Gamekeepers: Wardens of the Estate’s Wildlife
Six separate blogs were necessary to cover everyone who worked inside the walls of a grand country manor house or upper-class London townhouse. All the posts I’ve written regarding the management of a Regency Era estate are listed in the Pemberley Library, or can be found by a website search from the main blog page. As will be revealed, the stable staff, gamekeepers, and groundsmen were equally vital to the upkeep and functioning of a great house, and for the prestige of the family dwelling within.
One who has responsibility for animals kept for sport, 1660s, from game (noun) in the “wild animal caught for sport” sense + keeper (noun) c. 1300, meaning “one who has charge of some person or thing; a warden.”
The earliest gamekeepers, as far back as Saxon times, were by Royal appointment and employed primarily to protect the deer and wild boar from poachers. They acted as a police force of the forest, allowing the monarch and his friends to hunt the quarry safely and with plenty to shoot. While the gamekeepers of yore did not possess our modern attitudes of extreme conservation, their main job was to preserve and protect the wildlife roaming the master’s estate lands. This relatively simple scope evolved and expanded until today being a gamekeeper is a profession with its own associations, guilds, and unions, as well as colleges for education and licensure.
By the Regency, the immense country estates owned by the gentry and aristocracy required a head gamekeeper and teams of assistant gamekeepers to survive financially, and to provide the lifestyle socially essential. The gamekeepers ensured enough game for hunting and fish for angling — two important amusements for gentlemen (and some ladies) — and for the culinary extravaganzas that were a focus of fine dining. These vital employees were aware of the natural habitats of the estate’s wildlife. They recorded game statistics, controlled predators (human and animal), prevented poaching, preserved the woodlands and moors and waterways for the various animals, and monitored the health and breeding patterns.
As with other servants, there was a gamekeeper hierarchy with the Head Gamekeeper responsible for a staff compliment that could easily number fifteen or more. He may have one or two direct assistants — under-keepers — with other gamekeepers assigned to areas of specificity. Trappers, warreners (keepers of the rabbit warrens), aviary and dovecote keepers, and dog breeders/kennel keepers are a few such specialties. There were other men who tended to particular livestock: sheep, pigs, hens, cattle, and so on. Perhaps it goes without saying, but these men attended to the slaughtering as well.
The head gamekeeper was in charge of arranging hunts according to the current laws and did a fair amount of the hunting himself. Ranked high in the service to their master, a head gamekeeper enjoyed the perks of a separate cottage dwelling, a personal groom to care for his horse(s), a maid or two to perform domestic duties in his cottage, and a decent salary.
Laws Regarding Hunting Game
Game laws were first enacted in 1671 and were primarily put into place to keep the poorer people from shooting or snaring all edible wildlife. Deer, hares, rabbits, pheasants, and partridges were all mentioned in the first bill. These laws, however, were not as concerned with the prey as they were about who could be the predator. Restrictions were also placed on who could hunt and who could own hunting dogs. Some sources maintain that illegal hunting season laws weren’t strictly imposed until the 1830s. This is unclear as it was James I (1566-1625) who initially named times during which it was illegal to kill certain classes of game, and there are books, such as The Shooter’s Guide of 1816, which mention illegal shooting and trapping periods.
The laws varied widely and were constantly changing. In general, it was illegal to sell or buy game unless through a person legally qualified to kill it. Some laws set qualifications so high that men could not hunt on their own land! To be eligible to obtain a shooting license a man had to have property worth more than £100 a year, or be the eldest son of a man of higher degree, and pay for a certificate to hunt game. Owners of forests, parks, or those called lord of the manor were exempt from that requirement on his own property, but did have to pay the tax collector a fee for the game obtained. These taxes could be quite expensive.
Men who were exempt were allowed to name one gamekeeper to act as his deputy in killing game. A gamekeeper’s certificate cost 25 shillings.
The list of birds considered game changed from time to time, but typically included the following: pheasants, heath birds, black game, bustards, woodcock, red game or grouse, partridges, quail, snipes, wild ducks, teal, and widgeons. Rabbits and hares were protected by game laws, as were deer. Foxes, on the other hand, were considered vermin and not protected.