A ‘perfect storm’ of Covid fallout, avian influenza and the war in Ukraine is going to hit shooting hard next season, warns Matt Cross
The Atlantic surface pressure chart is strangely fascinating. It’s produced by the Met Office to show isobars, depression and fronts. You can play a time-lapse of the charts over several days, watch the big winter storms spin their way across the Atlantic and try to guess from their trajectory where they will come ashore. If the jet stream pushes them to the north, the Hebrides will cop it; if they are further south, Cornwall and Devon will be slammed.
With the same ominous inexorability as when the tightly packed isobars hurtle across the sea, a big economic storm has been gathering. And its particular course looks set to hit shooting very hard indeed; there is no escaping the fact that the impact will be felt in the pocket of the individual Gun.
Dominic Boulton of the Game Farmers’ Association said: “It’s a perfect storm in many ways. Every cost associated with gamebird rearing has gone up significantly, including labour, food, gas and fuel — and they are still rising.”
If it were only the costs of poults that were rising, perhaps it would not ripple right down to the cost paid for a day’s shooting. Dominic explained: “Before events took a sudden turn in late February, most suppliers were planning price increases of 50p to 60p per poult.”
In a blog for the GWCT, Richard Leach of Keepers Choice raised the prospect of the £5 poult. However, Richard argued that “mitigation will come in the form of financial acumen and husbandry competence”, not hiked shooting prices.
However, this storm has many components and with those combined, it is hard to see how significant price rises can be avoided. Many of the shoot operators I spoke to would not be quoted, but they all agreed on one thing — shooting is going to cost more next winter.
The first thing that will squeeze your shooting is the lingering effect of COVID-19. The mechanism by which a pandemic has caused serious price increases is complex and involves a uniquely poisonous mixture of low interest rates, chaotic supply chains and pent-up demand. Hopefully, severe as it undoubtedly
is, it will be short-lived.
Keen Shot Jenny Wickman is among those feeling the pinch. “It is the same thing everyone is experiencing,” she said. “Petrol is ridiculous, food prices are shooting up and we have all seen what is happening to the cost of electricity and gas.”
The same inflation that affects personal and family budgets affects shoot budgets as well. Everything a shoot needs, from fence posts to kitting keepers out in boots, is rapidly getting more expensive. But while inflation affects many elements of the general economy, specific factors hit shooting particularly hard.
Covid is not the only disease that has disrupted the shooting supply chain. All winter, a record outbreak of avian influenza has torn through Britain and Europe and now, at the worst possible moment, an outbreak in southern France looks set to severely disrupt the supply of poults, eggs and chicks (see News p6).
While disease has hit the supply of birds, poor weather has caused a run of relatively poor UK harvests. This has pushed up domestic wheat and barley prices and a high price for imported wheat and maize did little to relieve the pressure. High demand and nervous markets pushed the oil and gas price up too, pulling fuel, fertiliser and energy costs with it. Shooting is grain, oil and gas intensive; hoppers are filled with wheat, delivered by diesel-powered buggies to feed poults that began their lives heated with bottled gas.
Aberdeenshire shoot operator Calvert McKibbin sees all these pressures combining. “Until last month there was an increase in poults of about 10% to 15%, an increase in fuel, an increase in fertiliser for game crops and a 10% to 15% increase in feed prices and general inflation on all inputs,” he said.
Then came what Calvert calls “Putin’s folly”. The Russian president’s desire to restore ‘Russian greatness’ unleashed hell on earth in Ukraine and sent commodity prices through the roof. Russia and Ukraine are huge wheat producers, with vast tonnages loaded on to ships at ports such as Odessa, on the Black Sea, and Mariupol, on the Sea of Azov, names that have become horribly familiar as they are pounded by Russian artillery.
In uncharacteristically dramatic language, an editorial in The Economist said: “Not many seeds will be planted in Ukraine’s blood-soaked fields this spring.” The impact has caused the steepest rises in wheat prices since the Ottoman Empire blockaded the Dardanelles in 1914.
Meanwhile, it seems like it is only a matter of time before Russia’s vast oil and gas exports are turned off, either because the West will not buy or because Putin will not sell. Red diesel, the fuel that keeps tractor wheels turning, rose by 65% in 10 days, and ammonium nitrate fertiliser — which is made with huge amounts of natural gas — hit £1,000 per tonne; this time last year it was around £345 per tonne.
Fertiliser and red diesel prices matter to shooting, not only because they are needed to grow game crops and fuel quad bikes, but also because they are a major element of the cost of wheat. That wheat price is the serious concern for Calvert. “Wheat has gone over £300 per tonne in the past week,” he said. “This alone will put £2.50 to £3 on to the price of a bird.”
But it is not wheat alone — it is almost every cost a shoot faces that has risen steeply. A rise in the cost of shooting is now all but inevitable; it will be measured in pounds per bird — not in pennies — and all those pounds will add up.
People like Jenny are facing a dilemma as they consider making next season’s bookings. “Shooting is a luxury,” she said. “I would miss it horribly, but I could get by without it and if it costs more and I have less, that might have to be the choice I make.”
The danger is that a lot of people will have to make the same choice and, faced with crippling bills and falling demand, shoots begin to fail. But equally, the power to keep shoots going and to help them ride out this storm lies with individual shooters.
All storms pass; it is simply a matter of waiting and hoping that in the meantime the things you have built are not wrecked. This storm will pass too. Economists, who famously never agree on anything, are almost unanimous that the Covid-driven inflation surge will pass.
Countries such as Saudi Arabia are being squeezed to produce more oil, European countries are frantically trying to reduce their need for gas and central banks are poring over spreadsheets as they work out how to manipulate the money supply to control the crisis.
A close livestock farmer friend of mine is seriously considering a return to the practices of his grandfather, who grew his own cereals on what is now grassland to feed his cattle. The laws of supply and demand are inexorable — if prices for something are high, people will find ways to supply it.
Prices will rise next season, that is all but certain, but the question of whether shoots survive this crisis is really in your hands — or perhaps your gun cabinet. If Guns continue to take days and pay their syndicate subscriptions, shoots will ride it out — if they don’t, they won’t.