I can still remember clearly that the letter had said â€œregistration 10am sharpâ€ yet there Â we were at 9.30am, sat in the car, still an hour away from the college waiting for my old man to pick up his winnings from the bookies. I shouldnâ€™t have complained too much, he did give me the winnings for my first day at college, but still, I like to be punctual!
When I did finally arrive at college ready to embark on a 2 year course to learn everything there is to know about being a keeper, I took one step into the registration hall only to see 30 other lads all dressed identically to me! Moleskin trousers, Tattershall shirts and varying degrees of determination and passion to learn.
Some of the lads were keepersâ€™ sons, some were â€œtowniesâ€ wanting to live the story book keepersâ€™ life and most were like meâ€¦ a country lad who liked to shoot stuff and thought if I can get paid for this, all the better! I would later discover that as a keeper Iâ€™d shoot less than I did before.
At first college was basic and broad in what it taught us. It had to be to get everyone up to the same level of basic knowledge. I now know that this was a good thing as the more you know about everything, the more useful you are in a keepering job. The phrase jack of all tradesâ€¦
As I found out some of the lads knew â€œeverythingâ€. Their dads had taught them how to rear and present pheasants and that was how it should be done, and some knew nothing. When I look back I actually think it was better knowing nothing at that point as many of the â€˜keepers sonsâ€™ seemed to be know it allâ€™s and thought they were already great keepers. Many of these struggled to fit in on other shoots or clashed with head keepers. I remember being taught everything from how long eggs were incubated to the biology of a dragonfly. We were taught a broad array of topics, many of which would never be used in the job, but it was there to help us understand the environment we were working in and to be knowledgeable when dealing with people who worked out in the field.
I had previously done a season or two on a fairly large game farm, rearing pheasants and I was confident I knew a fair bit about rearing, but everything seemed so precise in the classroom; from discussing the heat levels to feeding requirements and a whole lot more! As far as I knew, if the chicks were panting they were too hot, and we used 6 bottles of gas per shed for the partridges. As far as feeding was concerned, you would feed as much as they would eat, just making sure it wasnâ€™t getting dusted out of the feeder. There was no specific measurement for mixing food at changeover periods. Iâ€™d soon learn that when done by the book, there are specific measurements for everything!
Two years might seem like a long time to basically learn â€˜how to be a keeperâ€™, but I think the aim was more to prepare you and give you the ability to learn how to be a keeper. Everything you eventually know and use is learnt from doing the job, rather than from college, but perhaps if I hadnâ€™t gone to college I wouldnâ€™t have known how to assimilate knowledge whilst working. Game keeping is a manual and very physical job and there is no doubt that the best way to learn is by actually doing it out in the field. That said, the background and preparation that college gave me meant that when I was working at my first job I could pick up the skills a lot quicker and be of more use to the shoot.
Which leads me on to my first job; I remember my first day vividly. I had moved in to the two bedroom house with the other new under keeper who was at college with me but on a different course.
The Head keeper, a man to this day who I still fear but greatly respect (and am now very good friends with), had informed us to get a lift Â at 4am sharp with the beat keeper who lived next door to the rearing field. I didnâ€™t sleep that night. I couldnâ€™t from fear of sleeping through my alarm. The chicks were 5 days old and we had to leave college early in the year for the job due to the size of the rearing field and the man power required. 4am arrived. I was waiting outside the beat keepers truck 10 minutes early â€˜just in caseâ€™. We got to the rearing field andthe first job was too check the chicks – all 180 sheds. Only half the rearing field was in use at this point as the rest of the birds were due in 2 weeks. I went round with the senior beat keeper checking the sheds and constantly looking for approval from him. The next job was to feed the field, again a task that was not a quick job. 10 tonneâ€™s of food later and we had finished until two days later!
I soon found out that common sense would largely take over compared to what I had learnt at college. Even though the principles of what I was taught and what we were doing were identical, the methods and practicality was definitely not always the same!