with his nefarious activities. One journalist was so impressed with him that he featured him two articles on country life in his newspaper. Probably he used to same charm to mislead his employers. If I remember correctly there was even a short feature on him on a television programme.

What I have described in this essay could never happen today. Estates are now commercial concerns and gamekeeping is now one of the profit making activities that contribute to the estate’s profits. Several thousand pounds can be charged to a guest for a day’s shooting on a popular estate. In consequence every aspect of the estate is subject to close supervision and a contemporary Robin Hood would soon be found out.

One last comment. Poachers if they were local were never of great concern to my father, as they only took rabbit or pheasant to feed their family. What were of concern were the encroachment of organised criminal gangs from the city on the poaching trade. One of my father friends unfortunately died at the hands of these people, as one said he was hit one too many times over the head. The killer was from the city and was never caught.

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