On the eve of the pheasant season, Living North spoke to Bob Jackson at the Egton Estate in Whitby, a gamekeeper for 50 years. No longer the preserve of society’s upper echelons, the pursuit of game shooting is very much on the rise. Having worked as a gamekeeper for 50 years, Bob Jackson can be relied upon to judge its popularity. ‘There’s no shortage of people wanting to participate,’ he explains. ‘Every little bit of the countryside you see and experience is likely to be shot over by someone – somebody will own that bit of land and run a shoot on it.’
Bob’s career began via his father who ran a small tenanted farm at Egton Bridge, close to the Egton Estate, where Bob has spent most of his life as a keeper. As a passionate shooter, Bob’s father paid his way into a local syndicate shoot by breeding the required pheasants. When a gamekeeping job came up in the early 1970s at Grinkle Park Estate and Shooting Lodge in North Yorkshire, Bob was offered the job. ‘That’s really where I learned my trade,’ he recalls.
‘I was very keen on the breeding and rearing and became an expert with incubators. Shortly after I began, the head keeper finished and I more or less oversaw the breeding and incubating of the pheasants and had 14 very happy years there.’ The estate would host hundreds of people over the course of a year, many of whom were corporate guests of a local brewery, all visiting to experience a day shooting the estate’s pheasant and grouse.
An opportunity for Bob to return home presented itself in the 1980s, when the role of head gamekeeper arose at Egton Estate. Bob applied and has been there ever since. ‘The estate owner wanted someone to develop the pheasant shoot and turn it into a viable commercial enterprise.’ Egton Estate has expanded significantly since Bob’s arrival. Today they rear in the region of 12-15,000 pheasants each year and host up to 25 days of shooting.
The majority of hard work is done by Bob and his team in the summer months, a vital period during which they must breed enough pheasant to accommodate the shoots they host during Winter. ‘Pheasants start to lay their eggs in April and we set them in incubators every week for about eight hatches. They are then reared under artificial heat and kept on the rearing field until they’re six weeks old and strong enough to live by themselves.’ Bob and the team then transfer the birds into release pens. ‘It’s our job to train them to live in the wild,’ says Bob.
By early August the birds will familiarising themselves with the local countryside. By October they are fully grown, and are ripe for the shooting season. From November to January Egton entertain groups from all over the world. You need a shotgun licence and relevant insurance to take part and such is the popularity you might find a lengthy waiting list in front of you. The growing interest is good news for the rural community, with the sport of shooting often reaping larger financial rewards than farming. Visitors are charged by the number of birds they shoot and a typical shoot at Egton will yield in the region of 300 birds.
Bob says it isn’t the killing of pheasant that attracts people to the sport but the whole social aspect of the day itself. ‘It has an atmosphere that I just can’t describe. It’s never ceased to amaze me how so many thousands of people can get so excited about 22 men kicking a ball about on a field on a Saturday afternoon and it’s just the same here. These people are really into the whole social aspect of shooting – getting dressed up in your tweeds, taking your gun out into the countryside and letting a few shots off.’
Bob does shoot but more out of necessity than pleasure. ‘There wouldn’t be so much game on the estate if certain species weren’t culled. It’s our job to try and maintain the balance of nature and know where that balance is.’ Bob says a young fox cub once killed over 300 pheasant in a single night, so it’s essential the estate’s livestock is protected.
Now in his 65th year, Bob is approaching retirement age but has been assured he can continue working at Egton as long as he wants. ‘My son has worked with me for eight years as a keeper and he’s now the fourth generation of Jacksons to have worked for Egton Estate. I’d like to keep working as long as I can, as long as I’m useful. It’s been my life and I wouldn’t have wanted to do anything else.’