The game season is under way, so one day a week the ‘guns’ – the shooters who’ve paid for the privilege of a day’s pheasant shooting – arrive at the estate dressed in their game shooting best. They’re relying on Tony Lowry and his team of beaters to provide a good day’s sport. As a rule, Tony delivers – thanks to plenty of hard work behind the scenes… and a little bit of luck.
The regular gamekeeping work around the estate doesn’t stop just because it’s the shooting season, though – quite the opposite, in fact. One day each week is taken up with what Tony calls “the glamorous bit of the job” – the shoot day. But there are still birds to feed, and pests and predators to be controlled. “The vermin doesn’t take a holiday in the game season.” he tells Charlie. Tony runs a line of about 100 traps for pests such as squirrels and rats. His trapping programme starts in September, when he begins feeding the pheasants around the shoot, and he keeps it going until May. He drives round the estate every day, scattering grain for the pheasants on the straw-covered feed rides. It encourages the birds to stay in the right spot and keeps them occupied, scratching around for the tasty morsels. These feed rides are also a magnet to pests. “It’s a constant battle to keep on top of them,” says Tony. “We go after the rats with every method known to man – trapping, shooting, terriers, rat poison, smoking them out of their holes… and still they keep coming back.”
The traps are a vital part of his defences, however – in a typical year, they’ll account for around 80 squirrels and up to 100 rats, with a handful of stoats and weasels thrown in for good measure. Apprentice Charlie plays an important role in helping out with the trapping. Studying gamekeeping at Sparsholt College, Charlie has been taught how to set a trap properly, in line with all the laws and best practice guidelines that apply to trapping. Plus Tony has taught him a few old keeper’s tricks of his own – like having a stone or stick in the tunnel, just in front of the trap, so the rat or squirrel has to jump over and land straight on the plate.
Each trap position is unique, but the basic idea is the same. The trap is a Mk4 Fenn, set in a tunnel made of wood, bricks, logs or tiles. The location is crucial. When Charlie was on work experience, Tony set him the task of finding good places to site traps. The side of a gateway is often a good spot – the critter will move along the hedge bottom, stop to check the coast is clear, then rush across the gap into the inviting dark tunnel on the other side.
Charlie knows that the tunnel entrance needs to be restricted with sticks, so that larger animals or birds can’t get in and be caught by mistake. Every trap must be checked at least every 24 hours – that’s the law. Tony uses his foxing lamp to shine into the tunnels near the track, so he can check them from the cab of his vehicle. It saves some time, but it’s still a demanding routine, so Tony is glad of any help Charlie can offer in checking the trap line.
When Charlie is going round the traps, he always takes his air rifle with him. There’s every chance he might spot a squirrel or rat on his way round, which he can add to the tally of vermin. Plus the airgun is ideal if anything caught in a trap needs to be dispatched. A shotgun or rimfire would be likely to damage the tunnel or the trap itself. With the air rifle, you can stand back to avoid causing the animal any unnecessary stress, and kill it quickly and cleanly.
Today, Charlie is doing the rounds for Tony on one side of the shoot, while Tony checks on the English partridges that are still in their pens. Tony takes his Land Rover, leaving Charlie to drive the estate’s Kawasaki Mule UTV, aboard which he’s now a competent driver. Charlie double-checks his Air Arms is unloaded, stows it against the passenger seat and sets off for the beginning of the trap line. He keeps an eye on the trees ahead for squirrels, as well as watching at ground level, but there’s no sign of any pests. He knows ‘eyes on the ground’ are a vital part of any keeper’s duties: a pile of feathers on the track or the wrong sort of wheelmark in a gateway might indicate that poachers have been prowling in the woods. Even a track in the grass could suggest a fox is moving in on the pheasants, and Tony will want to hear about that.
The first few traps are beside the track, so Charlie can peer into each tunnel without leaving the driving seat. He can see that they’re still set, so there’s no need to touch anything, as that would just add human scent to the surroundings.
The next few traps have to be checked on foot, so Charlie parks the Mule, grabs his S200 and sets off through the trees. Without the sound of the engine, Charlie hears a rustle in a nearby tree that may signify a squirrel. He can’t see any movement, but the squirrel has probably frozen still now. Charlie edges his way round the tree, keeping a close watch up the trunk the whole time.
A breath of wind flutters the squirrel’s tail, and Charlie catches its movement. Now he knows where the squirrel is hiding, he can edge round for a clear shot at its head or shoulders. Checking for any leaves or twigs that might deflect the pellet, he takes careful aim and squeezes the trigger. It’s a good hit, and the squirrel falls to ground with a thud; that one won’t be troubling Tony’s traps.
Charlie walks on to the first trap on the far side of the fenceline. This one is set into a small woodpile, with logs and branches over the top to camouflage it. It has sprung, and Charlie peers to see what’s inside. It’s another squirrel, and this one won’t need to be dispatched – it’s well and truly dead. He pulls out the squirrel with the trap attached, and prises the Fenn’s jaws apart with care. It’s all too easy for them to snap shut and cause a nasty injury. Once the squirrel is removed, the trap needs to be reset ready for its next victim. Charlie’s training has taught him the importance of using the safety catch while he sets the sear on the treadle-plate. The trap needs to be set so it will go off with a light touch. He slips it back into the tunnel, uses a thin twig to release the safety catch, then carefully replaces the twin pegs that will keep non-target animals out of the tunnel.
Job done, it’s time for Charlie to move on to the next tunnel, and then the next. It takes just over an hour to get round all the traps on this side of the shoot – and it’s a job that must be done every day, whatever the weather. For some people that would be too much of a tie, but Charlie can’t wait until he’s a full-time keeper with responsibilities like that of his own, and an estate to take care of. Keepering is his passion, and nothing will keep him from seeing it through to the end.
This month, Charlie’s been using a new scope on his trusty Air Arms S200. His old Deben DMP was really his Dad’s, who wanted it back – so Charlie’s splashed out close to £200 on a Hawke 4-16×50 Nite-Eye Digital, which he’s zeroed, off a bipod, at his preferred mark of 50 yards. He shoots it on his favoured 8x magnification.
The scope has an illuminated reticle, with variable brightness and a choice of red or blue illumination for different conditions, and Charlie uses red at night and blue in the early mornings. It’s SR6 reticle has multiple aim-points (in a Christmas tree pattern), which lets Charlie allow holdover and windage instantly just by aiming off. “I don’t really have time to adjust the turrets for different ranges,” he says, “but I do alter parallax where I can.”