Need to Know: Buying property and sporting rights

Along with most people, I own the sporting rights over my land

(ahem, postage stamp garden). The fact

that they are practically worthless is doubtless why the original owner did not

care to reserve them. Compare that to a

large country estate however and the sporting rights there will be a valuable

commodity in their own right. Take this to

the extreme and you get property like grouse moors, where the sporting rights

are more valuable than the land itself. 

What on earth else are you going to do with several hundred wet acres of

heather, after all?   

‘Sporting rights’ is rather a vague term, but was described

in the 19th century as the right to; ‘hawk, hunt, fish and

fowl’. If therefore, you wish to refer

only to shooting or fishing specifically, it is probably best to say so. Legally, sporting rights are in the class of rights

called profits à prendre – that

is, a right to do something on and take something from the land (rather than

ownership of part of the actual land itself). 

The logic behind this is that wild animals, which are after all the

whole point of sporting rights, cannot be owned whilst alive, only when dead,

but that the owner of the land on which they are has a qualified ownership of

them whilst they are on his land and absolute ownership of them if they die there. Sporting rights therefore, are really about the

right to go onto land to shoot what is found there (including what is reared

and released there) and then take it away as your own property. This is a rather long-winded explanation of why

poaching is wrong. Whether poachers would

appreciate such an explanation however, is untested and perhaps best left so.

Practically speaking, this means that sporting rights are

automatically owned as part of the land (like my garden) unless they are

specifically separated from it. If they

are so separated, a new class of property is created at that point and this can

be treated like any other sort of property, that is to say, sold, let or lost

(and then lawyers have to find it – do not laugh, it happens)! Most of the time, sporting rights will be created

formally in one of two ways: the first is where the landowner permanently grants

someone else the sporting rights but keeps the land himself; the second is

where the landowner sells or lets his land, but specifically retains the sporting

rights. Perhaps inevitably, there is also

a third way; this is where a landowner gives a particular person or group, a licence

to exercise the rights usually for a limited period of time only. At the end of that time, the rights revert

back to the landowner. This can be a

useful expedient if you think you might want the sporting rights in the future,

but would rather get some income from them in the present.

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Finally, it is also (just about) possible for sporting

rights to be created informally and without a written document, but you would

need an awfully good explanation to get it past the courts’ scrutiny. Unlike many other interests in land, the mere

fact that you may have exercised the sporting rights over your neighbour’s land

for fifty or more years, believing them to be your own, may well be insufficient

to claim them as your own. This is a very

contentious area of law and definitely a battle better avoided. As ever, the rule is that it is better to do

something by a formal deed, setting out all the relevant details, than on a gentlemen’s

agreement – which, sadly, frequently result in some of the most ungentlemanly

behaviour ever seen.

When buying land, be clear whether or not the sporting

rights are ‘in hand’ (that is, the landowner owns them and has not let them out). If not, find out who does have them and on

what terms. If you are considering buying

or leasing the sporting rights over someone else’s land, find out precisely

what is on offer and whether it is in any way limited, such as what can be shot,

when, in what number and so on. Also check

you have the appropriate ancillary rights such as rights of access on to and across

the land, parking and (vitally) picnicking! 

Consider also whether you want the rights to enter to rear and preserve

game and if so, whether any corresponding restrictions need to be put on what

the landowner can do with the land to avoid conflicting land use.      

Learning to shoot is actually my current (secret – well,

until I am better than my husband) project: I have recently been having the odd

clay lesson, though I have yet to find a landowner brave or  stupid enough to let me loose on his land. Maybe I should try stocking the garden and

making use of my own rights after all…

About Elizabeth

Despite being one who feels the cold,

Elizabeth braved a move to Northumberland and has worked there as a

solicitor with the firm of Dickinson Dees

LLP, in the Agriculture, Farms and Estates Team, where she started life

as a trainee in 2003. As part of this specialist and nationally

renowned team, she works both for a number of larger estates and trusts

on an ongoing basis and also on one-off matters, covering the range of

rural property law, including; sales and purchases, sporting

rights,rights of way, easements and tenancies, to name a few. Outside

the office, she nearly managed to get sent to the North Pole, loves the

occasional hunt with the CVNNH and continues to try and break the 4-hour

mark for a marathon. She lives with her husband, a terrier and a very

silly basset.

She can be contacted through Dickinson Dees on 0191 279 9000