Types of cost
One of the most important things to realise is the difference between the cost of putting a bird over the guns and the cost of each bird that is actually shot. The former is your total costs divided by the number of birds released; the latter is your total costs divided by the number of birds shot.
The cost of each bird successfully released will vary somewhat from one shoot to another, but is largely down to management decisions and the competence of people employed. The cost of each bird shot varies dramatically and is dictated not just by release costs, but by the percentage returns.
There will, of course, be widely varying results between different shoots. Economies of scale, management techniques, competence and topography all influence relative performance. Therefore for the purpose of this article I will use the following example.
We’re budgeting for a traditional woodland shoot of 2,000 acres, comprising mixed agriculture and hardwoods. There is one full-time keeper and 7,000 poults are released. A quick definition of both fixed and variable costs may be useful: a fixed cost is one that is not dependent upon production, which in this case is the number of pheasants shot. The best example is labour. Once you have committed to a full-time keeper you will pay more or less the same salary for the release of 5,000 poults as 7,000. Feed, on the other hand, is a variable cost – release fewer poults and you spend less on food, and less on poults.
Accurate guns are very important for any shoot hoping to make a profit.
On any shoot the single largest fixed cost is likely to be labour. Gamekeepers, though hardly earning a banker’s bonus, are still expensive. The responsibilities of gamekeepers are as widely varied as their remuneration. For the purpose of this example, I will put the salary of our single-handed keeper at £20,000. This includes his employer’s pension contribution and a small provision for help when going to wood.
This, of course, is only the start of the associated gamekeeper costs, because we then move on to accommodation, which is once again widely variable. There is a huge north/south divide but bearing in mind some of the truly exceptional locations, let us say £900 a month.
Add to this the cost of certain utilities and other associated benefits (telephone, keeper’s suit, dog allowance, heating allowance) and fairly soon it becomes apparent that, with employer contributions, our keeper is costing between £30,000 and £50,000 per annum. For the purpose of this article let us call it £40,000.
Our keeper is going to need transport, and there is the beaters’ wagon, a game cart and in certain cases picking-up vehicles will also be required. Diesel and vehicle repairs are significant in any shoot budget, along with a depreciation figure for all the transportation.
What this means is that today’s gamekeeper is able to cover a greater acreage and have far more released game under his charge. The shoot saves on labour, but has extra costs that are at times quite eye-watering.
Let us assume that we start with the following:
Keeper’s vehicle: £21,000 + vat
ATV: £7,000 + vat
Second-hand tractor: £15,000
Beaters’ trailer: £7,000 + vat
Game cart: £2,000 + vat
When it comes to depreciation costs, many businesses will use a reducing balance that essentially takes off 25 per cent of the value of assets each year.
To keep the maths easy I will simply write it off over a 10-year period. Applying this to our depreciation figure gives a simple 10 per cent a year. With a total capital outlay of £52,000 on transport, our annual depreciation figure would be £5,200.
There are several factors that influence a shoot’s value such as the percentage covered by and the quality of woodland. In an ideal world the smaller ‘pen’ woods would be low lying beneath the higher ‘drive’ woods. Sympathetic agriculture is another factor, such as light soil (for partridges), abundant cover crops and well-managed hedgerows. Minimal public access and disturbance adds value – if your shoot is open to visitors with their 2.4 children and a dog, then your results will be affected. Pancake-flat land cannot be expected to cater for today’s high-bird seekers, whereas undulating terrain or valleys carved through chalk will produce good quality birds whatever the weather.
There are some stunning shoots in Wales, Scotland, northern England and of course the West Country that show really high birds, if that is your thing. The problem they face is one of proximity to the potential market. A high bird shoot on the Sussex Downs, one hour from London, Gatwick and Heathrow and nestled in the commuter belt, is always going to demand a higher rental than somewhere equally as stunning, but a six-hour drive from any potential customer.
Good shoots in the Home Counties are enjoying even greater demand in this economy. They offer a short drive, no overnight accommodation and only one day away from the office – all very attractive qualities at the moment. Shoot reputation is always a value-added bonus. A well-known estate or famous owner will increase the value, even if the quality of the birds does not match the reputation.
The management of the day is all-important, from the moment the guns arrive to their time of departure. If the lie of the land is such that your shoot is unlikely to be remembered for its stunning, soaring birds, there is nothing to stop it being remembered for faultless organisation.
So what rental figure should we apply to our 2,000 acres? Let us assume it is a reasonable shoot with some good and some not-so-good drives, 500 acres of woodland, well situated and with little public access. Located in southern England, within easy reach of London and the Home Counties, it boasts a good shoot room, well-managed woods and roads, plus reasonably sympathetic farming. One would expect to pay perhaps nine pounds per acre, though there may well be wide variations in this charge. But we need a figure, so let us say £18,000 a year for rent.
There are other fixed costs such as repairs, release pens, tools, dog kennels and housing. For the sake of expediency let us attribute a figure of £4,000 a year.
To summarise, we have total fixed costs of:
Vehicle depreciation: £5,200
Shoot rental: £18,000
Repair and renewal: £4,000
Total fixed costs: £67,200
You may rear your own from your own eggs, buy in and rear day-olds, or simply buy in poults, but here we will budget for 7,000 poults at £3.50 each, so £24,500 in total.
The past eight years have witnessed great changes in the cost of feed wheat, from £70/ton in 2003 to the dizzy heights of £200/ton plus in 2011. Amounts of feed used will vary greatly, not just from shoot to shoot, but from one year to the next on the same shoot. Mild winters with an abundance of natural food will obviously help. Large populations of deer, squirrels, rats and pigeons will not.
We require a budget figure, so what better than the current on-farm price of £167/ton? For our 7,000 birds, let us say we require 15 tons of pellets and 55 tons of wheat. Do not go jumping up and down because your keeper uses more (or less) than this: each method, area and year is very different from the next. So I will allocate £6,000 for pellets and £9,000 for wheat, so £15,000 in total for feed.
With land rental for cover crops lying anywhere between £200-£500 per acre, let us have 12 acres at £300. If you add another £250 per acre for establishing a crop, we end up with associated cover crop costs of £6,600.
Let us say that out shoot has 12 driven days, beaters are paid £30 and pickers-up £40. For budget purposes our gamekeeper will manage with £800 a day for shoot labour. A figure to cover breakfast, lunch and drinks is required: I will allocate a modest £300 per day. So £1,100 a day is allocated for shoot-day expenses – £13,200 in total for the season. The end-of-season beaters’ party must also be paid for; we will therefore round the figure up to a rather impressive £14,000.
Heavy off-road work takes its toll on vehicles and uses a great amount of fuel. With road tax, vehicle insurance, MoT certificates, fuel and repair we will have an overall cost of £5,000.
Other associated running costs
In addition to the obvious costs, there are numerous other expenses that make a significant difference and I have included them in the list below.
The initial outlay, running costs and depreciation of the vehicles needed to run a shoot all add up to a significant sum.
Cover crops: £6,600
Shoot-day expenses: £14,000
Vehicle running expenses: £5,000
Water rates/meter: £800
Vet and medicine: £1,500
Accountant, stationery, secretary etc: £3,000
Property maintenance, reps, renewals: £3,000
Sundry costs (including crop damage): £2,000
Total variable costs: £76,600
Total costs (fixed plus variable): £144,000 (rounded-up)
A broken model!
If we divide our total cost figure of £144,000 by 7,000, the cost per bird released works out at just over £20. But now comes the interesting part, how much does each bird shot cost? This naturally depends upon how many you shoot during the season. A 40 per cent return of birds released (2,800 head) will cost a staggering £51 plus VAT per bird (so £60) and this for a return that many, if not the majority of shoots, are unlikely to achieve.
A more realistic 35 per cent return of 2,450 head will cost £58 plus VAT per bird (so £70). Lowering the returns even further does not bear talking about. Clearly 7,000 poults for a keepered shoot is not working in our model. So keeping the maths simple, let us double the number of poults. Our fixed costs will remain largely unchanged and if we shoot larger bags then our shoot day costs will not rise proportionally. However there are other increases that I have taken into account in the table below.
The costs for 14,000 pheasants released
Labour (slight increase): £44,000
Vehicle depreciation: £5,200
Shoot rental: £18,000
Repair and renewal (increase): £6,000
Cover crops: £8,000
Shoot-day expenses (18 days): £19,000
Vehicle running costs: £6,000
Vet and med (more than doubled): £4,000
Accountant/office costs: £3,000
Property repairs/renewals: £1,000
Sundry costs (including crop damage): £4,000
Total costs: £209,000
Each bird released will now cost a more modest £15. So a 40 per cent return will now cost us £37 plus VAT per bird shot. This, of course, is still not a viable business and with the more likely return being close to 35 per cent, our cost per bird will be in excess of £40 plus VAT. Were we to look at the returns of a high bird shoot, which lie closer to 30 per cent, the expected break-even cost per bird shot will be closer to £50. With the addition of VAT we would have to charge nearly £60 per bird – just to break even!
Some home truths
As a non-high bird shoot, our example is only able to command a price of between £35 and £37 plus VAT per bird. So it is a loss maker!
So much depends upon the percentage returns and the size of the day. The difference between 32 per cent and 40 per cent in our model is a staggering £41,000. This equates to the 32 per cent shoot having to charge an extra £9 per bird just to match the revenue of a 40 per cent return shoot.
Forty years ago it was not uncommon to return well in excess of 60 per cent of birds shot to release, but there were reasons for such a high return. Firstly the bag was augmented by wild birds, which made up a considerable part of most shoots. Secondly most guns could shoot – they knew the effective killing range of a shotgun, were taught to take birds in front and were there to kill game. The fetish for a constant stream of excessively high birds had not raised its ugly head and 40 yards was the maximum distance that most guns would dream of shooting.
Many of you reading this will be successful businessmen, captains of industry, bankers even. You must be wondering why on earth any estate would dream of such a loss-making venture and I am sure that some land and shoot owners ask the same question from time to time?
Unseen benefits and costs
There are other benefits of a full-time keeper such as added security, pest and predator control, an extra and willing pair of hands in an emergency and continuing the traditions of the countryside. A good keeper will help to ensure you have a dawn chorus, nesting skylarks, lapwings and so many other creatures that benefit from reducing a predator population.
I would imagine that the pleasure of inviting your own friends and family to hunt your own game on your own shoot is immeasurable. I relish the joy of being part of it and the wonderful traditions that go hand in hand with it. The shoot also provides employment for so many in an often struggling rural environment, and the shoot owners are very aware of this.
However, agricultural practices may well be influenced. Forestry operations have to be halted in game shooting coverts, access restricted, rides and paths churned up and unsightly pens and feeders located everywhere. Game shooting is not all good news for the land owner.
Shoot day catering is just one of many costs that must be budgeted.
A privilege that deserves more respect
So when you recoil in agony at your next game shooting invoice, do not for one moment presume that the shoot owner is ordering a new Bentley on the strength of it. Furthermore, remember that much of the cost may well be down to you or your fellow guns’ inability to kill cleanly.
Remember above all that you are not just paying for the birds that you shoot, but the birds that never grace the game larder. A 60 per cent return in our 14,000 bird model would give us a break-even figure of only £25.50 per bird, which compares with the 40 per cent return of £36.50. The person pegged next to you that insists on game shooting at birds they are not capable of killing is costing you all money.
Whatever you spend on your game shooting, remember it is not a game, nor really a sport, indeed it is difficult to classify this spin-off from our most ancient of activities.
Perhaps it is best described as a privilege. Whether you are roost-shooting pigeons, on the grouse moor, ferreting rabbits or taking woodland pheasants – it is a privilege. Privileges are often expensive and always deserving of respect and responsibility. If we had more of the latter, you may find the expense somewhat diminished!