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Gamekeeping and a Passion for the Countryside – Meet Max Stuart

With farming, gamekeeping and the running of shoots seemingly facing new challenges every year, we talk to our technical sales advisor for East Anglia – Max Stuart – about what attracted him to the industry in the first place, the difficulties facing the modern gamekeeper and some of the challenges that shooting and farming faces moving forward.

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What’s your background? And what attracted you to gamekeeping and the shooting industry?

Well, I’ve lived in West Norfolk since I was born, in 1980, and, funnily enough, I still live in my parents old house in which I grew up. Although my family weren’t directly involved in gamekeeping both my father and grandfather were keen shots and I remember them bringing back braces of birds that they would hang on the back door and which we would later eat. You always ate what you shot! Some of my family farmed in Lincolnshire, which probably explains my early interest in the sector, and some were doctors, whilst my mother’s father was a military man in the London Royal Garrison in WWII – if I hadn’t taken to gamekeeping, I think I too would have ended up in the military.

As a boy my first interest in shooting was watching the shoot that took place on the land behind the house. At around 8 years old I notified the local keeper of a poaching incident I witnessed, and the suspect was apprehended. A good start.

Following this I started beating at Stradsett Hall and a few years later began helping the keeper during my holidays and weekends. These were some of the best days of my youth! Years later, I would eventually return to Stratsett as a gamekeeper.

My first real learning curve was gardening at Stow Hall for Lady Hare, in a gap year before university. Growing plants, learning about soil structure, invertebrates and the relationship between everything gave me a good grounding. It taught me that if you grow a good, healthy plant then this is when you get the most out of it. Everything benefits. From the soil upwards. I went on to graduate in game, habitat and wildlife management from De Monfort University, and previously studied at the Cambridge College of Agriculture and Horticulture. Immediately after university, I carried out general farm work at a commercial farm on the Norfolk/Cambridge border.

So, you then returned to Stradsett Hall as a Gamekeeper?

Yes, in 2002 I started keepering at Stradsett Hall and would stay for 15 years.

When I began, the estate had all but washed its hands with stewardship because it was a little out of the ordinary to them, and they couldn’t really get their heads around it. So, I slowly took it on, making areas that were profitable and received money for the shoot. I saw the land as a jigsaw puzzle, and this is something I regularly talk about with customers today.

I found that an essential element to become acquainted with was using the support structure that is there. DEFRA, Natural England and other bodies are there to help you. This was a huge help in my early days. Although getting through can be a pain, call them up, speak to them – particularly Natural England, they want the best for the land too!

When I started keepering, I was amazed to see the benefits for wildlife throughout the year when crops grew well, if compared to poorer crops. The joy of seeing swifts and swallows diving into the crops for food value, or barn owls using grass margins and beetle banks to hunt it. You quickly learn that, fundamentally, you are at the mercy of the weather. Wet seasons, drought, it’s all good experience and you learn ways to get around these problems. Gamekeeping is about what birds need all year round – nesting cover in spring, safe brood-rearing areas in the summer and food and shelter in the winter.

But, despite the upsides, gamekeeping can be a difficult, often solitary lifestyle!

And this is why organisations such as The Gamekeepers Welfare Trust (GWT) are so important?

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They are essential. I loved the lifestyle and the work, but at age 40 I needed more security for family. There are very few jobs that carry the pressure of the modern gamekeeping, and it takes a toll on everybody’s mental health.

Whereas years ago, your job was simply to look after the birds, modern gamekeepers are required to be a jack of all trades, and the workload has definitely increased. General maintenance and stewardship schemes are just a few areas added to the workload. 100-hour weeks aren’t unusual, and much of this is spent alone. Making it home for dinner and then going back out to go lamping and foxing, and this is often whilst juggling a family and young children at home too, who, inevitably, you don’t get to see as much as you’d like.

The added pressure with keepering is that, if something goes wrong and the estate can’t afford to continue the shoot, you lose everything. Keepers normally have their house, their vehicles and everything included. Often, if the job disappears, so does the roof over your head. The pressure is enormous.

The GWT do a fantastic job in supporting keepers and getting them to talk. It’s no secret men aren’t very good at sharing how we feel.

This is a key reason why I love being an advisor, and why I think it is so important to help bear the load. A good advisor can, and should, be helping with planning which crops work best where, when stewardship deadlines are and supporting on other matters whenever possible. One of the big stresses with ELMs and Countryside Stewardship Scheme’s is that keepers don’t want to get an inspector coming and fining them, its just more pressure and this is an area that we, as advisors, can really help with.

The key is to be able to ask questions. We are all always learning, none of us know everything.

Speaking of these pressures, how do you see the state of play in the shooting and farming sectors right now?

Obviously, ELMs is the dominating factor when looking at farming and shooting right now. There’s no doubt in my mind that it can work and, as farmers and custodians of the countryside, we should be supporting these changes and embracing them. However, farmers still need to be feeding the country. It doesn’t really make sense to be implementing plans to bolster our environment if the result is to import food from other countries.

Food production is becoming more difficult with the majority of sprays being taken off the market, but in saying that, we will adapt to what we need to do. For example, learning and improving on what we plough back into the ground to help the soil means crops will be able to grow at a better rate. Worms are a great indicator of soil quality.

Another opportunity that ELMs presents is good PR for the countryside. Good crops of AB1, AB9, AB16 and more, full of farmland birds and insects, look great for people when travelling through the countryside.

What are the biggest challenges facing the industry over the next 10 years?

The availability of fertiliser and, as mentioned, weed control does make growing more difficult – whether its game crops or crops for human consumption. Unfortunately, this is something we will have to get used to with more stringent measures being put in place.

And, whether we like it or not, the changing weather patterns present growing challenges, and its not beyond the possibility that we will have to get used to farming different seasons. The last few years have seen noticeable, prolonged wet spells, followed by prolonged dry, hot spells, and this is something that we must be mindful about.

Government support is another challenge that one would hope will improve. Supporting British farmers for growing seasonal produce, as well as for environmental crops, is something that could be improved. This also goes for the supermarkets. Supporting local farmers, educating the consumer and selling seasonal foods will all help – rather than importing strawberries for Christmas time. When I was younger, we didn’t ever have strawberries at Christmas, the consumer has become a little spoilt in this regard.

An issue that is a little closer to the shooting side of things is the possibility of regulation change, such as we’ve seen in Wales. To me, it doesn’t look like this decision has been made on evidence, being driven more by agenda from the anti-shooting lobbies. With no shooting comes no conservation. There aren’t many people out there who go out of their way to undertake conservation work without some form of compensation for their time. It is because those of us who shoot and those who raise and keep game are genuinely interested in generating the best environment for wildlife to flourish. The knock-on effect for the rural Welsh economy could be devastating – hotels, restaurants, pubs and general tourism are all likely to see an impact.

We hope that we don’t see this leak into England. We all know that self-regulation is the most effective form.

Can we help prevent this in England by educating the general public on what we do?

There could definitely be a greater emphasis on education, even more so in urban areas. The majority of these people who feel so strongly against shooting only see people in a field shooting birds, they don’t have any idea about the work that is carried out for the other 364 days of the year. I’m not suggesting we educate infants on this, but high school and upwards, the years when opinions are formed, could be helpful.

As I’ve probably said more than enough, everything revolves around knowledge and learning. Nobody should think they know everything about a subject. This line of work still teaches me lessons on a daily basis.

As an advisor, I’m here to help gamekeepers and farmers wherever I can, the stress of doing it all alone is too much for anybody!

To speak to Max about your game cover or stewardship requirements, please feel free to call him on 07517 107412.