A Gamekeepers’ Life: Ian Sleightholm is Chairman of the Moorland Branch of the NGO and lives and works in Wensleydale

Ian Sleightholm is Chairman of the Moorland Branch of the NGO. Born and raised in Wensleydale, Ian has lived and worked in the area all his life.

Where do you work and why?

I work at Bolton Castle estate in Wensleydale, North Yorkshire, where I have been Headkeeper for thirteen seasons. I was born and raised in Wensleydale and had an early interest in nature and the outdoors, fuelled mainly by my grandparents. They taught me about the different species of birds and their calls, tree and plant species and the different fruit and nuts they bare. From sucking on sweet clover flowers to cracking hazelnuts, these memories have seen me through to where I am today, passing the same knowledge onto my kids. 

Why did you want to be a gamekeeper?

This knowledge and love of the local wildlife also put me well on the path for a career in the countryside. Another person who had an influence on why I became a Gamekeeper, was a local character named Pinky. He was a retired grocer who sold fruit, veg and fish from his local shop in the town, which is still run by the family today. Behind the shop was a two-acre plot of land where I learned the art of gamebird husbandry, through rearing chickens, ducks, geese and quail as a hobby, along with pheasants, French and English partridge supplied to local syndicates. It was Pinky who taught me how to shoot using a Parker Hale 20bore side by side non ejector. He was also passionate about Cocker Spaniels influencing me with my first gundog a black Cocker named Annie. From this point on every spare moment was spent with dog and gun, either beating, ferreting or just going for long walks, which always turned into dog training sessions. When I was old enough, I was introduced to the moors and grouse beating and started spending time with local Grouse keepers, where I became hooked on the varied way of life.

Where did you train?

I spent two years studying for a National Diploma in the Management of Game and Sporting Woodland at Newton Rigg College in Cumbria.

Why do you like working here?

I love working on the Bolton Estate as it is in my home Dale surrounded by family and friends. The estate itself is a traditional, mixed sporting estate. From two picturesque grouse beats up on the moor, then down onto some real fantastic wild game ground, with wild duck, pheasant and a recovering population of wild Greys, this ground also supports good numbers of breeding Snipe and woodcock, of which we do not shoot on the estate. Again, this mixed variation of moorland fringe habitat supports fantastic numbers of rare breeding waders, such as curlew, redshank, golden plover, lapwing and oystercatcher. From this ground it then rolls down into mixed managed woodland and farmland, where we have pheasant and partridge shooting and finishes up down on the River Ure where we have some great salmon and trout fishing. The sheer range of game and wildlife conservation projects undertaken on the estate is really special, with the vision of more potential, making it a great place to work.

What is the highlight of this job for you?

The privilege to be a custodian of the uplands, leaving my mark on such a diverse estate and being able to have an impact on improving the grouse numbers. Another highlight is the positive impact we have on some of the country’s rarest wildlife of which we are now the last stronghold.

How do you decide what you are going to do on the estate?

Much of what, when, and how we do things on the Estate is governed by the weather and the seasons. When the weather is wet and windy, we tend to catch up with jobs on the lower ground to avoid disturbing the Grouse and when it’s really wild, you’ll find us whittling away in the shed. The seasons and weather vary so much these days, with frequent extremes in weather, such as long periods of drought, when we find ourselves filling our dew ponds on a near daily basis, to extreme wet periods causing flooding where we are making sure our drains and off shoots are clear so not to wash out our moorland tracks.

Who do you work with?

This I feel is one of the most important questions, as a Headkeeper is only as good as the team that he works with. I’ve been very fortunate to have worked with very good Beatkeepers, with the same passion as me to produce wild game and enhance the wildlife on the Estate. We also like to take on a trainee/apprentice, through local colleges, keeping the profession alive and passing on key knowledge, which I feel the countryside is losing from the younger generation. 

Would you ever call yourself a Countryside or Estate Manager, instead of a Gamekeeper?

I have always been proud to call myself a Gamekeeper and can’t see myself doing any other job. The job is changing at a great rate of knots, with pressures coming from many different angles, so if changing the job description, so that keepers weren’t targets of abuse or were listened to more, if they had the word ‘Conservation’ or ‘Wildlife’ in their job title, then it wouldn’t bother me at all. The main point is that you are still carrying out the same job, whatever you call it.

How has shooting changed over the last twenty years?

The change I have seen over the past twenty years in shooting, especially in grouse shooting, has been quite dramatic. As a modern Upland Keeper, I have seen new innovations come into the profession, such as the way in which we now burn heather. When I first started, it was one of the hardest days work that we had to do, lighting the fires, then flogging the side fires out all day with a large length of aluminium, with a great piece of rubber on the end. Nowadays, it’s either sat on a tractor cutting around the area intended to be burnt, or using fast and effective fire fighting equipment, such as pressure washers and leaf blowers, which give a high-powered blast of air, extinguishing the flames. 

How have your land management techniques changed and why?

The way we control predators has also jumped into the 21st Century, with the use of night vision, thermal imagery and changes to the traps and snares. Conservation has always been part of the job, but now we are a lot more aware of it, with the declines in some species and increases in others, making it ever more apparent that a balance needs to be kept. Climate change also influences changes in the job, with weather patterns in favour of heather beetle, which finds us in the biggest outbreak in living memory, leaving long term damage to both vegetation and the wildlife that depends on it. Extensive work has also taken place on some of our highest ground to tackle the climate change issues, by re-wetting large areas of the moor through gully blocking, hag profiling and re-vegetating bare peat. These processes are on top of the ongoing grip blocking the Estate has been carrying out over the past 30 years. The main aim of this work is to lock in more carbon and slow the flow of water coming off the moor.

What is the most challenging part of the job?

Having the tools of the trade taken away from us by government organisations, who have very little knowledge or scientific research to back up some of their major decisions, such as the corvid and gull licence fiasco and the heather burning u-turn. Another great challenge is watching the impact of the increase in protected predators, such as buzzards, ravens and badgers, on the rare wildlife that we are trying to protect.

What advice would you give to young Gamekeepers today?

The best advice that I could give is to come into the job with an open mind and always be prepared for change. It is a fantastic way of life, being able to work with nature, surrounded by some of the wildest, most picturesque landscapes in the country.

What’s your favourite season?

It has to be Spring. Signalled by the first call of the curlew, it is a season of new life, after long, dark Winters and sees the return of many waders and migrant birds coming back to breed on our moors. Come the end of May, the moor is alive with birdsong and busy parents protecting and feeding their young. Oh, and the weather is usually nicer!

Tell us a funny story.

I was coming off the moor one afternoon, in the pickup, and came around the corner to find a procession of elderly ladies’ squat down, next to the track, having a co-ordinated toilet stop! I couldn’t stop, as it would look as though I was watching them, so had to carry on past, much to their embarrassment and mine!

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