It can seem impossible to get permission to shoot over a farm but sometimes you just need to ask the right things, says Simon Garnham
Persuading a landowner to allow you access to their valuable business with a firearm can make decoying wary woodies or achieving blind retrieves over water look like child’s play. In 1987 I was bitten by the music bug. I bought an album by The Housemartins — a good name for a band, I thought, and the music was OK too.
One of the tracks on the album was called “Me and the Farmer” and the final verse ran: “All things bright and beautiful, all creatures great and small. All we’ve got is London Zoo ’cos farmer owns them all.” The chorus ran: “Won’t he let you? Probably no. Why does he treat you so? I just don’t know.”
I’ve found myself humming those words on a number of occasions over the years. It’s my consolation song when refused permission to shoot somewhere — something that has occurred all too frequently in the 33 intervening years and occasionally still does. Farmers can be tricky.
Lessons about getting a shooting permission
Fortunately, in the course of these knock-backs, I’ve also picked up some great opportunities and learned some lessons along the way about getting a shooting permission. I’m also extremely blessed to have a small farm of my own with some good shooting that I guard jealously — but not exclusively. For those setting out on the long and winding road to shooting nirvana, I offer a few observations gained from hard experience — or tips I’ve pinched from others in the know.
I suggest that the motto of the Special Air Service applies just as readily in pursuit of shooting as to special forces operations: Who Dares Wins. If you never ask, you’ll never know. While I’m on the theme of mottos, “time in reconnaissance is seldom wasted” holds more true than ever. If the winter barley is being ravaged by skein upon skein of geese or the rape is being hammered by pigeon you may be the answer to prayer for a food producer.
Once you’ve found somewhere with a pest problem, you’ll need to do a bit of detective work to discover who owns it. If you’re really serious it is possible to search the land registry, but it’s simpler to ask around. Farm workshops are a good bet.
I tend to get out early and try to arrive at a farm at 7am. Friends of mine in arable farming generally follow a similar routine. They meet at the farm office at 7am to distribute jobs for the day. Some office work — telephone calls for instance — will follow from home or the farm office between 7.30am and 9.30am, then it’s back out on to the land. A caller will generally be better received during this early part of the day, especially if you acknowledge clearly that the farmer is busy and you don’t want to delay them.
Next, be very specific and respectful in what you’re asking: “I notice that the field nearest to your reservoir has recently had spring cereals drilled and there are a lot of corvids on there eating the seed. Yesterday there were probably 100 on there at 10am. I wondered if I could keep them off for you for an hour or perhaps more today or at a time which is convenient to you, please?”
Go alone and don’t take a dog to your initial meeting about a shooting permission; you can negotiate for that later. Listen carefully to the farmer’s reply. It may be that the answer is no on this occasion. He or she might have someone who is their first-choice pest controller. Respect that. At this point a card does no harm. While it may seem a little flashy to leave a business card, it also speaks of a professional attitude. Equally importantly, it means the farmer has your contact details.
You can include any other pest control service you offer, such as rifle shooting or ferreting. Other paperwork that should be ready to hand will be your BASC membership and your shotgun certificate, which some farmers may expect to be able to check before they give you a shooting permission.
Charlie Hutley, who farms a mixed arable operation, says: “It’s all about trust. There’s no way anyone’s coming on to my land unless I know they’re completely safe. The lads who shoot over ours have been shooting here for years. They’ve proved to me or my father that they can be trusted. The only exception is if I meet someone and we get on really well.
“I’ve recently let a lad have a crack at pigeon because he’s obviously a good bloke. Plus he’s handy with engines. But he’d have to ask every time. I need to know exactly who’s where and when. It’s for their safety too,” he points out.
Getting into the shooting community — be it through driven days or in clubs — can be an excellent foot in the door. Many wildfowling clubs, as well as offering access to the marsh, also have rough shooting opportunities and for a — sometimes very modest — membership fee you can access club woods for roosting or informal walk one, stand one driven days. Once you have become a member, over time you may also be able to work out who would value a shooting companion.
“Holding a lamp for an old boy who wants help with a troublesome fox can be a good way in,” advises Rob King, who shoots all around the country. It also helps if you can “get a reputation for being excellent at what you do”, offers George Leeks, a friend with permissions across East Anglia. “Driving back through a farmyard with a truck full of dead pigeon will not go unnoticed. You’ll be remembered and word will quickly get round that you’re a useful person to know.”
Pete Thompson, who owns and manages a significant acreage of mixed greens, agrees. “The only people I let get anywhere near our land have to be completely trustworthy. I need to know they’re not going to antagonise our neighbours by leaving injured pigeon unpicked or by shooting too near to footpaths or gardens. It helps if they buy me a pint occasionally too. I’d advise making your little black book do some work. Get to know people. Be friendly. And definitely buy that pint.”
Alcohol is something of a theme when I ask other friends. Craig, who farms not far from the Montrose basin, reveals: “I have a bloke who comes up every year. I remember the first time he knocked on my door.
“I was about to send him packing when he pulled a bottle of Grey Goose vodka from his game bag. I’m a sucker for Grey Goose. He’d found out from a neighbour that I was a bit partial. I let him have an evening flight. Now he comes back every year and we’ve become good mates.”
Other farmers can be cheaper to win around for a shooting permission; my neighbour John is more than happy with an oven-ready rabbit now and then.
If you get the nod, pay close attention to the rules. One of my permissions will always give a great list of dos and do nots, even though I’ve shot on his land since I was 13 and can recite them backwards. But if he says, “Don’t park near the Old Rectory,” or “Stay off the headlands on Garden Field,” then I make sure I do.
Always leave the land at least as good as you found it. Tyre ruts, spent cartridge cases and butchered bushes you’ve cut into for a hide are sure-fire ways to ensure you won’t get permission again.
I am very careful never to over-extend my welcome, unlike a neighbour who once asked if he could “have a go at the squirrels and crows in West Grove”. Anyone who wants to keep down squirrels and crows is all right by me and I knew the chap to be a safe Shot.
What I wasn’t expecting was to be told several weeks later that he and a friend had had a great afternoon in the wood. His friend had been chuffed to shoot his first woodcock and they’d picked up a brace of pheasants to boot. That’s the last time I’ll be giving him the nod.
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In some areas it’s important to make clear you’re not in it for commercial gain. Goose guides, for example, may not always be popular because their guests will be unknown quantities. And in other areas, shooting can be so hard to come by that cold cash will be expected. It can be a cut-throat world achieving permissions and I’d always advise maintaining your integrity.
Simply paying more than someone else seems against the spirit to me but times are tough in some areas of agriculture and what is a hobby for you may offer an income for a struggling farmer.
So in conclusion, getting permission to shoot on a new piece of land is a huge privilege. A little gratitude goes a long way and will lead to many happy years of hedgerow adventures. Good luck.