The Last Keeper

The Last Keeper (2024)

Ecosystems represent a paradox. Though sometimes imagined to be fixed Edenic biospheres which must be protected at all costs from external, introduced influences, in fact they are ever-changing structures which evolve and, in one way or another, accommodate whatever encroaches upon them. Tom Opre’s documentary The Last Keeper may be focused on the preservation of the natural environments in Scotland’s highlands and islands today, but it is also careful to map out briefly these areas’ unfolding history, both geological and anthropological, showing how they have been undergoing alterations, sometimes gradual, sometimes abrupt, for many millennia. It also suggests that humans, far from being casual bystanders, are part of the system, having – as farmers, hunters, stewards, residents, tourists, landowners and politicians – an often profound impact on their natural environment.

Anyone who has seen his previous, Zambia-set documentary Killing the Shepherd (2021) will know that Opre’s own sympathies lie with gamekeepers and managed hunts as the ideal way to control a natural environment and maintain populations of native species. If near the beginning of The Last Keeper he contrasts the romantic image of Scotland (“known for its rolling hills, its glens, its heather”) with the incursions of industrialisation and political interference, over the closing credits he offers romanticising images of his own, folding into these panoramas the gamekeepers whom he expressly calls the land’s  “unsung heroes”. So despite its talking-heads format and its airing of multiple, often contradictory views, ultimately this documentary is a piece of polemic for a particular, if not particularly popular perspective: that keeping environments sustainable for hunts is, ironically, one of the best ways to ensure that their integrity and their species continue to be preserved.

Sporting estates certainly have an image problem. For they are perceived as providing cruel pastimes to moneyed élites, as maintaining the livings and lifestyles of the landed gentry, and as preserving species desirable for hunting (grouse, deer, pheasants) while exterminating their natural predators (crows, stoats, foxes). Opre counters this with a panoply of arguments, furnished both by his many interlocutors and by his own narration (sometimes to camera). Sporting estates yield income not just to themselves, but to entire local communities which would collapse without their presence – although some contributors, in particular Scotland The Big Picture‘s executive director Peter Cairns, suggest that, if hunting were eradicated altogether, ecotourism could brings similar socioeconomic rewards to communities. Sporting estates are crucial in preserving endangered species, including predators like the Golden Eagle – even if historically they also contributed greatly to their near extinction, and if Golden Eagles have the arbitrary advantage over, say, crows of being deemed ‘charismatic’ and iconic. Grouse and deer are not just killed on hunts, but also eaten – and indeed their meat is highly valued, and brings health benefits. Keepers maintain grouse moors and peat fields, which, though perceived as barren, can be biodiverse in themselves and, most importantly, are massive repositories of stored carbon which would otherwise be accelerating climate change. 

The Last Keeper

At the same time, Opre examines other well-meaning ecological movements influencing current Scottish policy, and points up their negative consequences on the environment. When ‘rewilding’ – an ambiguous and overloaded term – is reduced to tree-planting (as sometimes happens), it can lead not only to the destruction of existing peatland and established ecosystems, but also to the large-volume release of carbon into the atmosphere – in other words, the very opposite effects to those intended. Meanwhile, a more nuanced kind of rewiliding, sensitive to the nature and needs of the existing landscape, is best carried out by those closest to that landscape, i.e. currently gamekeepers. In a further irony, gamekeepers who regularly carry out controlled culls of deer populations on their land and actually manage deer hunts for sport are horrified by the cruel way in which other groups massacre deer indiscriminately in an attempt to preserve trees. Neither group seems altogether comfortable with acknowledging that deer overpopulating any area and overusing its food supply could simply be left to die of starvation over the winter, in accordance with nature’s way.  

‘Last’ is an ambiguous term. Gamekeeper have in fact been working for landed gentry for only about two centuries, and so are themselves a relatively new phenomenon – an introduced species. Opre interviews several retired gamekeepers (Peter Fraser, Derek Calder), as well as several operating ones (Scott Mackenzie, Ed Jaundrel, Michael Ross) and one (Alex Jenkins) who, over the course of the film, reflects upon his position and decides to retire early. It is not clear in all this who is the ‘last’ keeper, although there is certainly an implication that they are a dying breed, being slowly legislated out of existence by often ill-infomed, emotively driven policy change. Yet last can also mean latest, and gamekeepers may just be those who currently serve as custodians of the land, as the Picts and then the Clan leaders (at least until Clan leaders became mere rent-collecting landlords) did before them. It is anyone’s guess who will replace gamekeepers in this rôle, and whether anyone else – ecological groups, business interests, SMPs – will prove as capable of the task at hand. Yet, one way or another, there will always be a ‘natural’ ecosystem, and that ecosystem will bear a human imprint and will always be changing. Meanwhile, though unapologetically partisan, Opre’s documentary lays out all the parameters and complications of this debate about our environment, while setting them amid Scottish outdoor scenery beautifully shot by Opre. Those picturesque vistas represent, of course, precisely the arena – and the prize – of all the film’s conflicts.

strap: Tom Opre’s partisan documentary finds history, ecology and politics in the hunting grounds of Scotland’s highlands and islands

© Anton Bitel