Gamekeepers: Wardens of the Estate’s Wildlife

Gamekeepers: Wardens of the Estate’s Wildlife

Continuing on with the series on Regency and Georgian Era servants who worked outside of the manor house, this week focuses on those men who managed the estate’s wildlife. Specifically, this meant those animals hunted for sport and food.



FrancisWheatley 1787
Duke of Newcastle seated on his horse next to his friend Colonel Litchfield, along with his gamekeeper, Mansell, and four Clumber Spaniels. Painting by Francis Wheatley, 1787.


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 essential social lifestyle. The gamekeepers ensured enough game for hunting and fish for angling — two important amusements for gentlemen (and some ladies) — but also 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.

“The Gamekeeper” by Richard Ansdell
John Frederick Lewis - Game Keeper and Boy Ferreting a Rabbit 1828
“Gamekeeper and Boy Ferreting a Rabbit” by John Frederick Lewis, 1828
“The Game Keeper’s Larder” by John Ferneley

As with other servants, there was a gamekeeper hierarchy. At the top was the Head Gamekeeper. He was responsible for a staff compliment that could easily number fifteen or more. He may have one or two direct assistants — under-keepers — along 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, landless 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 which humans were allowed to be the predator. Restrictions were placed on who could hunt and also who could own hunting dogs. Some sources maintain that illegal hunting season laws weren’t strictly imposed until the 1830s. While this may have been true, depending on how important one was or who one knew, it was James I (1566-1625) who initially named times during which it was illegal to kill certain classes of game. There were also many books, such as The Shooter’s Guide of 1816, which mention illegal shooting and trapping periods.

Setting aside the question of how well enforced, there were laws on the books, although they varied widely from place to place and were constantly changing.

colonel-brandon-hunting pheasantIn general, it was illegal to sell or buy game unless through a person legally qualified to kill it. Some laws set the qualifications for hunting so high that men could not hunt on their own land. The standards for a man to be eligible to obtain a shooting license were for him to have property worth more than £100 a year, or to be the eldest son of a gentry landowner or titled aristocracy. If eligible, he had to pay for a certificate to hunt game.

Owners of forests, parks, or those called “lord of the manor” were exempt from the certificate requirement on their own property, but did have to pay the tax collector a fee for the game obtained. These taxes could be quite expensive.

Exempt landowners were allowed to name one gamekeeper to act as his deputy in the killing of game. However, a gamekeeper was required to have a certificate, which on average 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.

That’s all for today!
There is more planned for the week so be sure to return.
For the present, share your thoughts and questions with me NOW!

3 Comments for Gamekeepers: Wardens of the Estate’s Wildlife

  1. I alway wondered about that , what was what in hunting. Thank you explaining it so well.
    So , in our story Mr Darcy could hunt but had to pay taxes, mr Bingly hand to pay 25 shillings for certificate , or as Mr Darcy’s guest was that okay? I mean when Mr Darcy did allow hunting , for his own table . Did mr Burr pluck the birds , or did the kitchen staff do that ? I know I being nit picky . Sorry , I was just wondering, The big game I can under stand that Mr Burr did the cleaning of the game , before it went to the kitchen. I love the way you describe Mrs Burr. It seems everyone is in a love match on Pemberly land.

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