When guns go into a furtive little huddle at the end of the day, it is obvious what they are doing. Seemingly afraid of putting a price on their own personal enjoyment, they consider, negotiate and advise one another for all the world as if they are in the process of closing a huge business deal. Watch closely though, and you may see a maverick who declines to join in the debate but turns his back on the dealing to take out his wallet discreetly and prepare the keeper’s tip – straight away you know he is a man of experience who has the courage of his convictions. But, tradition notwithstanding, should today’s keepers be tipped at all and, if so, how much?

Make no bones about it, the keeper’s tips are an important part of his earnings. He gets paid a wage but, in all likelihood, not one that reflects the hours put in throughout the year. Increasingly, in these credit crunch times, gamekeepers are going without a pay rise rather than lose their jobs and so the season’s tips become even more crucial. Also, some em-ployers have always paid their keepers a wage that reflects the assumption of a top-up of tips – although I doubt you’d find mention of it in any contract of employment. Never-theless, these gratuities should be earned as a result of far more than just seasonal hard work and the number of birds hanging in the game larder.

Reward effort

Some keepers do themselves no favours and although they might serve up some excellent shooting, they do so with a side-dish of attitude. James Pembroke, a regular roving gun from North Yorkshire who shoots throughout England and Wales says, “I’ve lost count of the times I’ve given a gamekeeper a token tip that nowhere near reflects the numbers of birds shot just because of his arrogant or petulant demeanour. I don’t want a man I hardly know and who should be watching his beating line shouting ‘Come on, Jamie boy, here’s one for you’ from halfway down a woodland edge.”
On the other hand, as Pembroke is quick to point out, “Others, who have obviously tried every trick in the book to give you a good day and yet, through no fault of their own, end up with fewer birds in the bag than was hoped for, but who are nevertheless agreeable and articulate have, I hope, been pleasantly surprised with a tip that was far more than the day’s bag warranted.”

It should be possible to tell whether or not the person in charge of the beating line has given his all to ensure the best possible outcome and his tip ought to reflect this. A keeper who has shown bad sport, perhaps failing to take into consideration the prevailing wind, as a result of which the guns are forced to watch all the birds stream 40yd to the left of the line, deserves little or nothing by way of a thank you but, before damning the man completely, it is as well to check that there were no alternatives. Sometimes a drive is restricted to being driven in a certain way because of the position of the next beat, boundaries or the inability to pick-up fallen birds from land where the shoot is not allowed.

How much?

Assuming that all has gone well and a good time been had by all, there is the question of how much to tip – the reason for those furtive get-togethers at the end of the day. For many years a general rule of thumb has been an initial “gift” of £10 and then £10 for every 100 birds shot. A 100-bird day (or a boundary or walked-up day of 50 to 70) should therefore, gross the keeper a minimum of £20 but, if you think he’s put himself out, then £30 is not unreasonable.

Some guns (and all keepers) suggest that nowadays the initial token should be £20, rather than £10, in which case you should be looking at handing over £40 for a 200-bird day and £50 for 300 plus. However, the sums don’t neces-sarily add up and a Hampshire keeper dealing with daily bags of anywhere between 400 and 600 makes an interesting point. “If we shoot 400 birds, most guns give me £50. If we shoot 500, they give me £50 and if we end up with 600 plus in the bag, they still give me only £50, even though the accepted rule of thumb suggests it should be £70 or more. This is especially galling when the guns are guests and it’s cost my boss, not them, for their day out.”
Guests who have already paid out substantial sums of money for a day on a commercial shoot have been found to be even less generous with their tips if they are subsequently asked to pay for every bird shot over the amount of birds booked. Conversely, if it happens that an extra 30 to 50 birds are shot and not charged for, the guns consider that they are getting excellent value for money, a factor which adds to their enjoyment of the day and, in consequence, makes them more likely to be generous with their gratuities.

Interestingly, most gamekeepers agree that guns tend to be more generous on a smallish day than they are on a large one. Mick Marsden, part-time custodian of an estate situated on the Lancashire/Yorkshire borders where, because of its location and topography, it is possible to shoot grouse, wild pheasants and partridges, bravely claims that he receives quite generous tips compared to those on the bigger shoots where birds are reared. “Even though we never shoot above 70 to 80 on even our very best days, I never get less than £30 from each gun, but that might be because of the variety of game that ends up in the bag at the end of the day – plus the fact they know that, to get any game at all here, I must have been doing my job when it comes to predator control and habitat improvement.” On the wild-bird shoot then, the keeper must surely be rewarded for quality and overall enjoyment of the day as opposed to quantity.

Is there ever an occasion not to tip the keeper at all? Peter Moreton, a Wiltshire-based gun says, “I have known guns refuse to tip a keeper when the birds have not been shown well and, indeed, I refused to tip a keeper some years ago when he ridiculed me (to cover his own mistake) in front of the other guns.”

When and how

There is an optimum time for the keeper to turn up with a brace or two of birds for each gun. Arrive too soon, when they are still changing out of boots, and an opportunity to shake hands and accept a tip is lost among all the activity. Arrive too late, and the guns will possibly have started to feel a little anxious about being kept hanging around. The secret is, like the heat of Baby Bear’s porridge, to get it just right: by allowing guns time to change, put their shotguns away and, most importantly, find their wallets. Only personal experience of your own shoot can tell you exactly when this optimum time for the keeper’s arrival is likely to be. He, in turn, should try to avoid hanging round in anticipation of his tips like some lady of the night on a street corner.

One thing vital to get right is how the tip is handed over. You might think that the money is the important thing and the manner in which it is transferred from the gun’s wallet to the keeper’s pocket matters not a jot, but you’d be wrong. Without exception, all of my generation, guns and keepers, consider the manner of giving to be crucial. “How the guns hand over a tip is critical in my view,” says one Dorset keeper, “Most of mine fold the notes into tiny squares and discreetly pass them over during a handshake while sometimes taking a brace of birds.” An experienced gun remarks, “Generally, all guns fold their notes and pass them discreetly but I have seen, on occasion, some blatantly obvious and embarrassing tipping from new and somewhat ignorant guns.” So, “fold”, “shake”, and “discretion” seem to be the watchwords.

Tax liability

I doubt that the giving of a gratuity could ever be tax-deductible but keepers should know that tips are taxable and that HM Revenue & Customs has a rate at which it accepts figures submitted via their tax return forms in much the same way as for waiters, hairdressers and other workers in industries where tips are a traditional and ac-cepted part of the job.