"A good gamekeeper should be a better conservationist than any conservationist."
Gamekeeping is not just about taking part in commercial shoots. Countryside conservation and business acumen are just two of the skills at the heart of Lackham’s gamekeeping course, and which Neil Bianchi, full-time gamekeeper and lecturer on the course, believes are essential to successfully managing an estate and running a shoot.
Navigating the roads and off-roads of Lackham in a John Deere gator, complete with Springer Spaniel Ned (‘Nedward!’) in the back, Neil is an almost permanent feature of the landscape at Lackham year-round, and no less when his students are on their summer break.
A typical day for a gamekeeper varies by season, and that is part of the draw. As is broadly true at Lackham, learning extends far beyond the walls of the classroom, and no two days are the same: Neil stresses that for both himself and his students, the site is primarily a working environment.
At this time of year, Neil is preparing for the shoots which begin in October. He and his students and apprentices handle all stages of gamekeeping, from receiving eggs and putting them into hatcheries, to raising the young pheasants, to moving the more mature birds into the pens dotted around the extensive Lackham estate.
On the days when his new birds are delivered Neil is at Lackham before sunrise, between 5.30am and 6.30am, to receive them and take them to their pen.
The pen also needs to be in a prime location for the shooting: somewhere the birds can be driven out of and ultimately beaten towards the Guns. Students run the shoots themselves; keeping track of the amount of birds and their worth is essential to an exciting, well-run and profitable day.
And the role encompasses far more than just handling the game itself. Managing the growing environment and pest control are both essential elements of ensuring that an estate like Lackham is prepared for a commercial shoot. The work is round-the-clock, too: foxes don’t wait until Monday for a meal!
Growing ‘cover crops’ (crops which attract game to feed on and hide in), ensuring that the pens have enough foliage and shrubbery to protect the game from predators, and providing feed and water to keep the birds where they are needed for the drives, are all parts of Neil’s daily work.
Neil remarks that "a good gamekeeper should be a better conservationist than any conservationist." The cover crops which Lackham grows are recognised under the government’s Countryside Stewardship Scheme, which provides funding for farmers, woodland owners, foresters and land managers to make environmental improvements. A crucial element of this is conserving and restoring wildlife habitats, and by providing a wide variety of suitable crops, Neil and the team at Lackham create environments that promote a balanced ecology.
Staff like Neil work tirelessly to ensure that Lackham is a productive working estate and an excellent environment for teaching.
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By Fran D' Argenio