I seem to be at that age now where I think I am just about qualified to look back and reflect on how things ‘used to be’! The current pandemic and resulting lockdown of the country has panicked many shoot managers. Many pulled the plug on the upcoming season or substantially reduced operations in a bid to mitigate costs that may not be recouped. Certainly, the number of cancelled poult orders has focussed the minds of some game farms. No doubt they have struggled with planning the volume of eggs to set in the incubator. The current situation really tested the sustainability of UK shooting.
Being left with several thousand seven-week-old poults with no buyers is not worth contemplating. From a business model perspective, setting eggs without confirmed orders and deposits is foolhardy. Particularly as many eggs may have already been ordered (and paid for) from Europe. Equally, planning a season’s shooting in the absence of firm bookings and deposits could be just as financially damaging. Keepers’ jobs suddenly seem vulnerable.
So, is the current commercial climate a time to re-think the way we run shooting in this country? Are commercial shoots that rely solely on early deposits for cash flow too fragile to withstand even a minor disruption, let alone something like we are seeing today? Are we too reliant on European imports? Essentially, how sustainable is UK shooting? Remember that in today’s environmentally savvy world, if you can’t demonstrate sustainability in the things that you do, then someone will try to stop you from doing them. Or nature itself will rebel against your interference with the natural order of things.
I began my gamekeeping career in the mid ’70s. Then, a mix of private and syndicated shoots was the norm. Wholly commercial shoots or letting days were rare, if not unheard of. Bag sizes on individual days were not dissimilar to today. However, the number of shoot days in one season across the British Isles was considerably smaller.
Shooting is now more popular and accessible than ever before – and where there is a demand, there will be a supply. Hence the increase we have seen in the number of commercial shoots which, while supplying a demand, have to pay their way.
As time passes, many such shoots find themselves releasing more birds and putting on more days each season in an effort to balance the books. But where does it end? Perhaps the current pandemic has given us an answer to a question we were never brave enough to ask in the past? A shoot owner once told me that driven game shooting is not a business. The variables and elements outside of one’s control make it too much of a risk. That is why syndicates work. You take the rough with the smooth and look upon the shoot as your own. You plan longer term, the keeper is more secure and when more cashflow is required the cost is spread between members. In a good year, you reap the rewards.
The same gentleman was adamant that to make a consistent profit from shooting you “need to overstock and overshoot”, and that is not a model that lends itself to longevity. Looking at the current state of play, his words appear to be wise.
In the present day there certainly seems to be greater emphasis placed on numbers killed in a day. “How was your day?” is too often confused with “how many did you shoot?”. This, I am sure, stems from the business model of paying per bird and the requirement for the shoot to meet that expectation. I can remember when the measure of shooting enjoyment was more about what sort of season you had had. It was a measure that considered much more than numbers on game cards.
The mid to late ’70s appeared to be the tail end of a particular era that saw plenty of secure keepers’ jobs and a sustainability that had weathered many years since the break-up of the great estates following the First World War. Moving through the ’80s, we saw the rise of commercial shoots as we know them today – businesses existing to provide shooting. And there is nothing wrong with that. They have provided many jobs and opportunities. However, we also witnessed the abuse that could take place as some unscrupulous operators emerged. They gave driven game shooting a bad name to many on the periphery. Keepers in the ’80s would often refer to it unkindly as the ‘Yuppie (young, upwardly mobile professional) boom’ as city money poured into shooting with both positive and negative consequences.
I am pleased to say that commercial shooting today has come a long way. Guns are more informed, able to recognise a well-run shoot. They understand much more about best practice. Indeed, having seen the differences through the decades, I am in favour of ‘commercial’ shooting. It’s not how the shooting is financed or who pays for it that matters. What matters is the sustainability of the shoot and the adherence to best practice and high standards.
Sustainability, by its very nature, drives longevity. The availability of quality, sustainable shooting supports rural communities and economies. It has a positive impact on many lives, delivering income, a quality of life and improved mental wellbeing for many. Long may it continue.
So, given their importance, how can commercial shoots in the UK continue to meet demand while maintaining a stable business model? Perhaps it is time to consider some lessons from the past?
A natural place to start is the production of eggs. How can we become more self sufficient in the production of eggs, particularly early partridge eggs? There’s no doubt that September partridge shooting in the UK has been driven by the availability of early eggs from warmer countries on the Continent. Can UK game farms adjust and deliver while supporting more jobs here? What if Guns were to reduce their demand for the size of the bag and instead pay for quality and overall experience? Could we see the resurgence of the syndicate shoot and greater security in keepers’ positions?This could be done by reverting to a more traditional style of gamekeeping, where more keepers managed laying pens, egg production and rearing. Today, shoots that produce their own eggs, hatch and rear may well be in a better position to ride out this economic downturn. They might bounce back without any major detrimental impact.
If Guns gave more thought to how a shoot runs rather than how many birds they can shoot, perhaps more shoots could re-examine their ways and ensure sustainability is at the forefront of their business model for the future?
I was lucky in many ways. My early training was from the older generation. My wild bird management skills were taught to me by a keeper called Edward Sadler who spent time at the ICI game research station at Fordingbridge – now the GWCT. Edward had inherited his skill and passion from his father. Back then, hatching and rearing took over from spring trapping lines as we moved into summer. The keeper’s tasks moved from stage to stage as the shooting season was planned.
Looking back, it is clear to see just how sustainable and rewarding this model was. I now meet keepers running considerable enterprises who have never hatched or reared a bird. The extent of their pest control activity is often limited to lamping and running Larsen traps, doing what they can as time allows. The delivery of poults moves on to a routine of travelling around the estate with a spinner to ensure sufficient feed is available. This is a task often done after dark when shooting five or six days per week.
I am not one to fear change, and embracing modern techniques is important. I wish ATVs had been around when I first started. It was heavy going walking the feed line with a bag! But has the pendulum swung too far? With some soul searching and some careful thought, can we secure the future of shooting with a look at more traditional methods and sustainability as the driver?
When we ask ourselves these questions, in the context of the many threats and attacks on shooting today, we are forced to ponder how many of these are selfinflicted, and how many could be repelled. It really comes down to what we value most – short-term profit or a long-term, sustainable future…