Tuesday 27 January 2015

Game Keepers

During the whole of the period I lived in Kingsley I can only recall two game keepers. One lived in Kingsley and the other on the outskirts of Oakhanger. This, I suppose, reflects the fact that there were few formal shoots in and around the village. Certainly formal shoots existed at Wyck, Worldham and the Hartley Wood area. Indeed, as a teenager, I regularly went beating on the Wyck Farm shoot. That shoot, I seem to recall, was the preserve of the Bonham – Carter family. As far as Kingsley was concerned there were undoubtedly small shoots organised by various local farmers for friends and family, but these took the form of irregular and non- formal occasions. Most of the pheasants were either from wild stock or had strayed in from bigger shoots further afield. It is quite amazing just how far these birds will travel and one of the great skills of a keeper is to keep his birds on his own shoot. Obviously, in areas where large numbers of shoots border one another the problem is not so great as birds wander from one shoot to the other and a reasonable balance of bird numbers is maintained and populations remain fairly static.

So to the two keepers previously mentioned, the Oakhanger keeper lived up the lane which goes off to the right just in front of The Red Lion pub. Up that road was the old wireless station, then a dairy farm and then the Oakhanger cricket pitch, all on the left hand side of the road. A few hundred yards, or so, beyond the cricket pitch was a lane in below the hanger and the keepers cottage was located there. My map tells me that the woods there were known as Hartley Woods and they were the domain of Jock Harley. I recall seeing Jock on a few occasions and he was a big man. Generally, the word on the block was that you didn’t mess with Jock. He had a bit of a reputation as a bad man to upset and poachers went on to his patch at their peril. He was a regular visitor at the Red Lion and his time on the shoot was a long one, although I have a recollection of his retirement, I no longer have any idea when that actually was. The very fact that he remained in place on the same shoot for so many years is testimony in itself to the fact that he was a good game keeper. Bad keepers don’t stay in one place very long, then or now.

The Kingsley keeper that I recall was Charlie Neal , he lived in a cottage on the common beyond Cold Harbour beside the river a few hundred yards up a track off the road just north of the Sleaford bridge. I don’t actually know if Charlie’s keeper duties were full time as he keepered the officers shoot at Broxhead and the areas beyond Oxney Farm. So I guess he was employed by the military and it might well be the case that he had other duties in addition to gamekeeping.

If one left Kingsley and travelled past the pond on up the track and over Fir Hill, crossing the stream and passing Oxney Farm on ones right and carried on over the stretch of metaled road through the fields until reaching the woods one would cross over a bridge. This bridge was just inside the woods which extended to the left and right and were quite large. These woods were also a part of the officers shoot. Moving on a few yards beyond the bridge there was a track to the right and a five bar gate into a sort of field. I say sort of because the area, although grazed by cattle, was liberally dotted with large clumps of both gorse and broom. Before Myxomatosis the area literally crawled with rabbits.

However, the most intriguing point about this area to a small boy, as far as I was concerned, was the keepers gibbet. These gibbets, in a former age, were used by gamekeepers to exhibit the vermin they had killed in order that their employers could see how good they were at keeping down predation upon the pheasant population. Long since a thing of the past there would, no doubt, be a public outcry should such a thing appear in today’s countryside. The one in question would be draped with all manner of unfortunate birds and beasts that had met their fate by gun or trap. Fur and feather, tooth and claw were all represented. Draped and hung on this gruesome frame, which was probably three or four feet wide by perhaps six or seven feet deep, would be birds of prey, hawks and owls now, thankfully, all protected by law. Crows, magpies and jays featured prominently as this group steal eggs and chicks. Weasels and stoats, foxes, and the occasional feral cat would all be displayed. Squirrels, the grey variety, could also be seen in large numbers as they, of course, are also great egg stealers. Each time one passed the gibbet new additions could be seen hanging, as they did, with the bones and rotting carcasses of older victims. As can be imagined, not a pretty sight, and certainly not an attractive aroma!

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