The state of the countryside: shooting

In the shooting world, if there are any dark clouds on the horizon, many gamekeepers will pray that they are of a type that drops soft and gentle rain. Thanks to the parched spring, cover crops sown earlier in the year, which are so important for holding and presenting released game, aren’t looking their best right now, especially in the South and East. Consequently, a lot of thought has turned anxiously to the success of summer-sown options such as rape, mustard and stubble turnips. Without well-established cover, the job the keeper has presenting his birds throughout the season becomes that much harder.

If creating the right environmental conditions for game birds is vital to the UK’s shoots, coping with challenging economic conditions is equally significant. Caused in part by the same dry weather that has done for many cover crops, the high price of feed wheat (nearing £200 a ton) is one expenditure shoots can’t ignore. Similarly, fuel for the 4×4 and gas for the rearing sheds haven’t got any cheaper. Such is the rise, shooters have accepted that, to an extent, these costs must be passed on. As a result, leading sporting agencies selling days on top estates are asking more than £40 per pheasant this season, with a few nudging £50 per bird on bigger days. Beyond the ‘premier league’, a price of £30 to £35 per bird is typical on many estates.

Despite the inevitability of higher prices, demand for shooting remains undiminished. Shotgun-certificate numbers in England and Wales are at a 10-year high (580,653 according to the latest Home Office figures), and membership of BASC, the association that promotes traditional shooting sports, stands at a record 130,000. These figures suggest a healthy customer base, and Chris Horne, director of the internet sporting broker Guns On Pegs, is upbeat about bookings. His site lists days on more than 640 shoots and he reports a strong upturn this season.

‘There is a definite improvement on last year,’ he notes, explaining that ‘the general vibe coming from the shoots that we speak to on a daily basis is positive. Enquiries to shoots since the start of 2011 are up 36% on last year. Most interestingly, enquiries from the end of the shooting season to the end of March this year are up 49%-this shows a distinct shift in people committing to booking earlier.’

Such optimism on the part of those booking days is not necessarily shared by those put-ting them on, however. Although it’s hard to place a total on the number of birds put to wood each season (the GWCT estimates it to be 35 million pheasants alone), Jonathan Crow, chairman of the Game Farmers’ Association, believes numbers produced for UK shoots by the association’s members this year indicate caution on the part of game farmers and those placing orders. ‘Most game farms have maintained the same level as last season or committed to producing a few less,’ he explains. ‘Notably, shoot managers have been later to place orders for poults this year in a bid to see which way things are going.’

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This reticent approach is reflected in the changing nature of days being offered. Many shooters are now demanding smaller days and shoot providers are tailoring their offers to attract all budgets, where, in the past, they would have favoured the market for the 250-plus bag, fine food and wine package. Although such days still exist, the market is flourishing for smaller driven days, semi-driven boundary ones and walked-up days for teams of enthusiastic guns happy to pay a couple of hundred pounds each for the chance of a few birds and lunch in the kitchen or off the Land Rover’s bonnet.

For the gun, such days are more about the experience than the bag and, for the shoot, they offer the chance to sell days on outlying areas without the need for a full team of beaters and pickers-up. Nor is this type of package the preserve of smaller operations-the Duke of Buccleuch’s Queensberry estate is offering everything from driven grouse to informal walk-and-stand days for rabbit, pigeon, woodcock and duck.

If the size of the day is shrinking, interestingly so is the size of the birds being shot. Although redleg partridges represent the mainstay of shoots’ September sport, the choice of pheasant breeds flying over the guns from October onwards has, in previous years, been determined as much by fashion as by function. There has always been an emphasis on strong-flying Mongolian and Chinese strains, but in recent years, smaller crosses such as Scandinavian/Chinese crosses produced by Worcestershire Game Farm have attracted attention, not because they make a harder target, but because-as a lighter-framed bird-they eat less wheat than others.

This season, even if the economy means we may end up carving less off our pheasant, enthusiasm for shooting hasn’t subsided-it has merely adapted to suit the climate. Whether it’s the frozen-breathed anticipation of the first drive on a December morning, or the exhilaration of a covey bursting over the hedges on a late-September day, shooting still has the potency to draw sportsmen and women to the finest parts of our country.

Alastair Balmain is editor of ‘Shooting Times’