Austerity Britain? may not be a cheering mantra, but it is an indication of precisely how George Osborne expects us all to behave over the next few years. It is clear that for many and for the foreseeable future, the good times have rolled ? particularly in light of today?s announcement of slashing cuts across all Government departments as a result of the Comprehensive Spending Review. Without painting too gloomy a picture, if the nation?s fiscal belts are being tightened several notches, is the same also true of the nation?s cartridge belts?
Whether a trend towards smaller days is apparent or not, most shooters will have heard fellow Guns at one time or another declare self-righteously that they ?don?t care for these big-bag days?. Typically, such sentiment forms the opening gambit for many a conversation at the shoot lunch table. In the same breath, ?City money? is inevitably blamed for the perceived excesses in our sport (bankers make convenient whipping boys in so many arenas). As Shooting Times readers will be aware, however, Edwardian-style battues attended by high-net-worth individuals are representative of gameshooting in the UK in the same way that the Rolls-Royce Ghost, at £190,000, represents an affordable means of transportation. What is obvious is that for the general gameshooting community, value for money has never been more important. In this context, a concern expressed by many shoot providers is that while the demand may be there for smaller game days costing anything between £100 and £300 per Gun, such outings can, potentially, be just as expensive on resources as a bigger day. Is it asking too much of shoot suppliers to put on smaller days if doing so stretches their own financial viability?
One man who believes it is possible to put on small, affordable days and yet still turn a profit is Steve Nuttall. So convinced is he of the appeal of less formal, more intimate days that he has recently established a sporting agency, Border Fieldsports, focusing on just that. He specialises in boundary days, mini driven days and walked-up sport. Naturally, he will happily sell you a bigger day, if that?s your desire, but key to his business model is the fact that the estates and farms his clients visit are typically home to private shoots letting odd days to help towards running costs.
Steve reckons a budget of £200 per person is sufficient for a four- to five-Gun shoot day, typically for a 40- to 50-bird walkabout, but he is also adamant that there?s more to shooting than turning up and pulling the trigger. ?A dream day is about the place itself and the people you are with ? no greedy Shots, no unsporting Shots. I?ve shot on plenty of bigger days, and while they can be great, sometimes the quality of the shooting exceeds the craic fterwards.? The ethos behind his agency is apparent when he explains what he means by this: ?I find that when shooting with wealthy people, that?s often all they seem to talk about ? their wealth. It takes the fun out of shooting when you use it as an excuse to talk business.? For him, shooting is about variety and affordability as part of a less commercial package.
Border Fieldsports? business model is based on private shoots letting days to help with running costs, however, so how do smaller days fit into the more commercial environment? The National Gamekeepers? Organisation (NGO) highlights the fact that the costs of running a 100-bird driven day are essentially identical to those for 300-bird driven day ? beaters, pickers-up and vehicles are needed for both. Only the cost to the shoot of the number of birds put over the Guns is different and that is small compared with the differences in income for the two days.
An NGO spokesman explained that the style of sport has to change out of necessity in order for smaller days to become cost effective: ?To make a smaller day economic from the shoot?s point of view, you may have to run it differently, for example with fewer beaters and some walking Guns providing their own dogs. Hence the recent popularity of the smaller walked-up boundary days. If the keeper can run some of these round the outside of his beat they may bring useful income and also help to keep birds on the shoot for the bigger drives and days in the centre.?
Such boundary days, increasingly offered for sale in Shooting Times? classified pages, clearly provide the opportunity for commercial shoots to maximise their income while at the same time providing sport of a different character for shooters either on a budget or seeking a varied experience. Is that at the expense of bigger days? Not really, according to Tom Blades, head of gamekeeping at BASC. In his view, while demand for small days isn?t set to eclipse the popularity of formal driven shooting anytime soon, they do offer tremendous opportunities for commercial shoot providers and smaller private shoots alike. In his view, smaller days certainly do pay, but that is entirely dependent on the shoot?s structure. He agrees with the NGO that simply downsizing a driven day is not practical: ?If buyers are wanting, instead of a larger day, a 100- to 150-bird day that requires the use of central coverts, the main drives and a full team of beaters, pickers-up and so on,? he says, ?then the returns aren?t there. At that point, a driven day becomes a less commercially viable proposition and it would be a problem if general demand for driven days settles at around the 100-150 mark. Smaller days benefit a shoot principally when they are sold on the outer edges of the estate in the less frequently visited areas. You are shooting birds you would never get to in the normal drives and making money to boot. Inputs are low, you don?t need a team of beaters and can often run such a day with just the keeper and perhaps one or two helpers for a bag of 50-60 birds. It makes commercial sense to sell these types of day.?
Look for a shoot day for yourself and a handful of friends offering the opportunity to shoot a small bag and you will find plenty that won?t break the bank. As Tom Blades explains, the market is on the up: ?People are definitely looking at the alternatives that are available in the current climate such as
species days, smaller driven days where you might stand three Guns and two or three go with the keeper to flush birds back. These days also bring the possibility of shooting ground game such as rabbits and hares, a chance you typically won?t get on a formal day, but there?ll always be a market for formal days.?
Last week, the RSPB?s director of conservation Dr Mark Avery wrote that he believes there is an increasing trend for bigger shoot days to be sold (see News, page 4) ? when, given the economic climate, the reverse would seem to be the case. His concern was related to the ecological impact of a rising trend, but have those selling days found demand increasing for bigger days? On the contrary, says Brian Hatton, who runs the Penbedw Shoot in North Wales. Demand for smaller driven days is increasing substantially. The shoot offers both formal days and walked-up days, and in his experience, while demand for shooting hasn?t decreased this season, requests for smaller formal days has soared: ?There?s certainly been an uplift in smaller days in general in the past few years, but there?s also been added interest in smaller formal days. I would say that for every enquiry we have had for a 250-bird day this season we have had four or five enquiries for 150-bird days. We can?t accommodate all of those, obviously, as it?s more viable for us to run the bigger days we?re asked to do. We?ve also had to stop doing formal driven days under the 150-bird mark as the money isn?t in them. Our walked-up days around the edges, however, are certainly in demand at the moment. From our point of view these days certainly help to put up our percentages. If you shoot 30 birds in outlying areas every Saturday, then for us that?s 600 birds we?ve accounted for on the final tally at the end of the season.?
Clearly, the economically sustainable provision of smaller shoot days can be split in two since there is a point at which running a formal day no longer becomes practical ? typically around the 100- to 150-bird mark. Below that level, those providing sport commercially either must accept that their margins will be lower, or they must provide a different package to suit less wealthy customers. The demand for smaller days is rising, but the returns to be had from running a smaller formal day are not rising at the same level, since the price of a driven pheasant has remained relatively static at anything between about £25 and £35 for several years. Some shoots can afford to charge a premium over that level, but these tend to be big-name shoots, and big-name shoots, as a rule, don?t run smaller formal days. For the average shooter looking to buy a fun, affordable day, shoot providers are increasingly aware of the market and are looking to exploit it. For those who are prepared to accept a bit of a walk, a day without a lavish lunch and for the champagne cork to remain snugly seated, opportunities abound. But if you are cutting your coat to suit your cloth this season, don?t expect to be welcomed with open arms if what you are really after is simply a cheaper way to stand at your peg.