Shooting is the new golf… Sound familiar?

In 2004 The Times attempted to analyse the rising wave of popularity for our sport.

The newspaper described the corporate love affair with shooting in precisely the terms that grate so harshly with the majority of participants who don’t arrive at the appointed hour in a motorised behemoth, while self-consciously stretching out the creases on crisp new tweeds.

Much mention was made of Madonna and the cost of a ?typical? day at ?a mere £1,500 a head?. We love to hate ?corporate? days, but to what extent is this interest and the higher profile surrounding the sport contributing to a new golden age for shooting?

You could observe that in City boardrooms the popularity of whacking a small white ball around impossibly verdant and clipped acres is on the wane but from a shooter?s perspective, surely any positive interest, at whatever level, is good for the future? The answer is a tentative yes, as long as the reputation and wider acceptability of shooting with the public remains intact. It is to the sport?s great advantage that, in recent years, coverage of shooting in the media has largely shaken off the stale ?pro-and-anti? journalistic shorthand that panders to the perceived controversy of killing game. There are, of course, still stories of rotten apples mixed in with the more meaningful message of shoot conservation newspapers love to exploit the raptor-killer plot however, switch on the television nowadays and you?ll see that seemingly no self-respecting cookery series can be aired without Hugh, Gordon, Jamie et al addressing their audience with a gun in one hand and a wholesome pheasant in the other.

Reaching millions with the message of culinary joy derived from shooting is one of the sport?s best defences for every pheasant casserole served to the uninitiated, an ally of shooting is created. Research conducted last year into the game sector by Mintel, on behalf of the Game-to-Eat campaign (supported by the Countryside Alliance) shows that supermarket sales of game have leaped by 133 per cent since 2002. At its most fundamental, the acceptability and popularity of meat that has been shot is on the rise, which is good news for shooters. It?s not just game sales that are up. Actual shooting activity is ostensibly on the rise.

?The circumstantial evidence is clear,? says Tim Bonner, a keen wildfowler and game Shot who heads up the Countryside Alliance?s media team. ?Wherever you go in the country, there are new shoots and existing shoots are expanding. There also seem to be many new faces in the field, which suggests that the growth in demand is not coming only from among traditional shooters.?

Trade growth

This circumstantial evidence of rising numbers of both shoots and regular shooters (currently numbering 480,000 or so individuals in the UK, according to the 2006 PACEC report into the sport) and the appeal to a new audience is backed up by evidence from the trade. Recently, the Sportsman Gun Centre proudly cut the ribbon on a massive shooting megastore in Exeter, Devon, boasting an impressive 6,000ft² showroom, stocking more than 2,000 shotguns and 800 rifles. The demand exists for sales at both the top of the market and at more reasonable levels. The Sportsman Gun Centre sold six Beretta SO6 EELL shotguns in the first 10 weeks of this year typically the guns cost £25,000 each. Meanwhile, thanks to a healthy order book and a need for skilled staff to fulfil that demand, Holland & Holland was advertising in Shooting Times?s classified section for skilled gunmakers only three weeks ago.

The PACEC economic survey into shooting identified it as an industry worth £1.6billion to the UK. High-profile developments suggest confidence in the future is high. For example, in late 2005, the Beretta Gallery opened on St James?s Street, in the heart of Mayfair. The contents of the store say as much about the nature of shooting today as does the location. In common with big English gunmaking names nearby, much of the floorspace is dedicated to ?lifestyle? elements clothing, accessories and the aspirational aspects of shooting that have accompanied the rise in popularity. This July, The CLA Game Fair at Blenheim is even planning to hold its first ever catwalk show. Tweed, as shooters have known for a long time, is cool.

The numbers game

Despite the hype surrounding shooting, the media thrill and the enthusiasm of newcomers wanting to take part and look the part in traditional country sports, numbers of shotgun and firearms certificates on issue have remained largely static for the past few years. In March 2006, 127,920 firearms certificates were on issue in England and Wales. In 1996, the figure was 141,900. For shotguns, the number of certificates on issue in England and Wales has hovered around the 560,000 mark since 2001 (in 1996, the number was higher at 638,000). So are all the newcomers to our sport simply borrowing guns or is it just that existing certificate holders are becoming more involved and more active? Certainly the number of shotguns held on certificates has risen by several thousand since 1996 to aproximately 1.36 million legally held guns in England and Wales in 2006 (the most recent figure available). More impressively, BASC?s membership figures indicate a definite upsurge of interest in shooting.

?This is the strongest January we?ve had for 13 years and we?ve also exceeded our membership targets for February,? notes the association?s Helen Shuker, discussing monthly membership uptake and renewals. Overall figures are at an all-time high, with membership standing at 127,000 (up from 112,000 in 2000). Acknowledging fears of an economic downturn, Helen was pleased these figures showed members? resilience: ?Normally recreations are the first things to go when there?s the hint of an economic slowdown, so obviously BASC is encouraged that new members are joining and old ones are remaining.?

Pleasingly, there is one membership organisation which is struggling earlier this month the League Against Cruel Sports admitted that its own membership subscriptions had fallen dramatically, by around 20 per cent from 5,500 to 4,500 members. Conceivably the public is tiring of its pronouncements and the validity of our arguments are finally winning the day.

Record breaking

There is a diverse list of positive indicators. Attendance at The CLA Game Fair in recent years (save for last summer) has regularly topped 120,000 while, on a less noticeable scale, BASC?s Young Shots scheme now has its largest ever membership (last year, 1,200 joined in just six months). Public interest in associated areas, such as gundog breeds, is also on the rise. At last week?s Crufts, a record number of competitors were in evidence at the Gamekeepers? Ring. In terms of actual shooting, however, there is currently an appetite to spend heavily on shoot restoration. Investment in grouse has never been a cheap activity, but there have been some notable successes: following years of restoration, Snilesworth Moor, in North Yorkshire, has just enjoyed a record-breaking season, smashing the county bag record. Meanwhile Michael Cannon, owner of Wemmergill Moor, in County Durham, has spent many millions on the restoration of the moor and its habitat a bottom line that includes a £5.25million purchase price and a costly and controversial £500,000 court battle lost earlier this year against Natural England over development of a moorland track.

Clouds on the horizon

The story of shooting seems to be implausibly upbeat right now, given widespread concern over the risk of an economic downturn coupled with the fact that shooting looks set to get significantly more expensive thanks to the rise in costs associated with fuel, gas and grain. Our estimate made at the end of last season was of a rise in overall costs for next season of approximately 14 per cent for a typical shoot releasing 1,500 birds. Will that impact hit home? Apparently not, according to Dan Reynolds, shoot consultant at sporting agency Roxtons. ?The slowdown in the City has come at a time when shoots have had to put their prices up, so the industry has been stretched two ways, but, for all that, the market is still very buoyant. A few people have fallen by the wayside and not booked not necessarily for monetary reasons but most of those have already been replaced. It?s a little soon to say for certain for next season, but I would suggest that early indications are good.?

The gun trade is equally cautious about the economy, but nevertheless impressed by recent successes. ?The current opinion is that things are going well, corporate shooting is on the up and the airgun industry is continuing to prosper despite the restrictions of the recent Violent Crime Reduction Act. More people definitely seem to be taking up shotgun shooting, too,? says John Batley, director of the Gun Trade Association. While the economy is perceived as a potential threat to growth, it simply seems to be creating a sense of nervousness rather than genuine panic: ?A number of our members are concerned about the current credit squeeze, but at the moment things are continuing apace last year was a very good one for the industry.?

So the outlook is good while one eye is carefully trained on the amount of spare cash in the shooter?s wallet. What is the biggest threat to the sport?s future, then? The answer lies in the public perception of shooting. ?The single biggest threat to the continued growth of the industry is the attempt by the animal rights movement to persuade the wider public that our sport is somehow unacceptable and morally reprehensible,? says Tim Bonner. ?People are simply not going to become involved in an activity which would brand them some sort of pariah. Thankfully shooters are winning the battle hands down to promote their sport.?

Inevitably, an increasing legislative burden and Government tinkering in our activities, whether it be with general licences, firearms law or game rearing, constantly forces shooters to adopt a siege mentality and furrow their brows. But beyond the headlines, shooting is booming. There is a tendency to hark back to the good old days when one could lift the shotgun from above the fireplace to wander round the hedges carefree with gun in hand. Is this nostalgic view clouding our judgement? In terms of participation, acceptability and support, if we?re not actually in a golden age right now, it is still certainly a great time to be involved in the sport. Perhaps, as shooters, we simply don?t appreciate that enough. ?