When he was a boy Jim Holloway won 47 pheasant eggs in a village draw. Being the son of a Devon farmer, he took the eggs straight home and placed them under some bantam hens. A short time later he watched them hatch. ‘I knew then that this was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life,’ he says.
Thirty years on, Jim is a professional gamekeeper. Today during the two-month hatching season, he oversees the hatching of up to 4,000 pheasant and partridge eggs a week. ‘Yes, it’s quite a difference,’ he laughs.
But Jim is not doing this on an estate in the UK. Instead, he is in northern France, one of an elite group of just six UK gamekeepers who work across France and Belgium. ‘Amongst the French aristocracy having an English gamekeeper is like having a French chef in London,’ he says.
The prestige is partly in the way the shoot in run – instead a single man with a dog, the British way of shooting is to have the game driven by beaters towards the line of guns (the people shooting), each of whom has a loader loading a second gun. Jim wears his tweeds and is accompanied by Labradors, all of which gives the shoot an oh-so English feel.
Jim, 42, works on a 1,000-hectare estate, complete with chateau, not far from Paris. This is his third French job and he has lived in the country for 24 years, arriving when he was just 18. ‘I originally came for just a couple of seasons but because of the work here, I’ve never left,’ he says.
Jim lives in France with his wife Jane, and their two children, Clare, 17 and Steven, 14. The couple met when Jane’s father – also a gamekeeper and the first British keeper ever to work in France – interviewed Jim for a job in the country. When they married Jane came to France with Jim.
For Jim France was at first a real culture shock, but it wasn’t at all for Jane who was brought up in the country. ‘Thirty years ago my father was offered a job in either France or Iran and he chose France,’ she says.
The family arrived at an estate near Beauvais, north of Paris, in March 1975 when Jane was 12 years old. ‘My brother and I finished school in the UK on Thursday and started school in France on the Monday,’ she recalls. ‘It was very different to how it is today. Back then there were no other English children in school at all. My brother and I were pop stars – we couldn’t move in the playground because we were always surrounded.’
Teaching was different too. ‘We did our verbs using a small blackboard and chalk,’ she says. For the first three months the children found it extremely difficult, but after daily extra tuition in French from the teachers they soon learned the language. ‘And then we were away,’ she says. ‘It was more difficult for my mother. She used to go out shopping and not be sure what she was coming back with. I remember one day she brought back veal’s head and she didn’t know what it was or what to do with it. She boiled it and then put it in the oven!’
Jane returned to England when she was 18, planning to be a British police officer. ‘As soon as I arrived I didn’t want to go back!’ she says. ‘There was a huge difference in the sophistication and knowledge between England and rural France.’ But then she married Jim and four years later she was back in France.
Today both are well and truly integrated. ‘As soon as I learned the language I realised the French enjoyed themselves as much as the English,’ says Jim, who most missed the banter and relaxation of a British pub.
Dodging wild boar
Not that game keeping seems to allow a lot of time off. It is a seven-day a week job that not only includes raising birds but also managing the woodland on the estate. The most intense time is at the beginning of May when the first batch of eggs hatches. In such large numbers, the eggs are artificially incubated. ‘The chicks then go into rearing sheds before being released onto the estate at six weeks,’ explains Jane, 43, who works alongside Jim. ‘In the sheds we have to make sure they are warm, have enough water and are not too crowded. We check them at midnight and then at 5am – it’s like looking after a newborn, but there are thousands of them!’
Traditionally the shooting season in France begins on the last weekend in September, but Jim and Jane do it the UK-way, the season starting at the end of October and running until mid-January, with about 15 shoots held during this time.
As well as the birds, Jim also plants game crops such as maize and manages the woodland, some of which goes for timber and furniture making. The latter can be a dangerous job thanks to the wild boar that roam the land, and which can kill a human. ‘Once, out feeding the pheasants I found myself standing with one piglet in front of me and another behind me,’ says Jim. ‘The mother was just five yards away – luckily there was a hazel bush nearby and I was able to leap into it and she left me alone.’
For Jim the love of the job comes from being out amongst nature. The French attitude to country pursuits also makes the job more pleasant than in the UK. When the couple go back to see friends and family, neither mentions what they do. ‘When you’re stuck on a ferry for a few hours, you don’t want to spend your entire time in an argument,’ says Jim. ‘In France it is still an accepted way of life.’ Adds Jane: ‘That is because it is still a more rural country. We give away pheasant and partridge to the locals and they are always so appreciative of it and have no problem with it.’
Despite this, when the couple retire, they plan to make England their main home. ‘We’re the opposite to the Brits who now come here to retire,’ laughs Jane. ‘Because we’ve not lived in England for so many years, we want to experience it. We’ve missed being able to go down to the pub, the English humour and things like that.’
Not that they would abandon France altogether, especially as their children are fluently bi-lingual and consider France their home. Jim and Jane plan to buy a small flat here and travel between the two countries, following in the footsteps of Jane’s parents who still commute between France and England. Says Jane: ‘This way we have the best of both worlds.’
Jim and Jane are always looking for people with English working dogs that are used to picking up. If you would like to find out more email [email protected]