Country: The game of life

Jake Fiennes, a gamekeeper (and brother of the more famous Ralph), explains how raising birds for shooting improves the wild habitat
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The Independent Travel
Winter's spell is broken. The earth stirs. Leaves burst, buds erupt. Songbirds herald dawn and a woodpecker taps a steady rhythm on the bark of an old oak. A barn owl skims the edges of the churchyard, swooping in search of a scurrying mouse. The morning mist evaporates. Another working day! No lengthy queues, no rush hour, no road rage, no deadlines. PCs, faxes and mobile phones are aliens to this world.

My workplace of 4,500 acres in Norfolk is an oasis of hedges, woods, spinneys and dew ponds, cosseted and cocooned from the surrounding desert of wheat fields, fume-filled roads and antennaed, sodium-orange-lit villages. This is an ecosystem managed primarily for game birds, with huge fringe benefits to others.

Being a gamekeeper on a wild bird shoot is not solely about controlling predators. It is about creating a suitable habitat for ground-nesting birds. It's about control, not destruction. It's about management, not disarray. The months of March to July are probably the most magical and important to me. I aim to ensure a successful breeding season for all the birds, although this is not always assured due to unpredictable weather patterns. Keepers work closely with the farming team on lay-outs of brooder crops, field margins, hedge-cutting plans, management of set-aside and the spraying of herbicides and insecticides. A brooder crop is a spring (or sometimes winter) crop made up of a mixture of annuals to produce seeds for food and cover for young birds in the summer and autumn. These run adjacent to field margins, a one-and-a-half-metre uncut strip running up a hedge or ditch that provides cover for young birds and also acts as a winter habitat for insect life. High hedges are used as windbreaks, cut only once every two to three years to leave berries for winter food and nesting for songbirds. Herbicides are kept to a minimum and insecticides are seldom sprayed after the middle of June. Insects are vital as part of the diet to promote the healthy growth of young birds.

Woods are split up into small spinneys and belts composed of conifer and deciduous trees. They are thinned every five years and rides are cut each autumn to encourage the growth of wild flowers and help ensure strong, tall trees free of competition.

In addition to managing their habitat, we supplement the birds' diet with hoppers of wheat at which they can feed ad lib. All birds visit these hoppers with increasing frequency in hard weather and rely on them right up until the beginning of May when wild food becomes sufficient.

There is a downside to all this management. The knock-on effect creates an explosion in the population of predators and grazers, which have in turn to be controlled. It's well known that keepers and foxes have little in the way of sympathy for each other. The gorgeous appearance of those red creatures belies the masters of cunning and opportunity that lie within. No keeper would wish to eradicate the fox, but numbers need to be kept to the minimum in sensitive areas. Yes, they do enjoy a tasty bird. Ask anyone who keeps chickens. When fox numbers decrease the rabbit and hare population rise.

Rabbits are not easily tolerated by most farmers and country dwellers; they can cause destruction of crops almost overnight. Suppressing their numbers is an ongoing task. The expression "breeding like rabbits" is apt.

Hares, now, don't seem to cause the same animosity. Have you seen hares dancing in the fields at dusk on a spring evening? There is nothing more enchanting. But, again, if numbers become unacceptable and threaten the balance, there has to be some culling. It is not an enjoyable task, but hares are prone to disease when numbers increase and it's much better to influence levels than to see slow death occur. We are fortunate, here, that we have a good population of hares, mainly due to sound estate management. Much of the UK is now devoid of them. Stoats, weasels, grey squirrels and rats are also controlled, not to the point of eradication, but just sufficiently to ensure that birds and smaller mammals have a good chance of survival. This also results in a healthy population of raptors. Last year five pairs of barn owls successfully reared their young, and we had numerous tawny owls. Hobbies, merlins, harriers, red kites and buzzards are also frequent visitors to the estate. Restricting the numbers of corvids such as jays, magpies and crows isn't easy, and they can cause major predation to nests. The main preventive measures are to leave verges and ditches uncut to hide nest sites, and to leave hedges to thicken to make access difficult.

Keepers are themselves a rare breed not yet ready for culling, and wild keepers even more so. They are, without doubt, an important part of rural life; dare I say, they are custodians with an in-depth and hands-on knowledge of British wild life. They are part of a system that goes back hundreds of years and, if managed correctly, with care and attention to all animal and plant life, is of utmost benefit to the continuum of wildlife in the countryside. Keepers are at the forefront of the drive to reintroduce the wild grey partridge, and to maintain stocks of pure wild pheasants, which are not as common as many people would imagine. Life and death walk hand-in-hand in the countryside. Predators must be limited, even if only on specially selected sites, in order to encourage species that would otherwise disappear. Grey squirrels, for example, have caused the virtual demise of the red squirrel, and American mink have caused considerable damage to our waterways.

We live on a small island that is virtually overrun by the human race. Since the Industrial Revolution pollution has spiralled. Pollution does not discriminate. Habitats have been lost. Species have had to adapt to a man-made environment of motorways, pylons, and urban and industrial development. Some manage better than others. No longer do we have a village population sustained by agriculture, and academic knowledge alone cannot be a substitute for living and working with nature.

Occupation for many means exchanging time for material gain. Occupation for me is time-consuming, too, but is a privilege. It offers hope for a heritage for our children, an opportunity to redeem some of man's mistakes. It is a chance to give our wild kingdom some oxygenated space and a hope of survival. Would I swap places with a city dweller? No chance.

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