Listen in on any gathering of gameshooters and the likelihood is that it won’t take long for the conversation to change to the subject of how shooting is coping with the challenges of the recession. There are those who see things as business as usual, others foretell doom and gloom, but in many cases such conversations only look at one part of the complex business model that modern gameshooting has become. However, earlier this season at the Crichel estate, in Dorset, shoot manager Derek Woods brought together a team of industry insiders to examine the current state of affairs and to look forward to try to predict what next year may bring.

All work and no play makes for a very long meeting, so before getting down to the more serious business the guests were treated to a mixed partridge and pheasant day. The early pheasants were flying like late-season veterans despite the bright sun; the perfect preparation for the meeting to follow.

The first topic raised by Dan Reynolds, of sporting agency Roxtons, was the fall in the number of birds being released: “My gut feeling is that it could be a 25 or 30 per cent reduction in birds going to wood. The corporate market has fallen away as expected, though syndicates and family shoots have in the main remained static.”

Simon Evans, of Marsdens Game Feeds, agreed with the estimate, adding: “Many shoots have been more focused on getting things done early on in the year. Whether it’s been selling days or ordering poults, it seems that they have been aware that things have been changing and have planned accordingly.”

Those that haven’t planned ahead have found themselves caught out, as gamefarmer Rob Burleigh explained: “This year we have only bred poults to order, consequently we have had no spare birds. Historically, there was often a glut of birds available in August, catering for those hoping to buy at the last minute in the hope of getting cheaper poults. Those shoots have found it very difficult to find birds this year and they will have learned to order early next year.”

Such gluts have in the past driven down the cost per bird as gamefarmers vied to clear their remaining stock, so this is one aspect of the industry where profitability per bird has been maintained even though volumes may have fallen. However, those volumes equate to the profitability of shoots and there seems little doubt that commercial shoots are having to tighten their belts this year.

Some keepers have lost their jobs through the process of cost cutting as Josh Theobald, a Gloucestershire headkeeper, explained: “Keepers are being held more accountable than ever before. The role has changed; balancing a budget and thinking more in business terms are skills that keepers now need to be ready to embrace. Many of those who haven’t been able to adapt have had to leave the industry, and there will probably be more job losses at the end of this season.” Of course it isn’t just the salary that causes estates to reduce their staff, tied cottages represent lucrative assets that in tough times look like tempting injections of capital if sold.

Positive news

Amid the doom and gloom there are positives. While commercial shooting is struggling, it seems that syndicate and family shoots are in comparatively rude health. Indeed it appears that the number of people involved in actually pulling the trigger is unlikely to fall markedly, many instead opting to take fewer or smaller days rather than stop shooting altogether.

Chris Tory, of The Dorset Game Larder, pointed out: “The reduction in corporate bookings has been noticed by all of us. We have seen dramatic fall in the number of birds coming in from some commercial shoot though it seems that many of those individuals that would have shot on corporate days are instead buying the days for themselves, albeit frequently on a smaller scale.”

A smaller day is less profitable from a commercial point of view, but it requires the same number of beaters whether it is a 100-bird or 250-bird day. The cost to the shoot per bird may be higher, but the pool of casual labour needed to keep the day running is still in demand. This means that the useful additional source of income for many in the countryside has been largely unaffected. Another piece of welcome news is that while the strong euro may have made it expensive for us to travel abroad, it has made British shooting look like exceptional value to those coming across from Continental Europe.

Derek Woods, of Pearce Seeds Sporting Services (the main sponsor of the day), has a clear theory on what it takes for shoots to survive: “The feedback we have had from Guns is that they are being far more selective about where they spend their money. Those shoots that have invested in presenting quality birds are those best equipped to ride out the storm.”

The Crichel shoot is fortunate to have no unsold days remaining and that was due to a deliberate policy. “We made the decision early on to reduce our exposure to the risks ahead,” Derek continued. “We made it clear to our Gun teams that we needed to confirm days by the end of April and ordered our poults accordingly. We actually ordered fewer partridges this year because we had two days unsold, so we made the decision to cancel them rather than risk ordering birds that we may or may not have been able to sell. As it was, we could have sold over, but in this market I think we made the right decision.”

As many predicted last year, early partridge days proved tougher to sell this season. Last year’s wet autumn made partridge shooting difficult, and the desire by many to reduce their shooting days has meant that pheasant days, which traditionally offer more sport for the money, have proved easier to sell.

Game eating on the up

As recently reported in Shooting Times, the consumption of game continues to increase year-on-year (News, 11 November) and this was echoed by Chris Tory: “Early-season partridges were very difficult to sell to the hospitality trade this year because of the warm weather, but recently the orders have flooded in; one local pub that ordered a total of 400 birds during the season last year is now selling close to 60 a week.” So that part of the industry looks, for the moment at least, to be weathering the recession.

Though bag sizes may have fallen this year, “which may not be a bad thing” according to Dan Reynolds, it looks as though the quality message is high on shooters’ priorities, with several of the cartridge manufacturers reporting more customers opting for premium game loads this season. It seems that though people may not be taking as many days, they are determined to get maximum enjoyment out of what shooting they do have.

Gamefarmer Colin Ridout suggested that even if the recession eases next year there may be fallout in the commercial shooting world for some time to come: “Some shoots have ordered far more poults than they could sell and are now having to try to sell days at reduced prices. This is all very well, but selling birds at a discount of £10 or more per bird will just annoy those others who have bought their sport at the going rate. It will also prove unsustainable when the bargain hunters come back next year expecting to get all their shooting at knock-down prices.”

“There may well be more pain ahead,” concluded Dan Reynolds. “Last season was very good, as much of the shooting had already been paid for before the recession started. This year we may have seen people committing to days before the financial situation really began to bite. We will only really have an idea about next season when the deposits start coming in next spring.”

The consensus is that to survive in the future, shoots must exercise cost control while delivering consistently high-quality birds. This is especially important for those in the commercial sector. Securing early deposits must be the way forward. The days of “don’t worry, we will sell the days one way or the other” look to be well and truly behind us.

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