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.

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