After being a part time gamekeeper on the Strumpshaw Hall estate Joe had the opportunity to become a full time game keeper at Buckenham, he describes the duties and responsibilities involved with this role.
Early life and an introduction to wildlife
I was born in Globe Lane, Blofield and went to Blofield School. Mr Matticks was the headmaster. I am afraid I wasn’t very good at school, I hated it as all I wanted to do was work outside.
There were three or four of us lads who were all keen fishermen and we used to go to Buckenham, Salhouse, South Walsham and loads of other little bits of pieces of water. We used to catch roach, bream and pike. There were loads of eels, and we couldn’t fish with worm as all you would get would be eels; of course they are not there now, they have all gone.
I also went ferreting with my father so I got loads of teaching on wildlife, learning all about it.
I left school at fifteen and went to work for Boulton and Paul’s in Norwich. I had wanted to be a steel erector. There was a bit of a recession in 1961 so I left there because I was offered a job in the chickens at Strumpshaw, with Mr Ronnie Hewitt. The land was owned by Mr Bracey. I worked there for two years looking after these lovely chickens.
It was a chicken farm breeding really good top class chickens which were then sold as breeders: we had Rhode Island reds, light Sussex, brown leghorns and all their crosses.
Fowl pest, MAFF and a very sad day
There was a lot of fowl pest around and unfortunately we got it and the Ministry of Agriculture, Fish and Foods (MAFF) came in and gassed all the chickens. I can still remember to this day how upset I was when I was picking up all these lovely chickens , there was nothing wrong with them, and putting them in a big hole and covering them with lime, a very bad day that was.
Mr Bracey decided that after that he wouldn’t restock and we went on to look after pigs. I did that for a couple of years and then I decided that I wanted to be a tractor driver, so I went on and did that. I was still at Mr Bracey’s but just at another farm, at Strumpshaw.
Part-time gamekeeping and working with the RSPB
Mr Bracey sold his farm and I was offered a job by Mr Wesley Key who owned Strumpshaw Hall estate. I started to do part-time gamekeeping and also got more into wildlife.
Mrs Key wanted the RSPB (Royal Society for the Protection of Birds) to hire all the marshes off the estate, so they came in in 1974. Mike Blackburn was the first RSPB warden and I showed him around the estate and we got on very well and have been friends until this day.
I then had an opportunity to become a full-time gamekeeper, which I thought would be a good move, working with Bruce Giddy at Buckenham. I went down with him and it was such a lovely place with two beautiful Broads, lots of alder carrs and rich meadows. We made sure that they got better and better.
Mr Giddy was really proud of the 80,000 rooks that used to come into roost at Buckenham. We also had 15 grey herons nesting at that time, unfortunately there are none now. He was a great conservationist as well as a shooting man.
I learnt about gamekeeping from lots of people I mixed with. My father did a little bit of gamekeeping so I learnt from him. There was also a very good gamekeeper, Jack Frost, he was a real countryman and I learnt a lot off him.
The shoot was a private shoot, we used to shoot once a fortnight and then nearer the end of the season once a week. The main season would start in September and you would start with partridge and duck and then in the middle of October you would start shooting the pheasants.
Some duties of the gamekeeper – rearing the birds, controlling predators, organising staff for the shoots
In the breeding season to start with, you would start off with your hen birds, getting your eggs, we used to have them custom hatched at the game farm. This meant that you would take your eggs and you would get your day old chicks back and you would pay for the hatching.
You would rear the day old chicks until they were seven weeks old and then they went out in to the woods into release pens.
Rearing and then release pens
A release pen is exactly what it says it is, you put the birds in and they gradually get out and then you feed them around the pen.
They were wooden, wooden posts with wire netting all the way around, ten foot high. You’d have a tunnel at the bottom so the birds could get in and out as they wished.
At that time we had roughly 3,000 pheasants and about 600 partridge. You spent a lot of the day feeding the birds, and making sure that they weren’t straying.
Foxes were always a problem, we were quite hard on foxes. We used to go out lamping at night every week, sometimes twice a week if we were getting trouble.
The other main predator was the carrion crow. We trapped a few mink in the early days but we haven’t seen any just lately
On shoot day you would have to organise the beaters and the picker uppers, they picked the birds up after they had been shot. One of the things that you worried about was that you had to make sure that you had enough beaters.
We tried to keep the same beaters so they could do the same job and go through the same part of the wood every week so they knew where they were going.
At the end of the season shoot they would have what they called beater’s day, and they would have a meal afterwards and they used to really enjoy it.
An increased interest in conservation
There is a balance to be had between conservation and gamekeeping. The shooting funds the conservation mostly. Nowadays there are grants that you can get but in the early days the boss had to fund it himself, so they did have to work together. If it weren’t for the shooting you wouldn’t have the special areas.
The area is now a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) and a Special Protection Area (SPA). Because it is an SSSI you can get funding from Natural England and sometimes from the Broads Authority.
Mr Giddy sold up around about 1990 and Mr Savory took over, and we carried on as we were and started getting a lot of help from various people, Dr Carl Sayer, Martin George and Clive Dawkes from Natural England. We started getting a lot help from Natural England.
The projects that we were involved with were all to do with water, all to do with the dykes and the Broads. The aim was to get the water as clean as we could, to stop the nitrates getting in the Broad.
Water was coming in through a leaky old sluice and polluting the Broad from the river, I had a lot of work to do to get the Environment Agency to do the sluice up. We finally got it done with the help of all the people I mentioned, and everything started to look a little bit better.
Pumping mud out of the Broads
Mr Giddy had Buckenham pumped out during his time, about 1980 I think. Then in 1999 the Savorys had Hassingham Broad pumped; this really made a vast difference.
We used diesel engine pumps, which were on barges and were winched across the Broad, backwards and forwards, backwards and forwards, on a winch taking six foot at a time. The pumped mud all had to be pumped on to one marsh, there was such horrible stuff in the mud that they didn’t want it to pollute any more marshes.
As they were pumping the mud across the broad we started seeing the plants come up. As soon as the cleaner water came it was a real success story. Buckenham never had quite as many plants but it did come good.
Grass headland, mudtraps, addition of water soldier and the removal of bream
We put grass headlands all the way around the low sides of the fields, to stop the nitrogen leaching into the dykes. If it got into the dykes then it would get into the Broad, so the grass margins helped.
They took a lot of bream out, Mr Giddy took them out at Buckenham and after that we started to see the water clearing and starting to look really nice. The bream were sold to Framlingham fisheries.
We put mud traps down in what we call the long meadow. It helped a bit, not that much as there is so much run off it just pours straight over the top of them. But everything does help.
We also diverted some water through the meadow itself, so it settled on the meadow, which is another bit of help.
But the answer is to stop the wash off, we have got to stop the soil getting washed off the field in the first place. This is done with great difficulty you have got to have the landowners will to do it, and Natural England to fund it.
Results from water improvement
One of the successes of the improvement in water quality was that the dragonflies really came back. Mike Blackburn came to see me one day and asked if he could survey the marshes. ‘Yes, of course you can,’ I said, so a chap called Dick Filby who was an expert came down. We were going around the marsh and he saw a blue dragonfly and got really excited and said ‘That’s a rare scarce chaser dragonfly that is.’ I said ‘Don’t be silly, there’s hundreds of them.’ He said, ‘They’re as rare as …’ and I said ‘Well, you’d better come with me and I’ll show you.’ We never had that many there before, we know that.
We actually put a little bit of water soldier in, we knew that we shouldn’t but we wanted to increase the Norfolk hawkers. They like clean water and they increased tenfold, there are lots of them now, the Norfolk hawker has spread out well.
As the eco system improved all sorts of plants thrived out on the marshes. One of my favourite was the bog pimpernel, there were also loads of marsh orchids, spotted orchids and ragged robin, and many other plants, I can’t name them all.
Reed cutting, milk parsley and swallowtail butterflies
The reeds were cut back early every year, on what we call the flower meadow, we started to cut back the rough reed bed every year and it came back well and it looks really lovely.
We were trying to get milk parsley to grow for the swallowtail butterflies. That’s what we would really like to do, but milk parsley is really fussy. You’ve got hundreds and hundreds of milk parsley plants but it’s no good them being six inches high, they have got to be four or five feet high, and they very rarely do that. So we have got some work to do to get them to grow properly.
White admiral butterfly
Another of our success stories was the white admiral butterfly. After we opened up the rideways, the sun was able to come in and it made it warmer, the brambles started growing. The host plant for the white admiral is the wild honeysuckle, they lay their eggs on it and hatch there.
The RSPB had the idea that they would like to release great raft spiders. They brought them in a bottle, an adult and the babies and they just laid the bottle down beside the dyke. Gradually overnight they had all gone into the dyke, and that has been a real success story, they have spread out all over the marsh.
Really enjoying conservation work and a lifetime achievement award
To me the gamekeeping was what the job was but I think that the conservation issues were really nice. I really enjoyed doing the conservation work because you could see what you were producing.
In 2015, the year I retired I received a lifetime achievement award. I think that was all because I did work so hard on the water quality. We produced so much different wildlife with the dragonflies, butterflies and loads of invertebrates, and it was just noticed by some people and they put me forward for it.
I had a talent to persuade people to get things done. I was able to play people against one another, so that they couldn’t get out of it. But I must say that I have had so much help from all these people.
The RSPB, they have always been there for you, they have always been a good help. Not that we’ve always agreed on things, gamekeepers and RSPB don’t always get on, but in general we had a really good set up between us.
Retirement and the Norfolk Ponds Project
I have worked with Dr Carl Sayer for twenty odd years and I am now doing some work with him, on ponds, The Norfolk Ponds Project, which is very interesting. There is a big farm up at Heydon in North Norfolk. The farm has hundreds of little ponds and they all get grown up with trees, we go along and cut all the west and south side out so that the sun can get in.
Take all the dead leaves and mud out until you get the clay or marl and within a year it is just full of dragonflies and wild plants. The seeds from all those years ago are still there and they all come back.
Ponds are important and this is why: ponds provide vital clean fresh water in the farming landscape. They can be wonderful habitats for aquatic wildlife including plants, invertebrates, amphibians, fish, birds and mammals. Ponds provide a refuge for over two-thirds of Britain’s rarest freshwater wetland invertebrates, and they provide a stepping stone allowing species to move through the landscape.
Photos supplied by the contributor.
Joe Cullum (b. 1945) talking to WISEArchive on 30th October 2018 at Strumpshaw
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