It's a common misconception that Gamekeepers "just" manage game, in much the same way as many people assume farmers "just" grow crops or foresters just harvest trees. The countryside is far more complex than that, and the role of Gamekeepers in helping maintain a healthy, productive and balanced countryside is little understood.
In many ways Gamekeepers were conservationists before the word was even invented. If the Scottish landscape hadn't been managed and vermin kept under control we'd have a very different countryside from the one we see today. Red squirrels and Capercaillie would certainly have disappeared from Scotland by now, had it not been for the intervention of Gamekeepers who are now at the forefront of ongoing projects to protect and preserve these species, just as they support the latest initiatives to protect the Scottish Wildcat.
Here are some personal examples of the sort of wildlife conservation work done by Scottish Gamekeepers on differing terrain across the country.
Peter Fraser is a Stalker near Braemar. His life is spent on the high ground and his day-to-day work revolves around managing wild red deer o Scotland's number one iconic species. His work is about controlling the numbers of deer for the health of the herd and the benefit of their habitat - carefully balancing numbers to ensure there's enough food for the herd and ensuring the land isn't damaged by too many hungry mouths.
That involves going out in all weathers to cull hinds over the winter and then, in the autumn, accompanying guests to shoot the stags.
But Peter's interests don't stop there. Men like him, who live their entire lives in the outdoors, have a deep knowledge and a lifelong interest in all the wildlife on the hill and - much as they love them - stalkers and their guests want to see more than deer when they're out on the hill for the day. Experience has taught them that biodiversity is essential to a healthy landscape.
Peter wants to ensure there's diverse bird life - Dunlin, Ptarmigan, Ring Ouzel, Golden Plover and Golden Eagles. He wants nutritious healthy heather which can support a range of wildlife. And of course that's what the general public want too when they're out there walking.
What Peter knows instinctively, after a generation's experience, is that none of that happens unless the landscape is managed. And now scientific experiments by the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust at Otterburn in the north of England have shown conclusively that keepered ground DOES carry infinitely more wildlife than places where crows, foxes, stoats and weasels are left unchecked.
So to stop land like this turning into a wildlife desert overrun by vermin, stalkers like Peter use traps to control the numbers of stoats, weasels and crows, as well as keeping fox numbers in check.
A bit further down the hill are Grouse keepers like Drew Ainslie who works on an estate in the Lammermuirs. The focus for Drew is heather and creating the best possible conditions for a whole range of moorland birds - particularly the ground nesting birds like the Lapwing, Redshank and the Curlew. And of course, the bird which pays his wages - the Grouse. These moors are unique and beautiful places - they're special areas of conservation - and very few people understand the work that goes into creating the biodiversity that's there. And let's not forget that if grouse moors weren't important both to that biodiversity and the Scottish rural economy, all that heather might well have been covered in Sitka Spruce a long time ago. And there's no conservation value in THAT species.
So what conservationist role do keepers like Drew Ainslie play? Well, it begins with the management of the heather itself. Scotland is one of the last strongholds in the world for heather and we have to follow best practice techniques to maintain and grow the heather cover we have.
Old, rank and long heather is burnt in short strips on moors early in the year before the birds are nesting. This creates a patchwork of different ages of heather where birds can gett cover from predators, build their nests and rear their young safely, as well as benefit from the fresh shoots of new growth.
When you move to the mixed woodlands, fields and hedgerows on low ground, you meet men like Bert Burnett - a keeper for 40 years on the edge of the Angus Glens. Bert's main role may be to rear Pheasants and Partridges for sportsmen over the winter - but the work he puts in over the whole year guarantees great habitat for a whole range of flora and fauna.
Keepers like Bert are directly responsible for some of the country's favourite landscape - they have planted tens of thousands of shrubs like honeysuckle and snowberry. They plant and maintain the woodland - and without doubt sporting estates contain some of the most stunning trees in the country.
They also sow game grops such as Kale, Maize, Triticale and Sorghum primarily for the Pheasants and Partridges, but ALL wildlife benefits....butterfiles, bees and insects too.
And, as always, a Gamekeeper's presence means that vermin are controlled. Snares - a fundamental tool of our trade - are used in this habitat to control rabbits which can do untold damage to everything - trees, shrubs and grass - if numbers are left unchecked. Foxes too are a major problem without adequate control - not just to wildlife but to farmers' lambs. And crows and magpies devastate songbird populations, so we use legal traps to capture and cull them.
And of course Scotland is renowned for its Salmon rivers. Our members include Ghillies like Colin Espie from an estate on the banks of the Dee who has been on the river long enough to see the good times when Salmon were plentiful and taken from granted as well as the bad times which began in the late 1980s and which everyone interested in Salmon and conservation is still working to turn around.
As well as helping anglers practice their sport Colin and his colleagues work throughout the year to create the best possible habitat for the returning fish on rivers across Scotland. And they help police the Catch-and Release conservation policy which now exists on most Salmon rivers.
They spend a lot of their time observing the water and are constantly on the look-out for any signs of pollution. Blockages are removed from the tributaries whether they're platic bags or blown trees, and days of work go into creating the best habitat for parr - helping to construct shelter where they can hide from predators.
Ghillies maintain the riverbanks, cutting the grass only a couple of times a year to allow wild flowers like cowslips, primroses, wood anenomes and knapweed to flourish and give spectacular shows for walkers who use the banks. The Ghillies are also careful to leave some trees and branches overhanging the water, allowing plenty of insert life to flourish, in turn helping to provide a source of food fo young fish.
And vermin are here too. Ghillies are involved in an ongoing national programme of trapping mink which helps populations of water vole return to their rightful place in our rivers.
Stalkers, Keepers and Ghillies have long recognised the need for balanced management of the Scottish countryside and its wildlife. The SGA is proud to represent the work of our members in this respect, benefiting not just our biodiversity, but also the rural economy, local communities and the public.