At a time when global stock markets are jinking faster than a nervous woodcock, economic belt-tightening on a monumental scale is undoubtedly affecting the shooting community. Stories of forfeited deposits and cancelled corporate days are rife, while sporting agents and concerned commercial operators put on a brave, but increasingly pale, face.
You could be forgiven for thinking that the sky itself is scheduled to fall on our heads any day now, such is the preoccupation with the state of our economy. But is there an upside to the omnipresent credit crunch for the more hardy, opportunist shooter?
While it may appear ghoulish to state it, the manner in which the driven shooting industry in particular has flourished in recent years could present tremendous opportunities in the next few months for the large number of shooters whose sport is not paid for through a bonus or the company account. With supply exceeding demand this season, it seems likely that there will be deals to be done with those unfortunate hosts on the receiving end of a cancellation phone call.
What do we stand to lose?
The impact of the downturn has hit faster than predicted. A few months ago the key concern among shoot owners and managers was for business next season, with widespread scaling back of operations predicted for 2009. Most felt this season’s bookings were a done deal, but what has happened to the economy in recent days has come as an altogether bigger shock. Bank failures, job losses in the City, plummeting confidence and a wholesale stop on corporate entertainment budgets have led to days being cancelled.
The situation appears grim, but it is worth bearing in mind that under discussion is a sector of the shooting world which in no way represents its entirety ? essentially driven game days offered to theoretically wealthy corporate clients. If that goes south, will shooting as we know it come to an abrupt halt? Of course not.
John Duncan, director of shooting at the sporting agency Roxtons, believes those estates offering exceptional sport and a unique experience will weather the storm. “This year’s been pretty good for us as most booking was done a long time ago ? our available shooting was essentially bought and paid for early on,” he explained recently, adding that the world market crisis is not without its effects. “The extraordinary events of the past few days haven’t led to any cancellations for us yet, but we have had quite a few calls from a number of other estates saying they’ve still got a good deal of availability. This tends to be on less popular dates ? mid-week rather than Friday or Saturday, the sort of days that typically aren’t the easiest to sell.
“We’re very concerned for next year,” John continued. “I believe that we will see a lot of cutbacks and a reduction in the numbers of birds put down. The past few seasons have been very good for letting shooting and a large number of people have put down a lot of birds. So, in a sense, a reduction in that intensity could be a welcome thing.”
While restricted availability of grouse shooting means it is largely in its own economic bubble, in recent years the price of standing underneath a pheasant or a partridge has soared as demand has risen, but there’s only so much the market can stomach, particularly when news reports tell us incessantly frivolous spending is not a wise idea at the moment. Rising commodity costs have been cited as one of the major factors in price hikes, but many shooters are simply not prepared to stump up as much as £35 per bird for a day on a “2nd XI” shoot. While the premier shoots arguably don’t have a problem selling days, when supply outstrips demand it stands to reason that those regarded as over-priced should suffer ? either the price must drop or the days shrink in size to meet the budget.
“Well-managed and big shoots can cut their cloth and drop back to a 150-bird day and the sums involved aren’t material to the estate ? they will have to do that if that’s what the customer requires,” said Jerry Barnes, estates specialist at the accountants Saffery Champness. “Maybe even 75-bird days will begin to be offered again in the not too distant future. My fear is that the smaller commercial shoots that don’t have the resources to cut back from their current level in this way will suffer.”
He is not entirely a harbinger of doom, however, pointing out that, “Anecdotally, where customers have sacrificed their deposits this season, selling the other 50 per cent of the cost of the day hasn’t been difficult for the affected estates to do. The demand for shooting won’t go away in the medium term. There has even been a waiting list on a number of good shoots for cancellations. In recent weeks it has also become hugely cheaper for Americans and Europeans to come over here since sterling has bombed. Equally, there are still lots of private individuals who are unaffected by banking crises. What I can’t predict is what’s going to happen next spring.”
Time for a change of tack
Many would argue that driven gameshooting is, in fact, unrepresentative of the sport as a whole, when there is such variety on offer elsewhere. For those who are looking to make savings and simply want to get out there, the opportunities are legion. For example, the price of a handful of driven pheasants will buy a year’s membership of a wildfowling club and access to the all the sport it offers, while a quick glance in the ST classifieds or a “last minute” website such as gunsonpegs.com will show the range of options on offer for those on a budget. Mini-driven days in the Borders, woodcock shooting in Wales and walked-up sport are all available, and though they may not necessarily provide a Range Rover to the peg, they will not be short on entertainment.
Typical of those who think laterally when it comes to their sport is Noel Hulmston. A keen Shot from North Wales, he runs, for a modest financial outlay, a small wild bird shoot on the Llyn peninsula focusing mainly on woodcock and snipe for his own and his friends’ pleasure. This year’s winner of the BASC Stanley Duncan Award for Conservation, Noel returned recently from a couple of days’ sport in Cumbria with his roving syndicate, the Monday Club. The trip included a small mixed game day and a successful afternoon’s ferreting ? none of which presented a substantial drain on resources. “We had one of our best sporting breaks ever,” explained Noel, “especially as our boys feel it’s more about the experience than the size of the bag, anyway. The ferreting in particular was superb ? I couldn’t get the
team back in for supper, they were so into it.” The message to shooters is that if you think creatively and act flexibly there’s still plenty of fun to be had away from the driven bird.
If the widely predicted reduction in numbers released does occur next year, how could that change the landscape of the shooting world? “The bulk of the shooting industry is sustainable,” reckons Jerry Barnes, noting practically that “it’s awfully hard to restart a shoot once the decision’s been made to close it”.
Given that the overheads associated with running a 100-bird day are broadly in line with hosting a 200-bird day, will shoots fold under the pressure of providing smaller days? Though the heat may come out of the market, and the desire for expensive 200- to 300-bird days may wane, the feeling is that there’s still the demand for sport, given that being a shooter is not synonymous with being a City high-flyer.
The credit crunch could be the catalyst for the renaissance of the walked-up and roughshoots ? ones that don’t bust the budget and afford maximum enjoyment for minimal outlay. Providers of sport will be required to shift their focus away from the previously lucrative financial sector if they want to survive. The opportunity exists to attract the enthusiastic ? if not necessarily wealthy ? shooter, with smaller, more intimate and involving days.
However it pans out, there’s little doubt that this season there will be deals to be done on driven shooting and the traditional rise in price seen in recent years looks set to come to an end. As one sporting agent commented recently, “Any estate owner considering putting up their prices for next year is asking for trouble.”