A Gamekeepers’ Life: Austin Weldon tells us about life as a New Forest keeper

A passion – pure and simple (photos by Lee Knight)

Where are you based?

I work for Forestry England covering the New Forest’s Burley beat in Hampshire.

You are a keeper but not in the obvious sense, please explain your role to us?

The New Forest was designated as a hunting area by King William I in 1079, originally spanning from the south coast as far north as Cranborne Chase. It now extends to 26,700 hectares.

The New Forest keeper role started 1,000 years ago as someone who protected and preserved the beasts of the chase for Royalty to hunt. In essence the job may well be the original incarnation of a gamekeeper.

The role is hugely diverse with the scope to follow any wildlife interests you can imagine. My core duties include deer management, and the annual cull across the Forest is currently circa 1,300 deer across 10 beats. This consists mostly of fallow, a few reds and sika and an increasing number of muntjac.

The Forest supports a brilliant assemblage of ground nesting birds including 15% of the UK’s nightjars, over 40 pairs of curlew, woodlark and resident woodcock, among even greater rarities such as hobby and honey buzzard.

All six UK reptiles are found here along with all our newt species and a plethora of bats, invertebrates, plants and fungi. I am fortunate to get involved in the monitoring of these species and I implement a comprehensive fox and carrion crow control programme on my beat, which although in its first year, has already significantly improved curlew productivity.

Our curlew conservation is part of a larger PhD project in collaboration with Bournemouth University and the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust. In addition to the above I also get to steer biodiversity monitoring for wildlife such as bats and butterflies and help the forester steer habitat improvements in the woodland ‘Inclosures’ using proven methods such as ride widening, scalloping and glade creation. Before forestry operations start, I get to feed in at the consultation stage to ensure vulnerable wildlife, such as European protected species, are not negatively impacted by our activities.

The summer holidays do involve a significant amount of enforcement and public interaction, but although this can be frustrating and even exasperating, it does also have its rewards and it is great to see how many people cherish the Forest.

Alongside this, I also keep an eye on properties with Forest frontage to ensure their activities do not have a detrimental impact upon the protected habitats, for example, driveway management or unconsented tree removal.

What would you have done if you hadn’t gone into wildlife management?

I would have probably tried to make a fortune and then spent my time enjoying wildlife in early retirement! Joking aside, wildlife and the countryside in general has been a passion of mine since childhood, so this was a natural pathway for me. As a youngster I was always out shooting, ferreting and fishing from a very young age – often on the wrong side of the hedge!

I have a hard time imagining myself doing anything else really – it’s a passion, pure and simple.

How did your career lead you to your current role?

I have been lucky to have had some very interesting jobs in conservation and wildlife management. I have worked in wildlife research with GWCT and also as an adviser for them them, which I did while also managing the Allerton Project demonstration shoot at Loddington in Leicestershire.

Following a chance conversation with someone in 2006, I followed a dream to work in the African hunting industry in Namibia and Tanzania, which led to some incredible adventures.

Other notable career experiences include working on the great bustard reintroduction on Salisbury Plain and travelling to Russia from where they sourced the birds. I have also worked as a fly-fishing instructor with Sportfish in Reading and as a ranger for a local authority early on in my career.

All of this has given me a diverse range of skills suited to my current multi-faceted role. I applied for a number of wildlife jobs with FE over the years and persistence and continued professional development finally paid off last November when I got offered the prestigious New Forest keeper role.

Give us the highlights of your job

Seeing my curlew go from prospecting pairs to fledged chicks almost brings a tear to my eye. They are hugely endearing, intelligent birds, which deserve every ounce of effort to ensure they remain a viable part of the British countryside, regardless of the hurdles some people are throwing in the way.

I take great pride in undertaking woodland work and seeing this go from dark, over-stood, largely lifeless canopy to butterfly-rich open, sunny rides and glades with a lovely shrub layer. It may also surprise some people, but engaging with tricky members of the public and bringing them on-board is also a highlight – this is something we all need to embrace in the shooting community to ensure the future of fieldsports.

Do you call yourself a gamekeeper? If not, what do you call yourself and why?

If I were a conventional gamekeeper, I would prefer to have the title of ‘game and wildlife manager’ or something similar. Although this might sound a bit grand, in my opinion if we are focused solely on game then we are missing a trick – every facet of wildlife and its habitat is linked, and we should be looking to deliver net biodiversity gains at all levels, even if game is still the main interest and driver. This will only strengthen the future of shooting.

We all need to play our part in delivering net biodiversity gains on the ground and, in doing so, we will be supporting the organisations who represent us.

How has wildlife management changed over the last 20 years?

I am delighted to see that predator control is finally becoming accepted by wider conservation organisations, even if they don’t like to admit it yet! In time I hope that our New Forest curlew project will become a blueprint for ground-nesting bird conservation across other national parks and open public spaces. It’s taking time for people to accept this concept and the results such management has been proven by GWCT science to deliver: even if the game community has known it for only a couple of centuries – it’s a question of balance.

What’s the best advice you have received and would also give to people coming into wildlife management today?

My father always taught me that politeness and good manners cost nothing and, despite my grass roots background, this has helped me to travel the world and rub shoulders with some incredible people.

Always conducting yourself professionally is an important start. There is an increasing emphasis on formal qualifications in modern wildlife work and, although I desperately wanted to crack on in practical wildlife management, I somehow managed to stick academia long enough to gain a degree and an MSc. Being open to any new experiences that come your way is also equally valuable – I would say that youngsters must grab every opportunity.

Afterall, what’s the worst that can happen? Bad experiences help you develop too, even if the only lesson is to never do that again.

Do you know any gamekeeper jokes?

Two partridges are sat on a perch, one turns to the other and says: “Can you smell fish?”

– That’s the best I can do… sorry!

[This article first appeared in the summer edition of Keeping the Balance]

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