Gamekeeping is a fundamentally important countryside profession that has existed since Saxon times in Britain. The original gamekeepers protected deer in the medieval royal hunting forests from poachers. A modern gamekeeper still protects against poaching, but their principal role is to rear and release game birds such as pheasants, grouse and partridges on the land they manage ahead of the winter shoots and conserve this land as a habitat where other species such as deer and hares can thrive. Their work also includes looking after the hedgerows and nesting sites on the land and controlling pests and predators such as weasels and foxes.
At the beginning of the 20th Century there were approximately 25 000 gamekeepers in the UK; today there are around 3500. They oversee and coordinate the game shoots that take place on the land and ensure they do not negatively impact the overall population of these species.
The shooting season lasts from 1 September to 1 February, with shoots happening regularly throughout that time. At Blenheim our game shoots provide a vital income stream for the estate and are a key part of our heritage. The Gamekeeping team distributes feed for the game birds for around ten months of the year, which also provides a food source for many of the wild birds in the woods too. We introduce several hundred birds to the relevant parts of the woodland (known as beats) ahead of the shooting season and feed them until they reach maturity. We also ensure they have drinking water which is distributed via a system featuring special bird drinkers at intervals throughout the woodlands. These of course also provide valuable water sources for many of the wild birds too. The game from shoots is mainly sold to local butchers to ensure there is minimal waste.
The gamekeeping team at Blenheim has a fundamental role to play in the Estate’s land management and conservation efforts. Wildlife management is crucial to the long-term success of our land strategy and protecting the land for generations to come.
As well as the management of game birds and game shoots, the Gamekeeping team works in conjunction with the Forestry team to oversee the varied woodland areas on the estate. Management of predators and pests is key; squirrels, for example, could do untold damage to our unique collection of ancient oaks if left uncontrolled.
Gamekeeping is fundamental to ensure a balanced environment with plentiful wildlife as predator numbers are controlled and other species can thrive.
Game provides some of the leanest and healthiest meat for eating. With emphasis on healthier lower fat diets, most game meat is a great option. It is also one of the most sustainable forms of meat as species populations are carefully managed and monitored throughout the year to ensure their numbers do not become too depleted. Much of the meat that results from our shoots at Blenheim is also sold to local butchers, thus reducing the food miles involved in its consumption.
Game meat that meets the stringent standards of the British Game Association (BGA) is arguably some of the highest quality meat available. Strict rules apply regarding medicating birds during their lifetime for example and all game must have an agreed market before release to avoid waste.
Our gamekeeping team is responsible for helping protect and encourage ground nesting birds. Careful management of countryside habitats for game species such as pheasants, grouse and partridge also benefits other species such as finches and lapwing – a bird whose numbers have declined in recent decades. If one species becomes overly dominant, others suffer. Crows, magpies, foxes and squirrels can all cause problems if left unmanaged by preying on rarer birds, insects and other animals, causing imbalance to the ecosystem. Crows for example will attack and eat young ground nesting birds such as lapwing if allowed. Our Gamekeeping team works hard to ensure balance is maintained by keeping pest and predator numbers controlled.