Shooting sage Barney Stratton offers some words of wisdom on finding good shooting for you and your team.
We all know what we want in our perfect day’s shooting. So when deciding to buy a day – for the first or umpteenth time – the agony of choice can be unbearable. We toss and turn over whether we have made the best choice to deliver the day of our dreams. After all, it’s not like there is only a limited choice of local shoots that have to be taken, warts and all. Nowadays everything is available and, thanks to the internet, agents and a plethora of well-travelled guns willing to share knowledge, there are many sources to help you find what you are looking for.
The first question must be just that: what are you looking for? Be clear what that perfect day consists of in your mind and then go looking for it. Very likely there will be a degree of compromise in the end, but don’t start with that compromise. Shooting is expensive and if you are raiding the family holiday/school fees/children’s wedding fund then you need to make sure it is going to deliver what you want.
When it comes to making the long list of options, go to as wide a group of contacts as is feasible. Many of the better shoots like to remain under the radar, certainly not advertising and often proclaiming to all and sundry that they never have vacancies, when quite often they do. To get into such a shoot requires luck, timing and introductions. Luck that a vacancy comes up, timing that you are enquiring when the owner is wondering if anyone will ever ask, and the introduction to give confidence that you will fit in with the owner’s social perceptions. It is an enjoyable process to get your shooting friends to chat about their favourite shoots and many welcome the opportunity to contact the owner to see if they have anything available for a “good friend”.
Agents are an important cog in this process. It has at times been fashionable to decry agents for pushing shoots that have less savoury reputations, but even if that were once the case, in my experience it certainly isn’t now. I use agents widely and find they have no interest in sending clients to shoots that are not right for them, and their knowledge of the shoots they represent is as good as it should be. Of course they make the shoot more expensive because they need to earn their crust. But regard the fee as an insurance policy, as they will be on hand to offer wise advice from the first enquiry through all the booking and administrative procedures and the day itself.
Then there is the internet, ranging from online agents to individual shoots’ websites (take a look at our marketplace). Here there will be vastly more information available than our two options above, but without the filters that come from personal experience. Naturally there will be references but these will be from people whose shooting judgement you do not know, so their idea of a good day’s shooting may not be the same as yours. A bad reference, however, needs little extra to justify it.
A quick mention of timing at this point. Most booking activity happens in January to April as teams reconfirm their days from the previous season and look to get in early on new shoots. Clearly this is a good time to be active but many shoots aren’t clear what is available until all their existing customers have responded. Come May, shoots that were convinced in February they were going to be fully booked find they have a space or two just at the time when the enquiries tail off, as May to July are quiet for bookings. This can be a good time for the canny gun to make enquiries: you may not necessarily get the dates you want but you might get in to the Dead Men’s Shoes Shoot. It never does any harm to do groundwork at this time of year. A few pertinent enquiries now may lead to something next year…
Factors of the ideal shoot
Having made a long list of possibilities, what factors narrow it down to the shoots that fit the ideal? Clearly price is important. As in everything in life you get what you pay for: expensive shoots are expensive for a reason, either the quality of the birds, general ambience or location, but above all because they can be – they are sought after. To pay £2-3 more on a 200-bird day is an extra £4-600 but in the context of a total bill of £8,000, if that delivers the perfect day then it’s worth it. At the other end of the scale, cheap shoots are cheap for a reason. There are new shoots that are good but unknown and have to price accordingly, and one may be a hidden gem, but there is a risk. In the middle ground, choosing on price alone is hard, but look at the attitude to extras. Overage is the classic, but other little things like charging for extra lunch places or providing shoot transport can be important.
Location matters. And not just topography. As a general rule, the further from the Home Counties or other large conurbations, the cheaper because for many guns a long journey isn’t practical or appealing. And it requires an overnight stay, which adds to the cost and complexity, but also the jollity. Given that many teams shoot for the companionship of their comrades, a get-together the night before extends the party time, often with negative consequences for the team’s well-being the next day. Before confirming the shoot, ensure there is a decent hostelry in close proximity that is in the price bracket, understands shoot parties, dogs, guns, etc. Given the symbiotic relationship nowadays between commercial shoots and pubs, it is unlikely a decent shoot doesn’t have an equally decent pub to recommend but it is worth checking.
High birds and tight shoots
While on the subject of location, we get to the thorny issue of topography in the nature of the height of the birds the chosen shoot will present. As a rule of thumb, the hillier areas of the country are further from the conurbations where most buyers of shooting live. And the rare high-bird shoots near large towns are likely to be much sought after and hence expensive. So the quest for top quality shooting at affordable rates would in most likelihood require a journey of some hours.
Top quality, however, doesn’t just mean high birds: it covers the whole feel of the day, and for the gun looking at a list of shoot names it is very hard to work out which will look after him best. All of us commercial shoot owners say: “We are a friendly shoot” (how can we not?), but differentiating the degrees of “friendly” requires more work. Start with recommendations from contacts who have shot there if possible and ask about things like attitude to picking-up. Have some experienced guns raised an eyebrow when told the final bag? Failing that, look at the extras policy, as a relaxed shoot is less likely to be concerned about overage or charging for extra lunch guests. If the contract seems tight then the shoot may well be, too.
Do your homework
The best way to properly assess this is to visit the shoot before the day. Whenever I have a booking from a stranger who has come from a recommendation, I implore them to come and look round in the summer. That gives us both the chance to get to know each other and chat about our likes and dislikes. Doing so means we can both feel comfortable that we will get what we want from the day. A tour of the shoot from the owner can be instructive on many levels, apart from understanding how the day might go. The potential client will pick up a lot about shoot management, the local area and history, the host’s family and farm, all of which ought to make the journey worthwhile on top of the due diligence on the shoot.
The market for shooting today is as “liquid” (in trader’s parlance) as it has ever been, as a gun can buy anything from a 500-brace grouse day to a 20-bird rough shoot with everything in between. The trick is deciding on what constitutes your perfect day and analysing all the boxes that need to be ticked to achieve it, then being prepared to use all the resources available to narrow down the choices. My lasting advice is that this is a personal and subjective choice. That choice can only be satisfied by finding a shoot host who understands your ideal and who really cares that they deliver it.