Words by Will Garfit – an artist and illustrator specialising in sporting art, as well as an author, Purdey Award-winner and panellist. He lives in Cambridgeshire.
Following the successes of the 2022 Purdey Awards For Game and Conservation, the wheels are already in motion for this year’s intake (though there’s still time to apply). And, with spring finally upon us and the countryside in full bloom, it’s an ideal time to take inspiration from our beautiful British landscapes.
One person who’s well versed in the flora and fauna, with a solid eye for shooting, is the artist and Purdey Awards retiring judge Will Garfit, who has spent the last 20 years on the panel. Rewinding even further back, Garfit also won one of the earliest Awards in 1988 (then sponsored by Laurent-Perrier, before Purdey took over in 1999), with a project he began developing on a relatively small scale in his mid-20s. His win led to him running shoot management courses for the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust (GWCT) and writing a book, Will’s Shoot, a countryside classic that has inspired many others since.
“Winning this Award is a great way of encouraging and inspiring other people; with the prestige comes the opportunity to help and share knowledge, too,” he tells us, speaking from his estate in Cambridgeshire. His plans for retirement? An exhibition of his wild flower paintings and helping to plan and manage a reserve around a solar farm, among many other things – so he won’t be hanging up his environmental cap any time soon.
Here, we speak to Garfit about his Purdey Awards highlights, the importance of developing good shoot and conservation habitats, and his advice for future Awards entrants.
Tell us about your winning entry to the Awards in 1988?
I wrote my entry up as sort of a student A-level project really, perhaps with the advantage that as an artist I could illustrate it with my own drawings. The whole thing did look rather amateur if I look back at it! But, the content was important – and it captured the imagination of the judges.
My project was a very small one. The previous winners had all been big estates or organisations, so entering a 70-acre shoot was minute in comparison. I had been running the shoot for 20 years at that point, so it was a nice exercise to review its progress. And a lot had happened. I had created a reserve out of a disused gravel pit area in Cambridgeshire that was thriving.
I acquired the land when I was quite young, just 24 and rather by mistake at auction, and it gave me immense joy to work with it. My ambition started from my passion for the link between wildlife and country sport management. In those days the word ‘conservation’ wasn’t even in the dictionary. You were either a naturalist who hated people who shot, or a shooter who had little involvement in the environment itself. But, I was very keen to be both. And I had this wonderful opportunity to change and improve the habitat.
What impact did winning the Award have for you?
As I knew then, and even more so now, everything you do is symbiotic: the more you help the landscape for game, the more you help it for all other wildlife; it’s all about effective habitat creation and management. That seemed terribly obvious to me at the time and I had all the statistics to prove it, but it wasn’t an obvious thing to most in those days. It’s been a slow process of increasing awareness of conservation, growing steadily from the 1970s, thanks largely to the likes of the GWCT and the Purdey Awards.
After I won the award we started running small shoot management courses for the GWCT, who had previously only run courses on big shoots. This was an important step for them, and it showed that there was tremendous interest from farmers who had smaller estates and wanted to establish and build up shoots.
I went on to write a book, Will’s Shoot, which has become a little classic. In the last 20 years as a judge I’ve visited many estates, and very often the keeper or the owner has brought out a tattered copy of the book for me to sign, telling me it was something of a starting point for them. It goes to show that winning this Award is a great way of encouraging and inspiring other people; with the prestige comes the opportunity to help and share knowledge, too.
How did it feel when you were invited to become a Purdey Awards judge in 2002?
I suddenly felt rather poacher turned gamekeeper! It was a great honour and privilege, of course, to join so many like-minded specialists. And, it opened up the opportunity to visit some of these wonderful entries and take in the vast diversity across the board. There have been many successes where I have enormous admiration for what’s been achieved. I’ve learned a lot over the years. It’s been fantastic.
What would you say are the key ingredients for a Purdey Awards winner?
The diversity of entries each year from all over the British Isles – upland grouse to lowland game and wildfowl – whatever the scale of the project, all are carefully assessed. Despite this range of entrants, the cream always comes to the top when we’re judging. What we’re looking for is the vision, the implementation of that vision and the measurable result reflected in the habitat and shoot itself. We’re also looking for good team work. The human element of it is very important, because that’s where the inspiration comes from, and that’s where it might lead on to help others.
We give special awards to those people who stand out as being exceptional. The stars of the show, whose project might not be a winner, but they themselves have done so much to contribute to the shoot and wildlife management and public awareness that it deserves recognition. It’s the people that make it count, and the people that get the joy from it and take that out into the world.
Given the range of expertise and experience of the judges, do projects still manage to surprise and inspire?
Yes! There are lots of different ways to interpret the agri-environmental schemes (set out by the government), for example. Very often people will take these initiatives, add their own inspirations, and make it work. We see new ideas – sometimes enterprising ideas, but they’re good. Some might be solely applicable to that particular estate and entry, but others could be taken and replicated elsewhere. It’s very exciting and lovely to see the spirit in which conservation is successfully interpreted across lots of different types of shoots.
What are the current challenges when it comes to conservation and habitat management?
I’m hoping that the shooting aspect of conservation is not hampered by those who aren’t enthusiastic about it and are trying to devalue it as a key part of landscape and habitat management. The wildlife benefits are clear and considerable, and we need all the help, appreciation and acknowledgement we can get for what shoots can contribute to the environment and countryside. That’s what the GWCT are excellent at showing, as a scientific body that can demonstrate the successes thanks to their research across a complete range of habitats.
What would your advice be to those entering this year’s Purdey Awards?
I would say, make sure you thoroughly convey your vision, how you’ve implemented it and what your results and successes are. Use statistics wherever possible to back this up. Bring in the people element. And give us the fullest picture of what you’ve been doing. Don’t be overmodest: if things are good, tell us why. That’s what is important. These are the elements that make for a winner of the prestigious Purdey Awards.