Tag Archives: Gamekeeping

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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Memories of a childhood spent in the countryside of post war Britain

When I recount stories of my childhood spent in the countryside of the late 1940s and early 1950s, people always tell me that I had an idyllic childhood. While to some extent I did, I had many wonderful childhood experiences. One of my earliest memories is being placed between the shafts on the hay cart seated directly behind the cart horse. The man that placed me there told me to take the cart back to the farm. Being a small child in charge of a cartload of hay and huge shire horse gave me a tremendous sense of excitement. I was dwarfed by both the loaded hay cart and the horse. Obviously I was not really in charge, the horse knew the way back and went on its way oblivious of the small passenger shouting commands to it. While I can paint an idyllic picture of a post war country childhood, I was even as a child aware of the darker side of country life.

One of my other early memories is of my father, a gamekeeper,  nailing a grey squirrel skin to a board. Once it dried out it was sent to the ministry for a bounty. The bounty was one shilling (5p) per squirrel skin, which in the hard times of the post war era was a substantial sum. Particularly if the gamekeeper sent in several skins at once. When I explain that my father’s wage was £3 10s (£3.50), it is obvious that the squirrel bonus was a useful addition to the family income.

There were other ways in which my father supplemented the family income. On such a low income meat was something of a luxury and all to often our meat was rabbit. What I should explain was then that rabbits existed in large numbers in the countryside. Farmers regarded then as a pest, as they consumed large numbers of their young plants growing in the open fields. Although my father’s  primary role was to breed and nurture pheasants for the winter shoots, his secondary role was as a pest controller. Quite simply this meant controlling the number of rabbits on the farm.

Now as an adult I can see how inefficient were the methods he used, which were trapping and snaring the rabbits. He studied the hedgerows and when he found a rabbit run he would put either a gin trap or a snare there. Then the following day he would go back to collect the rabbits caught in the trap or snare. Surprisingly the rabbits could often set off the gin trap and not be caught. When he did come across a trapped rabbit it would often be still alive and he had to put it out of its misery.

It was not only us who benefitted from this rabbit bounty, but also our neighbours. I can remember my father giving our elderly neighbours the Hugget’s nice plump young rabbits to make into a pie. Other workers on the farm similarly benefitted from this practice.

This brings me to the most disreputable of characters,  the ministry pest controller. This was a man who could be called in by farmers to remove the rabbits from their land. He was disreputable, because of the way he went about his trade. Once on the farm he would identify the areas most popular with the rabbits. Then he would lay traps in this area, but he was very selective in his trapping, as he never bothered with those areas where there were few rabbits. In this way he could always demonstrate to the farmer that he had killed a large number of rabbits and had largely solved the rabbit problem. However he always left enough rabbits to ensure that by the following year there were enough them to cause a nuisance, so he would need to be called back again. Countrymen such as my father despised him because he would make all the easy kills, leaving to the gamekeeper and others  to kill the more difficult to get at rabbits.

In the immediate post war years meat was rationed and then when it ceased to be rationed it remained an expensive purchase. Therefore families where looking for alternative sources of fresh meat. This man had a very profitable trade selling these rabbits to market stall holders or local butchers.

In January when the pheasant shooting season ceased  it was the rabbit drive season.  The pheasants now had been shot and could no longer be scared away by the noise of shooting. Also the vegetation had died down depriving the rabbits of cover, making them easier to shoot. This was a very popular event as it was the one time of the year that the lower social orders could gather on the land and shoot the rabbits. At other times of the year they would be regarded as poachers for and would be prosecuted. Local magistrates who were usually the local landowners dealt with poachers harshly.

These January shoots were an expression of the class divide, as only the lower orders shot rabbit. The gentry only shot game birds, shooting at rabbits was something they regarded as an affront to their dignity.

Sometimes the landowner or farmer would demand a larger cull of rabbits than usual. The only way to do this was to gas them in their burrows with cyanide gas. There was danger in this method, as the pump which pumped the gas into the burrow usually had one or two small leaks. Unfortunate gamekeepers could be killed by cyanide leaks. I can remember my father remarking on the gamekeepers whose obituaries appeared ‘The Gamekeepers Gazette’; men who had been killed by a gas leakage from the cyanide pump.

Gamekeepers regarded this as an unnecessarily cruel means of killing rabbits. I think memories of the First World War accounted for this feeling. Gamekeeper were invariably in times of war turned into infantry men. Certainly the older of my fathers work colleagues could remember the horrors of gas warfare. Also it represented a waste, all those rabbits were left in the burrows to decay; if other methods had been used they could have been used to feed a family.

While as an economist I can note is that this form of rabbit control was a labour intensive and relatively ineffective. As regardless of how many rabbits my father killed there were also a large number happily consuming the farmers crops the next year. Yet these same rabbits provided a source of food for the low paid workers of the countryside. Rabbit pie was for us a cheap meal which he had once or twice a week. Although rabbits consumed a large quantities of the farmers crops the crop yield in those days was still large. The methods used by my father and others to control rabbit numbers was sufficiently effective to prevent the rabbit problem getting out of hand. Farmers never seemed to be put out of business by the rabbit. In fact the farming industry produced a similar proportion of the nations food to that produced today by the same industry.

Farming in the 1940s and 50s was relatively low tech and as a consequence employed large numbers of workers. Such labour intensive industries are less productive per worker than capital intensive industries, so the wages of such workers were low. However such a labour intensive industry demanded a large labour force. When mechanisation became more common jobs began to disappear. As a teenager in the 1960s I can remember seeing abandoned country cottages being left to decay, as they were no longer needed to house workers.

Often when I talk to people about my childhood they say it must have been idyllic. The same belief prevailed amongst my mothers relatives who visited us from town. What they never understood was  that country life could be a hard demanding life. In summer my father would rise at dawn and work through to dusk, that is a day starting at 4.30 and ending at 9.30.They wanted the romance of the country, which they got as in there visits they never engaged with the realities of country life. Somehow they managed to be obvious to the brutal killing of wildlife, even when they were enjoying the rabbit pie for dinner.

In this essay I have chosen to emphasise the harsh realities of country life. Living what could be a hard and demanding life meant country people aged in a way that people do not do today. Ageing was noticeable once people passed the age of 40. However despite what I have written country people believed that they had a better lifestyle than those living in the urban centres. They were not oblivious to the beauty of the surroundings in which they worked. Also the nature of their work meant that they were unsupervised. They worked free from the constant intrusion of a supervisor. They were judged by the end product of their labour, the ploughed field or in my father’s case the number of pheasants seen on a shooting day. Although they might be paid as an agricultural labourer, they knew that they were highly skilled in the tasks that they undertook. They with a few exceptions took pride in their work and it was this pride that ensured that the unsupervised work they undertook was always completed.

What I believe is that the working environment on the land in this period created a group of men who were satisfied with their lives. The nature of their work made them tough resilient individuals. One writer in the 19th lamented the decline of agriculture as  means of employment, because it meant that there less of such men in the country. To this writer these agricultural workers were the backbone of the ‘thin red line’ that secured so many British military victories.

While I have no illusions about the nature of country life, I do believe the low tech lives lived by such as my father were in many ways superior to the lives lived by many today. It seems to me that the choice is living a more fulfilling life in a low tech economy or in living in a high tech economy with a higher income but with uninteresting working life.