Will bird flu cost gamekeepers’ jobs?

by Deborah Hadfield

Nearly 100 gamekeepers may have already lost their jobs as a result of bird shortages caused by bird flu in France, redundancy figures from the National Gamekeepers Organisation suggest.

That figure is disputed by Chris Horne of GunOnPegs, however. He has surveyed 700 shoots and says that, while 13 per cent of shoots have already written off this season, he hasn’t heard of any keepers losing their jobs as a result. The 700 shoots in the census incorporate members of GunsOnPegs, BASC, the Countryside Alliance and the GWCT.

Although he sticks to the NGO’s redundacy numbers claim, Dominic Boulton of the Game Farmers Association believes the GunsOnPegs survey is fairly representative of what’s going on in the shooting world, and fears it’s inevitable that some shoots will go bankrupt: “If you have a shoot with no birds, they’re not going to be able to sell any shooting.”

Dominic says that, coming after the big hit that everybody took with Covid two years ago, where a significant part of the shooting season was lost to lockdowns, this may be the straw that breaks the camel’s back for some.

Antis are jubilant. Articles in the anti-hunting media, such as The Guardian, celebrate the pain that shooting is going through, and none mention the negative knock-on effect to wildlife conservation.

Despite the issues Dominic says the situation isn’t quite as catastrophic as was feared two or three months ago. He says: “People have been able to source birds in ways that we didn’t expect at the outset… but there’s no doubt there’s still going to be a significant impact. It won’t be till later in the year that we know exactly what the impact is.”

Dominic says a shoot’s survival may depend on what type of operation it is. “Some of them will be able to avoid redundancies. But there will be some shoots where without birds to release, and without shooting taking place, they simply can’t justify keeping on the cost of a gamekeeper.”

For many gamekeepers, losing their job could be a disaster for them and their family. Many keepers have accommodation and a vehicle supplied with their job, so if they lose their job, they lose their home and transport. Plus gamekeeping isn’t just a job, it’s a way of life. It’s not something that is easily replaced with another job.

Dominic also fears that the loss of shoots will have a ripple effect on the rural economy, and impact shoots’ valuable conservation work.

“All businesses that interact with the shooting community will feel the effects of this,” he says. “There will be huge numbers of people who go beating or picking up or have some other role with the shoots.” Hotels and other local businesses will be affected too.

He adds that shooting makes a significant contribution to biodiversity: “Birds, insects, invertebrates, reptiles, plants – the list goes on,” he says, adding that thousands of acres of cover crops might not be planted.

“That’s a part of shooting which benefits a whole range of other wildlife. If those cover crops are not planted, if that woodland management isn’t being undertaken, if the hedgerow management isn’t being continued, then we could see a significant impact on the biodiversity and the flora and fauna of some parts of the countryside where that management is taken away.”

Meanwhile Chris Horne fears that shooting could take another big hit from the cost of living crisis. “We’re noticing quite a few people finding that after two years of Covid, this year’s prices are a bit too much for their hobby. They’re starting to think, you know what, I’m going to do something else.”

So far, however, Guns on Pegs is still seeing demand rising, and membership of BASC is growing. 

Chris hopes that shooters will want to carry on despite rising costs. “People go shooting to have fun with their friends,” he says. He hopes that’s something they will be reluctant to give up.

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