By Linda Mellor

Late 2017, I visited the North Highlands University of the Highlands and Islands, Thurso, Caithness. Gamekeeping lecturer Stewart Blair invited me to a presentation evening, and to spend a few days with the students, see the facilities, and to listen in for a talk given by Police Scotland’s Inspector, Ewan Henderson, who was accompanied by two officers; one dealing with firearms and the other, wildlife crime.

The college started running YTS Gamekeeping courses in the 1980s and evolved so students could make progress in their studies with courses in Modern Apprentice Gamekeeping [open to 16-18-year olds], National Certificate Gamekeeping [ages 17 +], and HNC Wildlife Management & Gamekeeping. The HNC students can further their studies with other land-based programmes throughout the University of the Highlands and Islands network (there are 13 academic partners and research centres that make up the University of the Highlands and Islands), and other universities. 

The presentation evening took place in the main college building, with a great turnout of students, lecturers, SGA, BASC, GWT, and parents. College principal Donald MacBeath opened the event with a speech, and thanked everyone for their support.

Helen Benson from the GWT, spoke to the group then played a short film illustrating the valuable work the Trust undertakes to support gamekeepers, stalkers, and ghillies, and their dependants, in need. The presentations followed, with the top student prize going to Luke Smith, who was at Strathconon Estate, and now has a full-time position at Glen Etive.

It was an informative evening, encouraging to see industry organisations supporting the event, and inspiring to see students doing well and rewarded for their efforts. The awards ceremony has been running since 1990, Stewart said: “The awards are not just for the academic achievements but also for those who have gone ‘just that bit extra’.” This recognition so early on in their careers demonstrates commitment to their education, pride in their work, and caring about personal standards of workmanship.

The following day, I joined the students out at the Rural Studies Centre, Dale Farm, Halkirk, where they had some classroom time with equine lecturer Kerry Paul. They discussed pony health and care in detail, followed by a demonstration in handling and saddling up a deer pony in the stable block. Some of the students had previous experience of working with ponies, and Kerry gave them the opportunity to share their knowledge in fitting the tradition deer saddle onto a Highland pony.

All the gamekeeping students are on permanent placement on estates and attend the college in weekly blocks from the end of the stag season until June. The age range was from 18-25, and students came from a mixture of backgrounds, some with previous experience and others with none.

I spoke to Cameron Waite, from Northern Ireland, he left school at 18 with his A’ levels and was focussed on joining the Royal Marines but was injured when he over-trained. He started working on a local shoot and discovered he enjoyed being outside. Cameron has a ghillie placement with SNH, and is the first person in his family to have an outdoor job said: “Back home most people don’t know about gamekeeping roles and what the job entails.”

Julie Rutherford was brought up on a farm, near Dornoch, and was the only female student of the group. She is a trainee gamekeeper on the Reay Forest Grosvenor Estate after spending two years training at Alladale.

Julie said: “I love being outside and stalking the deer. I have attended the college now for nearly three years, I have a two-year qualification as a Modern Apprentice, and a one-year National Certificate, leaving me to complete another year of my HNC. I plan to finish the four years of college and hope to get a full-time position as an Underkeeper on a traditional estate, doing what I love most, deer management.”

Stewart said: “The Gamekeeping industry has changed dramatically over the last 30 years and the college has had to adapt to these changes, we are now at a point where most gamekeepers have come through the college system. With the Gamekeeping Department being based at the Rural Studies Centre, students and staff can easily integrate both classroom activities and the working countryside. It is crucial that gamekeepers understand both the practical and legislative elements of their profession.”

Education improves lives and communities, and continuous education is equally beneficial to all who commit and invest in their careers. Education equips us with an expandable skill set, an essential for today’s gamekeeper. Gone are the days when keepers were ‘only’ countryside guardians. Laws and legislation are continually changing, and so are the responsibilities of the keeper’s wider job description; first point of contact on their estate, the booking manager for shooting and stalking dates, and holiday properties, admin, marketing, and social media updates, and, they are on the frontline when it comes to dealing with the public.

Expanding existing knowledge with further education is something most deer stalkers do with the DSC1 and DSC2. I met a young mum of two, who loves deer stalking, and is passionate about putting fresh, organic food on the table for her young family. She wants to do her DSC1 this year to build her self-assurance and expand her knowledge, she said: “It would allow me to have more confidence in identifying different deer and ensures I am trained from a welfare perspective to correctly dispatch the animal and process the meat without waste and I also like the credibility I feel it gives me as a huntress.”

There are many education and training opportunities to further your countryside knowledge or to follow a rural career, and they are available to both sexes. Julie said: “I thought I would be at a disadvantage in a career normally thought of as a man’s world, but I have always had people around me, supporting and encouraging me, which has been important.”

For more details go to:, search courses for gamekeeping and wildlife management