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Are game fairs still worth it?

In the age of ubiquitous internet retail, what magic does the summer game fair still hold for those of a rural inclination, asks Felix Petit

Scottish Game Fair

In a sense, what’s the point? Why go to a game fair? Why go to considerable effort to be hot and tired and end up spending more on the latest carbon fibre fishing reel than you spent on your car? You can get nearly everything from infrared scopes to wood-fired hot tubs at a better price online or elsewhere, but there’s more to it. The Scottish Game Fair in 2022 attracted over 32,000 people so this is no village fete; something draws them in. It might seem a world away from Glastonbury, but surely there is something similar; a sense of familiarity, intimacy and that intangible sense of togetherness?

It’s not about consumerism or nostalgia, although these are certainly factors. Whether you are an urbanite with rural tendencies or a professional stalker; like Cure Salée, the yearly Saharan ‘Festival of the Nomads’, this is a chance for a short time to plug in and feel connected to a normally dispersed but passionate community. To see and be seen, to reconnect with old friends, to share stories and news with new ones.

Allan Farquharson, a keeper I met from the west coast, said coming to the Game Fair helped him feel “part of a way of life”. Cultural touchstones I was selling subscriptions from the Scottish Field tent at this year’s GWCT Scottish Game Fair and it gave me cause to reflect. Game fairs have been a part of my life since childhood, and whether it was at Moy on a day away from a week’s fishing or down south at Blenheim or Ragley for the CLA, it was always memorable and laden with rural cultural touchstones, from casting competitions to horn blowing. Even if we didn’t have far to go from Galloway, it was always an early start. That age-old scene at Scone Palace of queues of cars backed up down the road towards Perth became both tedious and familiar. Then you arrive and get hastened towards an indeterminate parking space by uncoordinated marshals in the shadow of some stately pile.

man with pony

Game fairs are a chance for the lesser-known areas of fieldsports to showcase just what they do

On a beautiful summer’s day, men wear full gaiters, smocks and caps, dressed like they intend to invade Finland in winter. Wandering keepers can be spotted, dressed head to toe in tweed with sideburns thicker than their game crops, and so can well-to-do women wearing loden woollen capes and Tyrolean hats adorned with pheasant feathers and spent ammunition.

Feeling brave mid-morning, I sometimes plump for a pint of homemade scrumpy that turns out to be 11%, the sort of stuff that would melt the shell off a snail. And then I stagger on to go and see a display about ferrets or listen, woozily, to a rare terrier breed enthusiast.

The birds of prey displays are a must. Errant owls sensing freedom that won’t return to their masters. The anxious handlers running out of owl-based patter as they brandish a defrosted chick on their gauntlet in a vain attempt to lure the disobedient avian. Next displays of collies rounding up Indian runner ducks all adding to the theatre of the day.

At a game fair, it becomes perfectly normal to approach a stranger and ask if their dog is a curlycoated Armenian otterhound and enquire as to whether they got it from Francis Brookes in the Dales.

Boy with owl

A game fair is fun for all the family, with plenty of activities for the kids to get stuck into

As a child I would desperately try to convince my parents that I really did need a crossbow and that I would be so careful with it, and if not a crossbow, then surely a catapult or a Bowie knife?

It’s time to investigate the food tent. Doing a lap, tasting every independent Cumbrian Chorizo manufacturer’s produce and warmly accepting all the Caledonian birch and bog myrtle flavoured gins proffered by eager craft distillers. Leaving 45 minutes later with a belly of free samples and only having bought a small bottle of hot sauce called something like “fiery bastard”and an artisan scotch egg that somehow cost more than its weight in saffron.

On Gunmaker’s Row, well-dressed middle-aged men look longingly at earth-shatteringly beautiful Holland & Hollands, wondering how their wife would feel about remortgaging their house or taking their children out of boarding school in order to finance the purchase of one of these wonderful guns.

Shopping for tweed

It might be a beautiful summer’s day, but a new tweed jacket is always a temptation

Emu and alligator

Time for substantial sustenance, and eschewing the traditional fair one plumps for a £22 emu burger with alligator tapenade and a rhubarb jus from a company with a name like Screaming Peacock yet still lathers it in ketchup.

Eventually it’s time to leave, and you try to work out why you purchased yet another industrial meat smoker capable of hanging an entire narwhal in, when the one you bought three years ago is still in its packaging in the shed.

Exhausted and laden with bags, families stagger away, traipsing through row after row of cars as trying to find theirs feels like trying to discover the source of the Nile. On the journey home, all are tired but feel like they were part of something bigger than themselves.