Demoralised gamekeepers have decided to hit back at the anti-hunt lobby, says Elizabeth Buie

COLIN Dey is the fourth generation of gamekeepers in his family. His young son hopes to follow in his footsteps, but because of the uncertainty facing estates and the rural economy, Mr Dey hopes he will complete a university degree first, just to stand him in good stead.

Yesterday, as the Glorious Twelfth dawned hot and bright over Scotland's moorlands, Colin was joined on the hills of Auchnafree Estate at Amulree, Dunkeld, by his son, some 20 beaters, six ''flankers and pickers-up'', and eight or nine guns.

This season promises to be a relatively good one for grouse on Auchnafree, a private estate owned by Jack Whittacker. This season there should be 17 days of shooting compared to four last year.

Auchnafree's position ref-lects the marginally better grouse prospects throughout Scotland this year. Weather conditions have provided a healthier number of grouse, and the country's economic upturn means greater interest in field sports generally. Despite this, sport shooting remains a marg-inal activity at best.

This year, however, as never before, gamekeepers' morale is at an all-time low. Earlier this year saw the launch of a new organisation, the Scottish Gamekeepers' Association, to represent the views of keepers, improve education provision for youngsters wishing to train for the job, and basically improve their image. Many Scottish keepers joined their English counterparts, landowners, and country-dwellers in the Countryside Rally last month in London to protest over proposed anti-fox hunting legislation.

By nature quiet and remote from political strife, keepers have decided enough is enough. They feel themselves increasingly the target of the anti-hunting lobbies and now an anti-hunting Government. Add to that the RSPB's criticism of the gamekeeping fraternity for persecuting birds of prey and you find a highly disgruntled group of men and women, many on low wages and having to pay the high petrol and food costs associated with rural living.

They see themselves as the true custodians of the countryside, wrongly castigated by city-dwellers who, frankly, do not know what they are

talking about.

If the ill-informed view of the Scottish keeper is a tweed-clad ghillie tramping the heather behind a bunch of ''hooray henries'', then Colin Dey certainly does not fit that picture.

His work consists mainly of killing vermin such as foxes, stoats, crows, and generally looking after the grouse throughout the year. In the winter he culls the deer that contribute to the over-grazing problems that plague most Scottish estates. Up until August he is also busy repairing estate roads and shooting butts. Then, on the 12th, the shooting season starts.

DEY says: ''Going down into London on the train for the rally, I just thought what a lucky man I am when you see all the housing schemes and miserable people. I have got country living and maybe I don't have the money, but I have certainly got the quality of life.''

Auchnafree runs a fell pack for fox hunting - ''hounds that are run on foot and then the foxes are shot after the hounds get them''.

''I don't think fox hunting is cruel at all. When you see a fox going into a chicken-run and half-a-dozen hens lying about afterwards half alive, that is cruel,'' he says.

As for grouse, they are for him ''the most beautiful bird you have ever seen''.

''To put them over guns and see them fly - a pheasant is a wee bit stupid, but the grouse is clever,'' he adds.

Grouse, and whether their low numbers are due to predation by birds of prey, is one of the most hotly-contested arguments of the Scottish countryside at present. Last month, the RSPB blamed gamekeepers for the vast bulk of illegal persecution of raptors. The SGA has

in turn joined the Scottish Landowners' Federation in calling for the introduction of licences to control the numbers of some birds of prey which they believe are out of balance with grouse, other game birds, and also song-birds.

David Hendry, chairman of the SGA, believes the RSPB's figures for birds of prey are too low.

''We know from our membership that there are double the 600 pairs of hen harriers

in Scotland that the RSPB claims,'' he says.

''If 25% of gamekeepers killed one pair of harriers each, they would have been extinct five years ago, so their figures are nonsense. The RSPB media machine is one of the things that really riles gamekeepers and people in the countryside,'' he adds.

''The raptor issue is very serious - it is scaring gamekeepers and it is scaring me. We have sympathy for certain species such as the golden eagle and

sea eagle, and harriers in certain places, and would like to see them encouraged, but the numbers of some of the others have to be controlled. Peregrine falcons, buzzards, and sparrow hawks are not rare birds,''

he maintains.

''Licensed control is going to have to come - and very quickly,'' he says.

For the RSPB, David Minns, head of public affairs in Scotland, stresses that his organisation is neutral on field sports.

Many gamekeepers do a good job, he believes.

''Obviously I don't think the ones that break the law do a good job, but the most important aspect of a gamekeeper's job is land management. There is a great big area of overlap between what the RSPB and what many people in the countryside are doing. If asked what do I think is the biggest pressure on birds in the countryside, it would certainly not be shooting,'' he says.

Instead, it would be agriculture, pressures of the Common Agriculture Policy, and over-grazing from deer, in his view. To date, there is no scientific evidence to justify the ''artificial manipulation'' of birds of prey, according to Mr Minns.

Of gamekeepers, he adds: ''I think the ones that are breaking the law are getting a bad press and the ones that do not should feel rather proud of themselves. We think field sports and associated management can and do bring significant economic benefits and can bring significant environmental benefits.

''We would like to co-operate with them in maximising environmental benefits and maybe even the economic benefits. But the arguments over who is or is not breaking the law are getting severely in the way of this at the moment. We hope for better times in the future.''