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Dorset Lives – His own man

Don Ford, Dorset-born, spent his working life as a gamekeeper, latterly on the St Giles Estate. John Newth has talked to him.

Don Ford was born near Blandford on a snowy night in 1926, into a family which for three generations had been gamekeepers on the Portman Estate. His grandmother picked up the infant Don and went and dabbled his feet in the snow, saying, ‘There, now he’ll never have chilblains or any other trouble with his feet.’ Nor has he, which is as well, since the family calling of gamekeeping that he chose to follow is an arduous one. He remembers, too, 30-mile route marches during his time in the Dorsetshire Regiment at the end of the war, after which his platoon commander could not understand why Don’s feet were in such good shape.

Don, aged 7, outside the family home at Arne

Don, aged 7, outside the family home at Arne

As early as the age of four, Don was helping his father – who by then had moved to a shoot at Winterborne Tomson – and going round the tunnel traps with him. Watching Don toddle across the large meadow by the house, struggling to keep up with his father, his mother warned, ‘You’ll wear that boy out’, but even at that young age, Don had found his vocation.
After a spell on a now defunct shoot at Arne, Don’s father was appointed head keeper on the Encombe Estate on Purbeck. It was here that Don formally started work after leaving school at the age of 14, helping his father as ‘keeper’s boy’ and learning about every aspect of the gamekeeper’s skills. Having served two years with the Dorsets, mostly in Germany and Gibraltar, and won badges for marksmanship with rifle and Bren gun, Don returned to Encombe, where he was involved particularly in rabbit control. ‘The hills round Encombe were teeming with rabbits then and I reckoned we moved most of those hills, digging them out!’ Don remembers.

Receiving a Long Service Medal, from HM The Queen, at the Game Fair at Stratfield Saye in 1989

Receiving a Long Service Medal, from HM The Queen, at the Game Fair at Stratfield Saye in 1989

To further his career, Don had to leave his native county and he spent the middle part of his working life on shoots in Hampshire and Sussex. During these years he established his reputation among the gamekeeping fraternity, so it was not surprising that his name came up when in 1974 the 10th Earl of Shaftesbury was looking for a head keeper for the St Giles Estate, based on Wimborne St Giles. It had not been part of Don’s plan to come back to Dorset, but he liked the look of the estate and saw potential for improvement in the four beats which made up the shoot.

Don Ford with the 10th Earl of Shaftesbury in 1992, the year in which Don retired

Don Ford with the 10th Earl of Shaftesbury in 1992, the year in which Don retired

He still thought carefully about the decision, because Lord Shaftesbury had a reputation as something of a martinet. But, says Don, ‘I got on fine with Lord Shaftesbury. I had a bit of a job getting my way at times, for example in changing the traditional drives when I first arrived, but as long as I was careful and reasonable and backed up my case, I found him OK. I got to know him well when I went as his loader to shoots in places like Scotland and Anglesey.’ The 10th Earl was to meet a sad end, murdered by his brother-in-law after moving to France in his latter years.
Like all gamekeepers, Don had some dramatic run-ins with poachers. He found the best deterrent was a fierce Alsatian – ‘She could be nasty,’ he admits about one such dog. It was that dog which once bit the Earl of Shaftesbury, who was not best amused at having to go and have an anti-tetanus shot!
He also met many distinguished men and fine shots, but the best sportsman he knew was Lord Shaftesbury’s uncle, Major John Ashley-Cooper: ‘He always counted carefully the birds he had hit and insisted that they should all be picked up and accounted for before moving on to the next drive.’ He was a sportsman for whom the sport, not the killing, was the important thing, and Don feels the same: ‘One or two really good high birds, with all the other guns watching, make your day, much more than a big bag.’
Would Don do it all again? ‘If I could go back to when I started, I would, but not as things are now. In my grandfather’s day, England was well-keepered and almost every acre had its keeper. I remember the hedgerows and the rough grass full of songbirds, ground-nesting birds and other wildlife. It was nearly all wild game in those days, remember – St Giles used to be a wild grey partridge shoot and a bag of a hundred brace in a day wasn’t unknown. Today, you’re lucky if you see one covey of greys on the estate during the whole shooting season. Downland estates like St Giles were put under cultivation during the war and many have never been returned to rough grass. Set-aside land encourages wildlife to congregate, but then what do they do? They come along and spray it.

Don at home today, with golden retrievers Spruce and Shadow

Don at home today, with golden retrievers Spruce and Shadow

‘Most of all, a keeper can no longer protect his birds by controlling predators, which affects other wildlife. When I was a young man I reared two badger cubs and found them fascinating, very clean animals, but I know that badgers will take eggs, chicks and leverets. Yet today you can be had up for killing a badger. Buzzards are as bad and we used to control them, but today they are everywhere: a keeper friend counted 84 on one field the other day. And now goshawks are on the increase.
‘It’s not that we killed everything for the sake of it. Keepers enjoy the diversity of wildlife and the countryside as much as anyone and more than most, and we only did what was necessary to protect our birds. That way, we helped to keep everything in balance, which is right; country people should be allowed to control the balance of the countryside.’
The relationship between a gamekeeper and his employer is a unique one, founded in the best cases on mutual respect, and with neither side making the mistake of confusing service with servility. Don remains very much his own man, with a countryman’s independence and humour. He also remains involved in the sport that was his life: although it is almost twenty years since he officially retired, he still looks after a pen of pheasant poults and picked up on 60 shooting days last season. Not bad for an 84-year-old!
[Don Ford’s book, Born To Be A Gamekeeper, is available from the author at Downside, All Hallows, Wimborne St Giles, Wimborne BH21 5NJ (01725 517260) for £6.99 plus £2 p&p. £1 from each copy sold goes to the Gamekeepers Welfare Trust.]

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