It’s a brave man who would try to running a shoot in the current climate and you must do the maths properly before you start, says Liam Bell
It has often been said that the only way to make a small fortune from shooting is to start with a big one. There are so many variables, and so many things that are forgotten and left out of a shoot’s budget, that it is easy to get it wrong. This is one of the reasons why so many smaller commercial shoots struggle to make a profit, and why so many self-employed gamekeepers only manage a year or two running a shoot of their own before going back to work for someone else, or changing careers completely.
That said, there are people who have and are making a good living from commercial shooting, and many more who run smaller syndicate shoots that break even or occasionally make a profit. The big boys, though, are far outweighed by smaller ones who get things right — medium-sized shoots whose financial forecasts are correct, who know the difference between turnover and profit, who know their clients and who are realistic about their potential returns. (Read eight steps for creating a successful shooting syndicate.)
Running a shoot
The shoot itself is the biggest consideration. Anyone wanting to make money from commercial shooting — regardless of scale — needs to think long and hard before taking one on. The same goes for landlords and the owners of sporting rights. The fact that you own the shoot, or the rights to shoot, doesn’t necessarily mean you will make money.
If a shoot is going to make money, or at least break even, it needs to be able to show quality birds — birds people will travel to shoot and will attract a premium — and not only run-of-the-mill pheasants and partridges and hope for the best.
If the shoot can show quality birds — and by quality I mean well presented and shootable, with some higher ones among them to test the more experienced Shots — it is a start. Too many people are so eager to start a shoot that they forget about clients and marketing and wrongly assume that shooting will sell regardless.
This may have been true in the past but, with a recession looming, inflation heading towards double figures, and people generally being more cautious and selective about how and where they spend their money, it would be a brave person who started a shoot from scratch or who took one on that someone else had given up.
Shot and paid for
The second consideration is the potential return on the number of birds released. A commercial shoot should budget on a 35% return. It is lower than the national average, which is currently around the 40% mark for pheasants and slightly lower for red-legged partridge, and it needs to be calculated against birds that are shot and paid for — not birds killed. Rough shooting and boundary day birds shot free of charge by helpers or family members don’t count. Nor do caught-up birds or those shot on the keeper’s days at the end of the season.
I would also add to the list the freebies some shoots feel obliged to add to the day “to keep the Guns happy”. If the Guns are paying by the bird, they should do exactly that. If they are paying by the day, the shoot should show enough birds for an average team of Guns to be able to get within 10% of their target bag. It is almost impossible to get it bang on, so either above or below is acceptable.
If the day has gone to plan, there is no need to add on any free birds. If there has been plenty of banging and they come in under the target bag, so be it. I went to a friend’s shoot with a team of Guns who had paid for a 150-bird day. And almost to a person they assumed they were going to be shooting closer to 175.
Quite why they expected a self-employed keeper to give them an extra £1,000 worth of shooting escaped me. But I am glad to say the day went well, the Guns shot well and he didn’t add anything.
Those extra birds soon add up and, while they would have been added to the shoot’s returns, they wouldn’t have brought in any revenue.
There is also the law of diminishing returns. A shoot with an average return of 35% to 40%, which releases 5,000 birds, will struggle to do the same if it releases twice the number, never mind three or four times the amount. The more you put down, the lower your returns will be. There are also stocking densities that fit within the Code of Good Shooting Practice’s recommendations.
Putting more birds down than is necessary will cause you problems. Compensation claims for crop damage from farmers, increased overheads and lower-than-expected returns are only three. Owners and tenants considering running a shoot commercially need to be realistic about the shoot’s holding ability when doing the maths. If a shoot won’t hold birds, it doesn’t matter how high they fly, how much you charge, or how impressed the Guns are in the early days. It isn’t going to make a profit.
Leases vary but, as with all things legal, the devil is in the detail. Some will be straightforward, others will contain unworkable and unreasonable clauses. They might be easy to ignore when you are keen to make a start, but they are one of the reasons sporting rights of some estates keep coming back on the market.
How much an estate or farm charges for a sporting lease will depend on the area. A UK average would be somewhere between £15 and £20 an acre, but there are well-known estates that are asking well above that. These high rents are cutting out the traditional syndicates and skewing the figures in favour of larger commercial operations, which have to shoot more days than perhaps they should simply to cover the rent. It’s a vicious circle.
Budgeting is where most people trip up. A full-time keeper will cost you £50,000. Not only in their wages, obviously, but if you add employer’s contributions, a house with a yard, kennels and outbuildings for storage and a workshop, a vehicle, dog and clothing allowances and some help with utility bills, you soon get there.
Pheasant poults are going to be more than £5 next year, partridge poults as high as £7. People are going to want to buy birds from UK game farms and because it costs more to produce an egg in the UK than it does in France prices are going to go up. If the price of eggs is up, the price of day-olds and poults will be up too. The game farms on the Continent are still going to be trading, and may be more competitive on price, but I’m not sure I would want to put my eggs in a French basket with the ongoing worries of export and avian influenza.
You could mitigate the rise in poult costs by producing and rearing your own, but the set-up costs are eye-wateringly high. And with little to no second-hand equipment on the market, it is going to take closer to 10 years than five to make it back.
Feed costs are at an all-time high, with wheat trading at £350 a tonne, and futures for autumn only a little lower. Feed is a major cost and not something you can skimp. Shoots should budget £1.50 to £2 a bird for pelleted feed and another £3 to £4 per bird for wheat, though a lot will depend on when they are shot.
Partridges have traditionally made a quicker return than pheasants because you can shoot them sooner and because they eat less, but the rise in the cost of partridge chicks and poults next year will make any difference negligible. Vet bills, medication and prescription costs will add on another few pence a bird in a good year, more in a bad one.
Game crop costs will depend on whether the shoot pays a ground rent as well as contracting costs, but are going to come in at a minimum of £180 per acre for the contracting, £50 an acre for the seed and another £150-plus an acre for pesticides, herbicides and artificial fertiliser.
Higher fuel costs
Fuel costs are hard to budget for and will depend on the shoot, but have never been higher. Beaters and pickers-up are going to set you back £500 to £600 a day, with catering costs pretty much the same. Add on another £1,000 for accountancy and insurance and your budget will be getting somewhere near.
The question of whether now is a good time to start a shoot is almost hypothetical, because there are no spare eggs, chicks nor poults available. But I would advise those who are thinking about it to remember that the number of shoots that have failed to break even, never mind make a profit, have always outnumbered the ones that do.
If you are thinking of starting and running a shoot of your own, I would hold fire and keep the money in the bank until things settle down.