We spoke to Tracy Howe, Headkeeper at a Penrith-based shoot, about her recent experiences with the BGA audit and how she got into a career as a headkeeper…
Hi Tracy, thanks for chatting to us here at the BGA. Please can you tell us a little about your background and how you became a gamekeeper?
I was brought up on a farm along with my sister. We both helped on the farm while growing up, however we both had to get jobs as the farm wasn’t big enough to allow us to work at home. I always had part time jobs while at school, however my first full time job was as a service receptionist at a local garage. I then started working for the local council working in accounts and ended up after 18 years in social housing as a cyclical maintenance coordinator. I always longed to be outside again working with animals. I already used to beat on the shoot every Friday.
I left my job and we were given an English Pointer and I started chasing the pheasants and partridge back in for the gamekeeper on the estate. I loved it and the headkeeper at the time was in ill health and I started to help the underkeeper. Positions changed and the headkeeper retired and I became the underkeeper. I loved the job and was devastated when two and half years after the headkeeper was diagnosed with bladder cancer and lost his fight. The bosses took a huge leap of faith in me and promoted me to headkeeper. It has been a huge learning curve and every season is different, but I love the job. I am married to Andrew who is the head shepherd on the estate we work for and we have two children Adam (22) and Nicole (19).
What’s your favourite part of the job?
Working the dogs is a great part of my job, but I think the best part is seeing everything come together on a shoot day, which is the culmination of Joe, our underkeeper, and my hard work. I can safely say that at the end of a shoot day I am mentally exhausted and so hungry as I get so worked up, I don’t eat anything until it’s over!
What would you say is the hardest part of the job?
Being female in a male dominated industry is hard work. Don’t get me wrong, my bosses are amazing and I have fantastic support, but I still get people who don’t think I can do the job or belittle me. In the early stages it really did knock my confidence but my old headkeeper told me to toughen up, and believe me just because I was female, he didn’t treat me any different and I thank him every day for his advice.
What would your advice be to a young person aspiring to become a gamekeeper?
Prepare for hard work and long hours, always listen to advice, if you take it or not is up to you. You will never know everything as things change all the time. The biggest thing is respect, but to get respect you have to earn it. Gamekeeping is a brilliant way of life but can be lonely at times, so make sure you have a good support network around you.
Why did you choose to join the BGA as a member?
Shooting needs to have the same standards as other food producing sectors, such as the Red Tractor scheme. We need to be responsible and have traceability of the birds we are producing for the food chain. We need to show the public that we prepared to follow these high standards to ensure there is a future in shooting. I felt that the BGA provided these ideals and would help me in moving the shoot forward.
What was your experience like with the BGA audit process?
I was really nervous about the audit. There were things that we needed to do after I had read the standards, which I put into place a while before the audit when we signed up as Members. The Auditor came and was really good and helpful and put me at ease.
What would you say to a fellow gamekeeper who is unsure about joining the BGA?
The more shoots that join the better for the future of the sport and the food we produce. If the BGA can open more markets and set industry standards across the sport, then surely that is a good thing.
How are you feeling about the season ahead?
It’s going to be different in these strange times, but we have done all we can to keep everyone safe. The first two shoots have gone well so fingers crossed it continues.