While the cost to consumers has remained steady, the prices shoots have received for this season?s pheasants have shown a marked difference affected by regional variation and the impact of new food hygiene regulations. With most supermarkets now stocking game meat, thanks to campaigns such as the Countryside Alliance (CA) funded Game-to-Eat and the British Association for Shooting and Conservation (BASC) Game?s On initiative, there is a growing market for gamebirds supplied by shoots.

Simon Hamlyn is BASC?s director of operations and responsible for the Game?s On initiative. He told ST: ?As we come to the end of the season, all the dealers I?ve spoken to have had a very good year. The work we, and others, have done has paid off in the sense that more people are asking for game, and supermarkets such as Sainsbury?s, Waitrose and Tesco have all reported rising sales. Since early November we?ve distributed more than 50,000 recipe leaflets and support has been immense. Sainsbury?s says game sales have risen by 100 per cent and people are really pleased by how the game market looks. The prices shoots have drawn for birds have varied from region to region. I?ve heard some dealers aren?t paying anything and that others are simply snowed under with birds.?

Steve Crouch, of gamedealers Hampshire Game, agrees that prices are varying from region to region, but that dealers have been under real pressure. He said: ?We?ve reached a level such that the end product is worth a certain amount and the only cost we can control is the buying cost. Production costs are going up, but selling costs remain the same. Production costs are set to increase even further as a result of other factors, such as the cost of diesel and refrigeration. There are so many extra expenses, meaning that the only costs over which we have control are the prices at which we buy the birds. Individual companies are paying different prices. One company I know is paying nothing ? it?s getting its birds for free. We pay 50p a brace and that is probably the top end.

?Despite this, the market is good. We sell everything we produce; it?s just making money that?s the hard bit. We have to spend more money for plant improvement measures and we have no choice but to buy birds for less. It?s just a vicious circle.

At the same time we are paying less, we also want shoots to put chillers in ? if they don?t have chillers then we can?t use them. It?s a very difficult situation.? From the consumer end, Alexia Robinson, director of the CA?s Game-to-Eat campaign, told ST: ?Dealers have reverted to paying commodity prices from shoots this season: Rick Bestwick is paying 50p a bird and some dealers are reputedly not paying anything. There is a market for all shot game and no reports of shoots being unable to find a market.

Those concerned about dealer prices should be heartened by the fact that the local direct sale market continues to be hugely buoyant and the game market as a whole continues to be the only market enjoying double-figure growth, as is soon to be confirmed by the Mintel report on the food industry. The market for game is growing faster than that for lamb or beef.

?We are about to conduct a detailed study of game prices with the National Gamekeepers? Organisation, but so far there is plenty of evidence to suggest that the health messages are getting through. The CA is now looking to expand its research further to provide shoots with even more positive sales advice for next year.The Game-to-Eat campaign has successfully shown that there is a market for shot game and we recommend that shoots get themselves properly equipped so they can sell direct, too.?