A good season for the shooting estates despite economic gloom...and the rain
Last autumn, after the wettest summer for years, James Horne, who runs Britain's biggest online commercial shooting agency, gunsonpegs, warned the 2012-13 game shooting season could be a washout.
Pheasant poults had been hit by the downpour, cover crops – essential for feeding and 'holding' birds – had failed to grow properly in many cases, and the economic gloom cast its shadow over all aspects of life, country sports included.
This week, with the season now over and the new one still many months away, his assessment of how things had gone was far more upbeat. Overall, he said, 2012-13 had been not at all bad, which will be a relief in parts of the rural Westcountry where shooting makes a significant contribution to the economy and in some areas – notably Exmoor, famed for its high-bird pheasant shoots – is crucial to maintaining jobs and wealth.
Mr Horne, whose international web-based business boasts 50,000 members, said it was true that earlier last year things had looked bleak. "We started off with drought conditions," he recalled. "Then landowners put in their cover crops and the rain came and washed most of it out of the ground. Some crops finally got a hold but failed to grow to maturity. Others had to be re-sown."
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But he said where cover crops had done well and land managers and game-keepers had kept up their feeding regimes, shoots had succeeded in turning what could have been a crisis into a triumph. "The best estates ended up with more birds at the end of the season than they expected," he said. "Because wild food was in short supply, anywhere that fed well and maintained good cover crops attracted in birds from those estates that were less well managed."
But if the weather wasn't quite the disaster it could have been, for the well-managed shoot, the economy did throw in a few curved balls. Feed prices, most notably wheat, shot up in price towards the end of the year, adding significantly to estate costs. And the increase came after the guns had paid for their shooting and so there was little chance to collect more cash to cover the increase.
That fact alone – and the continuing high cost of feed because of a global dip in wheat production – will push up the cost of shooting next year by, £2.50 to £3 per bird, Mr Horne warned. Game shooting is generally bought at a cost of so much per bird shot. The entire costs of buying and rearing the pheasant, feeding it, watering it and managing the land on which it lives – including predator control – has to be built into the cost of the shooting. Add in the on-the-day costs of the keeper, the beaters, vehicles to take the guns between pegs and all the other added charges and it is possible to see why last year's average – before VAT – was £31 per bird for partridge shooting and £32 for pheasants. Adding in the £2.50 to £3 rise next year and allowing for the VAT means the £40 plus pheasant – as an average – has arrived. Some shoots are already charging much more than £40 a bird and more will be joining them, Mr Horne predicts. It means even a relatively modest 200-bird day will cost eight guns £8,000 or £1,000 each – that's a hefty sum for a single day's country sport. But the statistics surrounding the value of shooting are significant. *
Nationally shooting supports the equivalent of 70,000 full-time jobs
Shooters spend £2 billion each year on goods and services
Shooting is worth £1.6 billion to the UK economy
Shooting is involved in the management of two-thirds of the rural land area
Two million hectares are actively managed for conservation as a result of shooting
Shoot providers spend £250 million a year on conservation
Shooters spend 2.7 million work days on conservation – the equivalent of 12,000 full-time jobs.
The South West is prime game shooting country and in our region 12,000 jobs are supported by shooting sports, 5,100 of them directly. The sport is estimated to bring £280 million a year directly into the regional economy through money spent by those taking part in shooting sports.
Despite the difficulties with the weather and the general state of the economy, Mr Horne doesn't believe that will fall away.
"We're actually seeing more people get into shooting," he said. But he warned those businesses providing shooting sport had to understand they were in the entertainment business and had to provide a good experience for their clients if they wanted them to keep coming back.
He said there would be subtle changes in the way the sport worked in the coming years, with fewer very large bags and an increasing emphasis on providing a more rounded experience. "Why not have the guns fishing for one the drives, at those estates where they have a lake, for example?" he suggested. "Estates also need to think about providing something for non-shooting partners so that it is not only about the shooting." One Westcountry estate doing that is Hendra Barns, near Newquay, where the owners have plush accommodation and a cookery school alongside the shoot, so that guests can stay overnight and learn to prepare what they have shot.
There is still a demand for what Mr Horne called "the premier league" of shooting and Devon, Wales and Yorkshire lead the way. Last year Exmoor National Park Authority rejected out of hand a call from the League Against Cruel Sports to limit shooting activity within the park. The authority warned that opposing shooting on Exmoor would be damaging to the businesses in the park which rely on the visitors that shooting sports bring to the area.
"The Premier League shoots will always sell out," Mr Horne insisted. "But if you stand back and examine it, shoots are in the entertainment business. They have got to remember that and keep on innovating to keep their customers coming back for more."
To search for shooting log on to to www.gunsonpegs.com. Contact Hendra Barns, Newquay, at www.hendrabarns.co.uk
*The Economic and Environmental Impact of Sporting Shooting A report prepared by PACEC on behalf of The British Association for Shooting and Conservation, Country Land and Business Association, and Countryside Alliance and in association with Game Conservancy Trust