Tracy Howe almost fell into gamekeeping after being a regular on a shoot as a beater while working full-time for a housing association. She is now head-keeper on an estate in Cumbria. We catch up with her during her favourite season, in what has been a difficult year for many, and hear her views on the best bits about being a keeper.
Where do you work?
I work on an estate near Penrith in Cumbria, where we have a partridge and pheasant shoot.
My husband (Andrew) and our two children (Adam, 22 and Nicole, 19) moved here 16 years ago, when my husband was employed as a shepherd. At the time, I was working at a housing association in the accounts department and then in property maintenance. I used to be a regular beater on the shoot and also took three weeks off each year to help with lambing. Being a farmer’s daughter, the longing to be working outside with the animals was too strong and it was where I really wanted to be.
How did you become a gamekeeper?
Due to yet another reorganisation at work, I had enough and handed in my notice. I then worked at a holiday village for six months, but it wasn’t for me. I left and for the first time since I was 13 years old I had no job and I was then 40. The head-keeper on the shoot at the time, Bill, was in poor health and the underkeeper at the time, Neil, asked if I would help to dog-in the pheasants with our English Pointer, Jess. That was the start of an absolute whirlwind of a learning curve! The boss hired me when the head-keeper had to retire and I became the underkeeper to Neil.
Where did you train?
People often ask me where I trained. Well, it was on the job! Just because I was a woman in a male dominated sector, didn’t mean that Neil took it easy on me. He was stuck in his ways, bad tempered and stubborn and we got on like a house on fire. We would argue, fall out and then be best friends before coffee time! I soon learned when to speak and when to be a quiet.
He taught me a lot and was always backing me up when people called him out for having a female underkeeper. We worked together for almost three years, when one day he came to work and told me he had been to the doctors and was very ill. He lost his fight with cancer shortly afterwards, but his last phone call was to the boss saying, ‘give her a chance’. That was four years ago nearly, and I am now head-keeper, and will always be thankful to Neil.
What’s your favourite season?
My favourite season is obviously autumn when we start shooting again and I get to see the beaters and pickers up. Although this year has been a challenge it has been so important to keep the shoot going. My second favourite season is spring when I hang up my tweeds and change into a boiler suit for six weeks of lambing. My husband gets his own back as he is my boss, and I am his boss at shooting time as he picks up!
What’s the highlight of the job?
The obvious highlight of my job is the shoot day when all the hard work comes to fruition. To see the bird’s fly well and the whole beating, picking up teams and guns enjoying themselves is the best feeling ever.
What has been your biggest contribution to this particular role as head-keeper?
Since becoming head-keeper I have worked closely with St David’s vets introducing a shoot health plan. We have also recently become a member of the British Game Alliance.
I have improved the water systems and biosecurity of both the pheasant and partridge pens. On shoot days I have tried to improve the communication to the beaters and have more radios in the beating line. Along with the boss, I have changed some drives and the way we beat the birds out and where we position our pens. These changes have improved the returns year on year…don’t get me wrong not everything has gone according to plan but that’s the only way you learn.
Would you ever call yourself a countryside or estate manager instead of a gamekeeper?
I will always call myself a gamekeeper whose job it is to help manage the countryside/estate. They go hand in hand and always will. My tasks are varied from shooting rabbits to creosoting fences to helping with the lambing.
How has shooting changed over the last 20 years / how has your job changed?
I have been involved with the shoot for just over 13 years now and have seen it grow. Bill, who retired with ill health, still keeps me right on a few things and he was the one who put the roots down for the shoot we see today. The game crops have got bigger and the amount of birds shot has increased but to a manageable amount.
Over the last few years the use of medicines has decreased and the bird’s gut health has become more important. However, the weather will always be a challenge and I think the seasons are changing. You can guarantee that when I get my birds, it rains and forgets to stop!
Tell us a funny story
I can always remember Neil on a shoot day getting so worked up because two guns were continually missing some superb birds. As the drive finished, he shouted over the radio, ‘Sorry, your efforts were wasted beaters…these lot couldn’t hit a barn door from 20 paces!’ Unknown to Neil the shoot captain had his radio turned up and was standing in the middle of the guns! Needless to say, the tips were not too good that week.
What advice would you give to young keepers today?
Prepare to work hard and long hours – if it was easy everyone would want to do it. Always listen to advice as you will never know everything, we are all still learning. The shoot day is the culmination of hard work and dedication and, as my boss says, you only get out what you put in. Always have respect for everyone, to get respect you have to earn it.
It can be a lonely occupation so always make sure you have a good support network. It is so important to have someone to talk to. Saying all of the above, it is a great way of life and you meet some wonderful characters along the way.