An ex-gamekeeper writes…

Having just finished reading your book ‘Inglorious’ I’m prompted, and indeed inspired, to write to you. I’d like to begin by telling you something about my background.

Since childhood I have been passionately interested in wildlife, with birdwatching at the fore. I was brought up in the conurbations of Manchester where I was born in 1946, leaving at the age of 16, in 1962, to become a trainee gamekeeper in Herefordshire. At the age of 18 I moved to Sweden (1965) where I first worked at the Swedish School for Game and Wildlife Conservation, then for Stockholm University’s Zoological Institute as a wildlife-research assistant, based on the estate managed by the aforementioned school – the two institutes operated hand-in-hand. In 1968 I returned to the UK and became a senior forest ranger with the Forestry Commission, based in Knapdale Forest, Argyll, working on deer management and recreational/amenity developments. In the mid 70s I took up a post as head deer-stalker, employed by a sporting agency based near Inverness, where my function was to manage neglected deer stocks on about 12 estates ranging from Ross-shire, around the Great Glen and into the Moray Firth. As part of the work, during the closed season for deer stalking, I was required to assist with estate work including heather burning on grouse moors, also Rabbit and Fox control. I worked alongside many gamekeepers and deer stalkers on quite a few traditionally managed estates. Outside occupational life I had always been a very keen falconer, laterally flying Golden Eagles – principally at hares on grouse moors. As from the late 70s I applied my experience to the leading of wildlife and birdwatching tours, initially for Caledonian Wildlife (which no longer exists) based in Inverness. As from 1992 I established my own wildlife tour business under the title Great Glen Wildlife, which I still operate. In spite of a background of shooting-orientated occupations, and practising falconry until the early 80s, I have remained a passionate naturalist and wildlife conservationist. I now own a 220 chunk of land above south Loch Ness-side, which I have been managing as a wildlife reserve for 32 years, similarly a 39 acre unit of land by my present home in Orkney – the UK Hen Harrier capital! So, in brief, that’s who I am.

I have presented this brief account of my background as I have a great deal of experience relevant to both sides of the fence that polarises the respective shooting and wildlife protection/conservation fraternities. While living in Sweden I learned that the two spheres of interest could work together and have always believed that this should be the case in the UK. Until comparatively recently I was very much a supporter of the regime of grouse-moor management where heather burning was practised, but hotly against many aspects of ‘vermin’ control – like you I detest the term ‘vermin’. My own stance is not just against persecution of raptors, but also against the killing of many mammals and mild or innocuous avian ‘pests’. I strongly believe, for example, that Jays, Jackdaws and Rooks should be protected.

On my land in the uplands above Loch Ness I do occasionally burn heather, in small patches, and believe in this practice as a positive for wildlife diversity. This practice has consistently proved to be the key to retaining a good representation of Lesser Butterfly and Fragrant Orchids, Field Gentian, Common and Toothed Wintergreens, Mountain Everlasting and fruiting vacciniums, among many other plants. My approach, however, is a far cry from that which takes place on the large estates. When leading my groups of wildlife enthusiasts into moorland areas managed for grouse, I usually took time to explain what the regime of burning was about, more often than not presenting this as a positive for wildlife in general. 20 or so years ago I could take a group on to a moor during April, when snow was absent, and find 30 or more Blue Hares within the same field of view. These hares, a by-product of heather management, constituted the main prey of Golden Eagles in the east Highlands. Nowadays I have to work hard to find a single Blue Hare, on a really good day being able to show my groups three or four at best. During the 70s I regularly saw Wildcats in the Great Glen and surrounding uplands which, as most of us know, have all but vanished. The presently proffered statement that interbreeding with domestic cats is to blame is, in my opinion, nonsense. Interbreeding is bad news, but there can be little doubt but that the game-management fraternity is entirely responsible. I know this through the keepers I’ve spoken with, who freely tell me what they and their contemporaries get up to. The advent of ‘lamping’ is the main background to Wildcat decline over the past 30 years, and undoubtedly remains an ongoing problem.

Alluding to my time in Sweden, and background in falconry, is pertinent to this message because, during the late 60s and early 70s, I was responsible for releasing Goshawks imported from Sweden into the wild in the UK. At that time several thousands of Goshawks were legally trapped and killed each year in Sweden – I supplied some of these condemned birds to falconers in the UK for a small profit – which was used to fund the import of Goshawks for release into the UK. The RSPB was at the time quite critical of this activity, one that contributed significantly to the build-up of the UK Goshawk population. It’s therefore a source of great dismay that, in common with Hen Harriers, Goshawk increase has been drastically suppressed by gamekeepers. In the Peak District of Derbyshire, where Goshawk numbers were on the increase during the 80s and 90s, moorland gamekeepers have brought about a major collapse in the number of nesting pairs. But this is a fact that I know you are already aware of.

I’m very glad that I read your book. I picked it up convinced that I would find it contained a considerable amount of flawed reasoning, that it would miss important points, and would have its arguments founded on an uncompromising and unreasonable bias against the shooting fraternity. I shall read it again, but already I’m firmly behind your stance and, moreover, applaud your efforts relating to the case against driven-grouse shooting, together with all the negatives embraced by the ‘sport’. This is especially so as I found your approach very objective. I still speak to gamekeepers, my message being that, if they don’t get their act together and desist from killing protected birds and mammals, their way-of-life will come to an end. There are a few who really could be excellent custodians of the countryside, but the majority most definitely could not.

Generally speaking I have regarded management of habitat in order to promote good conditions for game, also to be of benefit to a great deal of other wildlife – an argument applied equally to moorland managed for Red Grouse and woodland/hedgerow/arable cover managed to favour Pheasants and Partridges. The opinion is detached from the actual shooting, about which – until comparatively recently – I remained indifferent. I still shoot, by way of culling the deer that suppress almost 100% of tree regeneration within my Loch Ness-side reserve, but I have nil interest in the sporting side of shooting.

As time has gone by I have found it increasingly difficult to countenance the practices of many field sports, especially driven Red Grouse shooting, Pheasant shooting involving the slaughter of many hundreds of artificially-raised birds in a single day, and the use of hybrid falcons for the practice of falconry. I have absolutely no regrets about past involvement in pursuits which, decades ago, were to me a source of great excitement and challenge. And I have to say that, as a gamekeeper, I learned a great deal through the hands-on aspect of the work, that I could never have learned through observation alone. However I fell out with that way of life at an early stage because it conflicted with my leanings towards conservation. It did, usefully, provide me with an understanding of keepers, together with the ability to speak their language and retain their confidence. In common with capital and corporal punishments, also Fox, Otter and stag hunting, however, many aspects of game management and shooting are anachronistic and should be consigned to the past. From past involvement with game management I have extracted those practices that have positive application for general wildlife conservation, and there are many.

Ultimately my stance is one of an ex-gamekeeper who initially enjoyed that way of life, few occupations bringing about such intimate contact with nature. But the uncompromisingly severe persecution of many non-game species of wildlife, many of which are wholly innocuous, caused me to finally reject the acceptability of the occupation. I also have to confess that, until reading your book, I was not fully aware of certain issues relating to heather burning as these were beyond my personal experience. I’m now firmly in your camp and, hopefully, there will be others from an occupational shooting background who will also have joined your ranks.

Yours sincerely

David Kent

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33 Comments

  1. Marian says:

    Thank you David - a very interesting piece.

    You say "I still speak to gamekeepers, my message being that, if they don’t get their act together and desist from killing protected birds and mammals, their way-of-life will come to an end. "

    But how will that happen? We regularly hear of some 'protected' creature being killed - but do all the criminals get caught, let alone prosecuted?

    So they feel safe to carry on, perhaps protected by their friends, and tacitly condoned by the public at large.

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  2. Elaine Lambert says:

    Honest man with a good built up experience. We need people like this now. Thank you David Kent, I enjoyed reading your letter to Mark. I think times change and our wildlife now needs greater protection, alongside countryside/habitats. David clearly has kept up with the times and is not afraid to move forward. Things we all did in the past just has to change with the current situation out there. Good man. Nothing wront with that.

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  3. Terry Pickford, North West Raptor Group says:

    I first met David Kent many years ago when he brought his golden eagle down from Scotland to fly the bird in the Forest of Bowland on the Bleasdale estate. Listening all those years ago to what David had to say about his work in Sweden/Scotland, raptors and the environment in which he lived was an experience and an eye opener. Reading what David had to say about ‘Inglorious’ was very interesting; knowledge and experience will always set you above others who profess to to know so much, but in reality know very little. Thank you David I hope you will continue to make your views know to others who read and contribute to this blog.

    Likes(40)Dislikes(2)
  4. John Hunt says:

    I personally do not think grouse shoots and fox hunting will ever stop ,at most hunts these days there are more police than ever protecting the hunt by arresting sabs that turn up to protect the fox or the stag ,the land owners and the people involved with the hunt are best pals with the police ,judges and MPs ,you can not beat that kind of power ,i hope it stops one day because i hate this cruely .John Hunt.

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    • Mark says:

      John Hunt - thank you for your comment. Driven grouse shooting will be gone in 10 years time - count on it.

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      • Terry Pickford, North West Raptor Group says:

        Mark, most of us who follow your blog sincerely hope your prediction comes true sooner rather than later. One important point for each likeminded person to consider, if it doesn't or it does, there is a real possibility most if not all grouse predation raptors will be gone from England's moorland where red grouse are shot before 2025.

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  5. Jonathan Wallace says:

    A thoughtful and considered piece and it is to be hoped that 'enlightened insiders' such as David can help to influence change within the shooting community (though 'former insider' might be a more accurate description).
    David's varied and unusual career path is perhaps an indication of an equally unusual degree of open-mindedness and unfortunately bull-headed intransigence better characterises those intent on maintaining the status quo with respect to issues such as persecution of predators and the use of lead ammunition. Nevertheless, as the spotlight is increasingly shone on the murky practices they insist on following, it must become increasingly untenable for government to turn a blind eye and eventually shooting will have to reform itself or face being stopped altogether.

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  6. Stewart Abbott says:

    What a great letter. My hope is that there are many more Davids out there and they will become more vocal as an end to Driven Grouse Shooting becomes inevitable. Having a conscience is a wonderful attribute for any person to have, think of Sir Peter Scott, and can lead to change from within the industry. Let's hope that many more Gamekeepers & Land owners will do the right thing and change their practices so wildlife all over the country can do what we all try to do, live & bring up our families.

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    • Mark says:

      Stewart - indeed. So it's not just we townies who live in London (like who exactly?) who think this way after all. What a relief!

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  7. Peter Jones says:

    Blimey, that was a breath of fresh air I wasn't expecting this morning...

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  8. Les Wallace says:

    Very disturbing to hear what David says about wild cats still being persecuted through lamping. Compare this with the constant carping by members of the shooting and keeping fraternity that the reintroduction of the lynx is 'delusional', will threaten capercaillie AND wild cat. Pointing out that lynx have co existed and still co exist in many parts of Europe makes not one jot of difference. Was always hard to believe that wild cats were not suffering from the ignorance affecting so many other species which makes their hypocrisy even harder to stomach. I agree with his comments that a few keepers could become excellent wildlife managers, but not the majority. You don't have to go to their FB pages to get a true picture of their mentality, they regularly post nasty rubbish on the RSPB Scotland FB page.

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  9. Michael May says:

    It's really nice to read this. It is objective and fair. David doesn't go out to beat up the gamekeepers; rather more of the carrot than the stick. He explains his background, and his desire for change rather than the end for the profession. Well done. Wish there were more like you.

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  10. John Wright says:

    I don't believe anything will change under a Tory Government.

    Likes(17)Dislikes(5)
  11. David Parks says:

    sadly ill informed comments from a bitter person who failed at his childhood dreams of being a Gamekeeper,obviously had the opportunity but was not up to the job and in such bitterness spouts a load of garbage to seek some kind of support ..? quite sad really.....take it on the chin,you were not good enough,no need to change your true opinion in some kind of hissy fit..? idiot.

    Likes(8)Dislikes(65)
    • Circus maxima says:

      Away to Costas and take a deep breath!

      Likes(7)Dislikes(1)
    • Paul Frost says:

      Far from an idiot David. The ability to examine your own conscience, recognise short comings and change yourself for the better is known as emotional intelligence. Other people whom when the error of their ways are highlighted, just start spitting venom and abandon all attempts at logic, would fall closer to the idiot category.

      Likes(30)Dislikes(4)
    • John Cantelo says:

      There's no hint in what was written, and still less in David Kent's subsequent career, to suggest that he 'wasn't good enough.' Nor was there an iota of 'bitterness' in his well crafted and honest commentary. What he wrote was clearly based on his wealth of experience and initimate knowledge of the countryside. That you find bitterness where it does not exist and feel the need to call this honest man an 'idiot' will appear, to any thoughtful reader, no more than a reflection of your own failings.

      Likes(17)Dislikes(2)
    • Rob Seago says:

      I have always hoped that people with views like yours represented a small proportion of the shooting industry, but as perpetrators of wildlife crime rarely get caught, and even then get sentences which are far too light, I can only assume that you represent similar views to far too many of them.

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  12. Peter Howe says:

    Thank you David (Kent) for being a guest on this blog.

    It was great to read about your background, your early Swedish days obviously gave you a good grounding for taking forward what you learnt and building on that experience through your working life, and long may it continue!

    Dedicating almost half your working life to creating a wildlife reserve is impressive and commendable, I have to admit I am slightly envious!

    Wild Cat persecution is deplorable, surprisingly this is the first time I have heard that they are on some gamekeepers radar as another species to clear, and no doubt labelled as 'pest'. Since I first heard of the re-wllding proposals for Lynx, I have feared that they will become yet another target on lawless estates. I feel they might at least have some chance in a re-introduction programme if they were on your reserve!

    Are you "sadly ill informed"? - Surely Not.
    Are you a "bitter person"? - I see no evidence of this, I don't think so.
    Do you have "failed childhood dreams"? - I would say No
    You are "not up for the job"? - You have definitely proved that You Are.
    ..and "spouts a load of garbage"? - Most certainly Not.

    From the two David's on this blog so far I know who I think is the IDIOT !

    ......John " you can not beat that kind of power" - Watch this space

    Likes(24)Dislikes(4)
  13. Stevenson says:

    A very interesting article, especially regarding wildcats. It adds weight to the strong suspicions of many that the (probable) imminent extinction of the species is the work of gamekeepers. I've known other ex 'keepers who have said similar things.
    The Scottish Government's current efforts at wildcat recovery however involve 'keeper representatives,continuing the charade seen in all similar initiatives where 'keepers are treated as part of the solution rather than as the main problem.

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  14. Chris McGregor says:

    It seems NE chair Andrew Sells(houses) has reviewed Inglorious for Country Life.

    I suspect Mark Avery's Inglorious Conflict in the Uplands (Bloomsbury) will be anathema to many Country Life readers , but I enjoyed it. Mr Avery writes with a light touch and endearing self-deprecation. He’s passionate (obsessed?) about the hen- harrier, but he admits ‘it is a contentious bird because it eats red grouse’. As a boy he saw his first one near Poole Harbour in Dorset, so it is not exclusively an upland bird, although it mostly lives in the uplands. He tells us of their sublime beauty, their persecution and how far they travel; in six months one tagged young bird, Bowland Betty, flew once to Dornoch and all the way up to the Flow Country of Sutherland before coming south to meet an unhappy end in the Yorkshire Dales. After the history lesson he concludes, with almost inadequate conviction (as a self-confessed ‘wishy washy liberal,’ he worries about the fairness of bans) that the only solution to save his beloved raptor is to ban driven-grouse shooting – which seems unlikely to happen in the next few years.

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  15. Terry Pickford. North West Raptor Group says:

    David, I would argue that any gamekeeper who resorts to killing protected birds of prey to manage his game stocks is the true failure and not the other way around.

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  16. Mike Mills says:

    Huge respect to David Kent, huge contempt for David whatever your name was!

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  17. Trapit says:

    A very good piece David.Contrary to what mr parks believes, i suspect that had you stuck at keepering,you would have pissed it. Although maybe having to bite the bullet and get on with it on occasion.I know others who have followed a similar route to you, though maybe not quite as varied. My own godson was making a very capable keeper, but chose another route,and is now an extremely knowledgeable breeder and flier of raptors.I myself have keepered over thirty years,and on a proper shoot as well,mainly pheasant ,some partridge and duck ,with a small grouse moor.Guests have included royalty, sports stars, and world renowned opera singers.I could have taken a more mainstream conservation route but preferred keepering,and have therefore gained an insight in to and agree with much, of what you say.
    I agree shooting has to change in a number of ways,especially driven grouse.
    Low ground shooting has cleaned its act up a great deal in the last thirty years but there is still work to do.
    All situations are different,but as an example I have on more than one occasion,had four goshawk nests in 0.85 kilometers sq on my main pheasant beat .This resulted in up to fifteen gos hunting dawn to dusk(and they do),yet I still returned over forty percent.It is possible but maybe not for everyone.I am still convinced of the great conservation benefits that responsible shooting can bring.and like yourself can recognise these.
    With the latest budget cuts and re-organisation of agri-environment schemes,those groups believing in the La La land of subsidies approach could be in for a rude awakening and the only way forward may be with sympathetic and forward thinking landowners of which there are an increasing number .

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  18. John Cantelo says:

    This is such a beautifully written and honest account from a man steeped in knowledge of the countryside that it seems a pity that it should have such a small, albeit distinguished, audience. It would be wonderful indeed if David Kent could record his reflections at greater length in a book that could form an interesting sister volume to 'Inglorious'. Those in the opposing camp could claim many things about such a volume, but never that the author was a 'mere townie' or a 'head-in-the-clouds impractical scientist'. Please consider it David - it'd be a great read, a best seller and would do much to keep the campaign for better treatment of our wildlife in the public eye. Best of all those that need to read it and learn from it most couldn't easily dismiss it.

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  19. Rob Seago says:

    Thank you for an informative article giving some new perspectives on animals such as wildcat. About 15 years ago, I was in Scotland near Aviemore and listened to a group of people claiming to destroy hen harrier eggs and harry golden eagles when they were prospecting for nesting.

    Sadly some of the shooting people down here who are very responsible, (in my view), but say they don't believe persecution of birds of prey occurs much at all. I showed one person a photo in a RSPB Birds magazine of several poisoned red kites, I can't remember where, and he was surprised.

    Any wildfowlers and shooters need to report colleagues breaking the law. If they don't and if the crime does not get pushed to the margins, ( because whatever the crime one or two will still do it) then I see no solution but to completely ban driven grouse shooting, as Mark has been campaigning, and I have been supporting.

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  20. Yvonne says:

    I for one would like to see the evidence which supports these claims!

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  21. Steve Deegan says:

    Let's all take the word of...

    Note from Mark: you know you cannot possibly say that. Not here anyway.

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  22. Mudman says:

    No doubt those folk today involved with black grouse conservation, battling to stop another iconic species slipping into extinction, will be so grateful for the part you admittedly played in the illegal(?) introduction of goshawks to the UK.

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