By Linda Mellor

We have seen the tweed-clad gamekeeper on a shoot day with dogs at heel, leading the shooting guests to their pegs, however, this is only a brief glimpse into a multifaceted job requiring a considerable range of abilities.

A gamekeeper’s role goes beyond rearing and protecting game, it involves pest control, managing and stalking deer, greeting shooting guests, delivering safety talks, organising lunches, beating and picking-up teams, and ensuring shoot days run smoothly throughout the season.

The role has changed way beyond the traditional mantle often passed on through generations from father to son. Our countryside guardians are men and women with many skills, they lead wildlife walks, work in partnership with organisations and charities, work closely with the press and media as industry representatives.

With the rise in popularity of global network platforms, gamekeepers may have to manage the social media accounts to promote their estates, distribute photos to reach out and share their offerings and attract guests from around the world. For many country sports lovers, Scotland is their number one destination, and they visit our estates, not only to shoot, stalk and fish, but to enjoy the vast range of flora and fauna, nurtured by gamekeepers.

The winner of Gamekeeper of the Year 2019 (via The Great British Shooting Awards) is Scott MacKenzie, he is the Head Gamekeeper Stalker at Fearann Eilean Iarmain (FEl), on the Isle of Skye, and offers guests the opportunity to stalk Red and Roe deer, walked-up woodcock shooting and Trout fishing. The estate stretches over 23,000 acres around Sleat and Strath to the south of the Isle with a mixed topography of high hill, moorland and native woodland.

Farming and crofting are the main agricultural activities. The estate also won the 2017 Golden Plover Award for Moorland Management (the competition is jointly run by the Heather Trust and the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust Scotland).

Scott said: “The role of the modern Gamekeeper has evolved massively in the 25 plus years I have been within this industry. I spend a large amount of time at a desk dealing with paperwork. Social media presence is also a big thing right now as this has helped tell the wider world who we are and enabled us to market our product direct. But this can only be a good thing as it brings the role and the industry into the 21st century and allows us to reach an audience that we would generally not interact with in our everyday working lives.”

With an abundance of natural food, an array of wildlife thrives. The estate is home to golden eagles and white-tailed eagles, they live barely quarter of a mile apart and rear their young. Many more raptors are found on FEl: hen harriers, buzzards, kestrels, sparrow hawks, along with spring visitors such as peregrines and merlins.

With woodland schemes coming into maturity, tawny and barn owl numbers are increasing. Scott comments: “Red deer, roe deer, fox, otter and now pine martin are regularly spotted.

“Sandpipers, oyster catchers, greenshanks, crossbills, and many other waders and songbirds are often seen. While many areas of Skye continually see hen harrier nest failure, FEI has always enjoyed regular successes. We put this down to managing fox and hooded crow numbers and not disturbing any hen harrier nest. Gamekeepers on Skye cannot be blamed for persecution of hen harriers, I am the only Gamekeeper left on Skye.”

The ever evolving gamekeeping role takes on a wider vision to share more of the countryside with Skye’s visitors. Scott said: “We recently set up a range of outdoor activities for hotel guests (the estate owns two hotels Hotel Eilean Iarmain and The Inn at aird a bhasair) to try wildlife walks, Argocat tours and simulated deer stalking. Our wildlife walks are a big hit with non-sporting guests. The wildlife walk concept came about in response to the mass tourism Skye sees annually. We felt that visitors did not get the very best representation of Skye and we wanted to ensure guests went away with a real understanding of how the landscape is manged and by who, it’s not a wilderness, it’s a working environment.”

Scott is the last traditional gamekeeper on Skye, which brings its own set of challenges. There is no local network of gamekeepers on neighbouring estates: “It means it can be harder to find that extra knowledgeable set of hands when needed.

“Skye had a great tradition of gamekeepers and stalkers in the past, but I guess with land being broken up and much of it now being managed/owned by the Forestry Commission, the Department of Agriculture and community groups the role of the gamekeeper and the sporting aspect of that landscape does not seem to be a valued one.”

Another successful gamekeeping working relationship was created when Scott spent time with Stewart Dawber, a local wildlife photographer.

“Initially, Stewart had his own view of what a gamekeeper’s role was, it was one many hold of the keeper; walking around the landscape shooting whatever came in their sights. After spending more time together Stewart got to understand who I was, the industry I was involved in and why we had so much wildlife here. Stewart is now a close friend and a huge supporter of our industry. When I’m not available Stewart will guide our wildlife walking guests out to see the wildlife whilst explaining how and who manages the environment.”

The grumpy old gamekeeper of yesteryear who snarled at everyone, feared by man and dog, has been resigned to the history books. The modern gamekeeper is multitalented and personable, Scott said: “My approach is one of openness, I always offer my hand of friendship and I talk to everyone.”