Mark sits in a dark dank shed at 2am on a very wet June night. Various traps, hides, resins, buckets and scalpels surround him – the paraphernalia of taxidermy. In the corner, behind what is to become a stuffed red stag, are two chest freezers containing future projects; stoats, weasels, foxes, domestic ducks, various road-kill, to name a few. Hanging from the ceiling is a canopy of props, traps, wires, saws, glues and moulded bodies.
On the desk in front of him is a cock pheasant that he has just sewn up, and is starting to preen while it settles onto the mould. The reason for working at this early hour is that taxidermy is not his day job, not by any means. I spent some time over summer and autumn 2012 following the daily life of an extremely busy man.
Mark is a gamekeeper, stalker, taxidermist, a fox controller for the estate on which he lives, plus fox controller for two other neighbouring sheep farms. His grandfather and his father worked in the mines outside Newcastle, so he’s been no stranger to hard work from an early age (being down the mines was the main reason they loved the outdoors so much and brought Mark up in the same mould). His first job, as a keeper’s assistant near the west coast of Scotland, started immediately after sitting his final GCSE.
A gamekeeper’s concerns are both on the job daily work and socio-political. Of the public concerns, the most prominent is the feeling of ‘us and them’ with various conservational and regulatory bodies. As with all emotive debates there are certain polemic elements. It is clear that keepers can in some cases be a problem, but their expertise concerning their own land, and how to manage it for positive purposes, is second to none, and this should be lauded and exploited. Furthermore, their ability to facilitate land and shelter for a particular species is excellent, and this practical ability should be greatly valued – especially with the likes of conserving iconic capercaillie and black grouse.
I met Mark a while ago, and have had this story in the back of my mind for a few years. A long conversation about his life and work revealed to me the complex niche he occupies, and I have since been keeping an eye on developments.
This project was not necessarily designed to support or criticise Mark, but to humanise the gamekeeper, and to give Mark a voice. I also tried to explore the political argument as a whole, taking me onto the road from Holyrood to Aberdeen University, Perth Airport, the west coast and even Mull.
Keepers have very limited spare time, so they are not often heard in this debate. Only relatively recently in 1997, the Scottish Gamekeepers Association (SGA) was formed, and they are starting to take a much more active role through Alex Hogg their chairman (also a practicing keeper). The main subject in the public has been illegal raptor (birds of prey) persecution, something that Mark has no interest in, as they have no effect on his work. It is, however, something I tried to address through peripheral interviews.
The story follows a part of his year from the arrival of the pheasants and the trapping that ensues, to the stalking season and the ever-present taxidermy.
Gamekeeping is sometimes a gruesome job. Some images in the following blog posts reflect that, and may cause offence due to their gory nature. All images were taken, by me, in one glen in the western highlands.
The next post, Chapter 2: Pheasants, will be published on this blog on Saturday 12th January at 10:30am. To buy a copy of the book for £25, contact me.