GAMEKEEPERS have had a mixed press over the years, in no way helped by DH Lawrence’s controversial novel, Lady Chatterley’s Lover, where a member of the servant class enjoys a dangerous liaison with the landowner’s wife. The era of Mellors and his laconic lyricism, however, is long gone, as is the entrenched social chasm between the ordinary man in tweeds and gaiters with cocked gun on his arm, and the red-coated huntsman or stag hunter who, at day’s end, leaves the gralloching and gutting to lesser mortals.

Today’s keepers are professionals, trained in conservation and land management. They might come from the upper echelons, or from the inner city, but most likely hail from somewhere in between. Whatever their provenance, the countryside is in their blood, and at the moment, that blood is at boiling point.

Infuriated at Holyrood initiatives which encroach on their livelihoods and ultimately – they fear – threaten their line of work, the Scottish Gamekeepers’ Association (SGA) has planned a Rural Workers’ Protest. The first such demonstration is to be held online on March 19 but, when pandemic restrictions ease, might be reconvened in person later in the year.


This is a significant move, an indicator of how tense the relationship has become between those who work the land, and those in government, who legislate for its upkeep and preservation.

The list of grievances nursed by gamekeepers and some members of the rural community is long. It dates back decades, but the latest aggravation was the proposal late last year to license grouse shooting estates. This step, or so parliament and various wildlife agencies and charities hope, will reduce the illegal killing of raptors on grouse estates. Gamekeepers, on the other hand, view it as a weasel move, aimed at eventually wiping out the sport. They believe the SNP and the Green Party are pursuing “anti-rural” policies.

Comments posted by Alex Hogg, the SGA’s chairman, show how high feeling runs: “I am angry beyond expression at the way a community of working people is being treated today in this country and the strain they and their families are constantly having to face as they cope with the never-ending scrutiny and inquiry driven by elite charities with big influence over politicians and axes to grind against a people who produce so much for Scotland yet ask little back.”

Hogg talks of the “endless battering” the rural sector has taken from parliament. Hoping to draw support from farmers and other rural workers, the SGA is encouraging them to join the protest. Whether farmers will ally with them remains to be seen. Their interests do not always coincide or even overlap with that of estate owners. And, in the court of public opinion, farmers are on the winning side, while shooting estates, rightly or wrongly, still carry archaic overtones of elitism.

Yet it is not just those running such estates who are feeling under-appreciated and sidelined. At a recent meeting to discuss the trial reintroduction of lynx in the Highlands, farmers and crofters expressed dismay at the prospect of having an “apex predator” on the loose that could attack their sheep. More broadly, farmers are increasingly required to demonstrate their environmentally friendly credentials, and to adopt radically new ways of operating to meet an ever-higher bar of sustainability.

To look at an idyllic country view, whether a heathland dotted with grumbling grouse or a fieldscape of grazing cattle and spring wheat, you’d never guess at the political cloud hanging overhead. Holyrood, naturally, is quick to point out its substantial investment in rural tourism and other businesses. Protecting and improving the environment is one of its top priorities, and it is perhaps inevitable that where their interests meet those who live off the land, there will be friction.


The problem, however, is not of taking sides. Nobody wants the countryside to be harmed or depleted. The urgency of combatting global warming is evident to all, even if there are arguments over how best to achieve that. The furore over the practice of muirburn – where heather is set alight to promote fresh growth – showed how heated diverging views can grow.

Right now there needs to be an ameliorative approach from the Scottish Government, to show it is listening closely to the concerns of rural managers, whether on estates, farms, crofts or rivers. Sensitivity is essential in balancing competing interests in a way that allows productive discussion and cooperation. Riding roughshod over one particular body, or ignoring their point of view, merely fuels suspicion and entrenches a sense of persecution that is deeply unhealthy.

Clearly, the game-keeping fraternity feels beleaguered. Like it or not, blood sports are a traditional part of rural life. If sporting estates fear they are in danger of being hounded to extinction, that must be discussed: rationally, reasonably and openly. It does nobody any good to create a climate in which what appears to be an urban-minded parliament dictates how the countryside is run, without fully understanding how it works or the consequences of their decisions and dictats.

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Meanwhile, possible rewilding initiatives make the headlines because those who do not live off the land like the idea of restoring indigenous creatures and recalibrating the ecosystem. In theory wolves will kill deer, preventing herds growing out of control and destroying habitat and trees. But what do we non-experts really know? Would you be happy to have a hungry wolf prowling in the woods near your door? While a herbivorous beaver is demonstrably of benefit to waterlands, a wolf or lynx inarguably poses a hazard to other creatures.

None of this is simple. But, at a time where politics is worryingly polarised, the last thing we need is a split between town and country. We are a small country with a number of big problems, but this should not be one of them. In English Pastoral, his manifesto for a better way of farming, the Cumbrian shepherd James Rebanks writes that the way ahead depends on voters as well as politicians: “We have to flex our political muscles in our millions to create a politics that sees the land and what happens on it as being at the heart of building a more just and decent country.”

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