‘Guardian of the Land’ - Keith Johnson, head gamekeeper at Foston and Snelston shoots

Keith Johnson on the Snelston Estate

Keith Johnson on the Snelston Estate - Credit: Archant

Paid to roam landscapes and nurture wildlife, gamekeepers are often underestimated and crucially misunderstood. Claire Bore unpicks the controversy to discover the truth behind those checkered shirts and gun dogs...

Cock pheasant with five hens Photo: Peter Thompson, Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust

Cock pheasant with five hens Photo: Peter Thompson, Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust - Credit: Archant

Not many people can call their workplace stunning but Keith Johnson, head Gamekeeper at Foston and Snelston shoots can. It’s here at Foston that Keith and his colleague John, are having a ‘productive meeting’. There are no laptops in sight, the workspace is open plan (ie outside) and Keith visibly tuts when his mobile rings – ‘sign of the times, but doesn’t mean I like it’. Two checkered shirts haunch over some wire as they methodically work through its twists and turns, preparing for some repair work on a fence. Keith Richardson is a man who knows his comfort zone and clearly having a journalist turn up is something to which he is unused, but he nevertheless takes it in his stride.

Along with his assistant John, he is preparing for their birds to come in, and every hour counts at this time of the year. Retired on paper but not in person, Keith’s assistant John helps load up their kit. Make no mistakes this is a hard-working profession. There are no duvet days to be had here. Hours before we arrived, Keith had started his working day. ‘I love the early mornings best when no one else is about, 4.30am, long before you hear the distant rumble of traffic at 8am,’ ponders Keith.

‘This time of year I’d be up early in the morning, to lay my snares and traps. I’d get my pheasant pens ready, water, feed them, check all my fences are in order. Then I’d go back to have my tea and then be out again at dusk, looking out for foxes, or lamping. But my gaffer passed away last year so we’re buying in the pheasants this year,’ adds Keith sadly.

For Keith his choice of job was a case of following his heart. ‘Going ferreting with my Grandad when I was a school kid probably started me off. I thought, “I’m pretty good at this!” I’ve never done anything else. I don’t know what it’s like to be cooped up in an office.’ Ray Harrison, who was head keeper at the time, took Keith under his wing when he left school. ‘I’ve been on the Foston shoot since I left school and we took Snelston on four years ago. It’s good because you can lay the edges around the woods and see the fruits of it. Some workers are only here for two years so they don’t see that. I planted some of the woods up and now they are 20–30ft tall! It’s good when you go down and think, “I did that hedge.” If you move on quickly you can’t really get to know a place. It is more like my back garden here, in fact I spend more time here than I do in the one at home!’

Keith Johnson on the Snelston Estate

Keith Johnson on the Snelston Estate - Credit: Archant

The circular nature of the job means there is always something to do. Recounting what happens during the course of a typical year, Keith warns that you can never take your eye off the ball. ‘If you get behind by two or three weeks you’ll never catch up. There’s a certain time of the year to do everything and if you get it done then you’re left trying to catch up and there are always problems. Once you’ve got your birds, you want everything set up, it’s 100 per cent on them.’

Keith is a man who works hard and reaps the benefits both now and in the years to come. He knows that hard work and patience get results, that detail is key to success and that nature is not the kind of workplace where you can take short cuts. ‘You’ve just got to be dedicated to what you’re doing, to be able to take anything on and not to let anything phase you – just crack on,’ says Keith.

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Whilst people are always going to have differing opinions on whether ‘shoots’ can be classed as a ‘sport’ – Keith is quick to cut to the chase: ‘Gamekeeping is rearing game birds for the purpose of sport and shooting and everything that goes with that, vermin control, liaising with farmers and with the public, that sort of thing,’ he explains. ‘Three-quarters of it concerns conservation, because without the work we do you wouldn’t have half the species you see now.’

Earlier this year BBC’s Countryfile came under fire because of footage they showed of a group of trainee gamekeepers. Keith is unapologetic in his opinions and believes the BBC didn’t go far enough. ‘People are too sensitive and forget the care we show. Pheasants and partridges are out in the natural environment, so not only do they get great care from us when they are reared but they are then allowed to roam instead of being stuck in a shed like some chickens.’

Keith Johnson on the Snelston Estate

Keith Johnson on the Snelston Estate - Credit: Archant

And what a natural environment it is – with fine trees, hilly ravines and signs of gothic architecture, the 12,000 acre Snelston Estate is simply stunning. ‘Derbyshire is a good place to keep pheasants and partridges. I mean look at that view... what’s not to like!’ Over the last four years, Keith and his team have worked hard to tame and clear areas of the estate. Proudly he shows off the self-made pens ready for his new arrivals and the cleared pathways. Although this process is, as Keith openly admits, ‘an ongoing battle’.

With the curiosity of a child and the enthusiasm of a historian, Keith proudly takes us through the untouched areas of the estate. Pathways of nettles and overgrown foliage lead to what was once the laundry block, currently home to a mismatched assortment of tenants – a beautiful owl, decorative windows and old haphazardly-stored, wooden block doors. What an outdoor office to peruse – a hidden secret garden and treasure trove of history and beauty.

As a profession, gamekeeping dates back to medieval times. These days it has made something of a comeback, with courses now being offered across the country. However, with just over 3,000 full-time gamekeepers in the UK and about the same in part-time positions, gamekeeping is most definitely a unique career choice. It offers the chance to work outside with nature and for Keith, longstanding guardian of the land, it is an art that needs to be learned on the job. ‘Students have got to want to do it for a start. It’s a good learning for them. They get all the health and safety they need these days. But they have really got to get out there and get on with it. It’s no good sitting inside all the time talking about it.’

Luckily for Keith he’s got a lot of genuine interest from apprentices. ‘I’ve got a young generation coming in, mid-twenties, which is really good – you don’t find this on a lot of shoots where they’re all old, all retired! I’m lucky to have people who are interested and willing to give up their free time and holidays to come beating, they love it. Plus, my son and his grandchildren love coming, so it seems to be in the blood.’

After 32 years in the job does Keith think gamekeeping has changed much? ‘It’s the same nucleus – it’s just the medicine and money side, nothing else has changed. The pheasants still behave the same, as do the vermin. It’s just modern medicine and rearing. Sometimes you feel as if you’re just ticking boxes, but then you get out into the woods and fields and what you need to do is instinctive.’

Conserving the natural equilibrium of the land is clearly at the heart of everything Keith and his team do. Whilst some may argue that the amount of care and nurturing of the birds is hypocritical (when inevitably some will be shot), Keith maintains that their work is crucial to the countryside. ‘The proof of the pudding is there – you go to any well-managed estate where shooting is not taking place and the species are just not there.’

Keith is someone truly content in his work. ‘I’ve had the best out of it. I’m not worried about the future,’ he concludes.

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