Bird flu in France, war in Ukraine and rising costs threaten disaster for the new season but shoots are resilient, insists George Browne

When the shooting world is rocked by some cataclysm, the first thing that happens is a mass of speculation online and outlandish headlines in the media. The 2022-23 season is following this formula; ever since the outbreak of war in Ukraine there has been discussion as to what impact the rise in the price of feed and fuel would have on the cost of shooting.

But a great challenge has been brewing on the other side of the English Channel. As the severity of the bird flu outbreak in France became clearer, game farms and shoots with rearing operations desperately tried to find out when, and if, their eggs and day-old chicks might arrive. The Game Shooting and Shoot Owner Census, carried out by GunsOnPegs and Lycetts, and supported by BASC, the GWCT and the Countryside Alliance, is the biggest annual survey of the shooting world. It offers insight into how the season ahead might pan out. The census, completed by thousands of game Shots and hundreds of shoots, was carried out at the end of June, so the picture may change. But it does give a snapshot of how things stand and the potential extent of the impact.

The mismatch between the demand for and supply of gamebird eggs, chicks and poults is one of the key factors this season. Even by June, 13% of shoots that completed the Shoot Owner Census reported they have already decided to cancel their entire season. That figure is expected to rise as more shoots learn they won’t be getting their birds. Some 74% of those who have taken this decision cited the lack of supply or cost of stocking their shoot as the reason.

walked up shooting

Walked-up days and duck flighting are likely to become more popular as rising costs start to bite

Poult prices

Meanwhile, those that are going ahead plan to shoot an average of one day fewer than they had originally planned, and 35% will be laying on smaller days than usual.

Shoots completing the census have reported paying an average of £5 for pheasant poults, something in the region of a 25% increase on last year’s prices. We at GunsOnPegs have heard reports of people paying as much as £19 for poults. Only 23% of shoots were able to confirm they would be releasing partridges this season, compared with 49% last season — or, to put it another way, there is a 50% reduction in the number of shoots releasing partridges this season. (Read more on looking after poults.)

Because of the scarcity of partridges and the fact that the prices quoted are often unconfirmed, the data is not statistically sound. But it appears that the average price of a partridge poult this season is in the region of £7.50.

Digby Taylor, shoot account manager at ShootHub, commented: “It has been eye-opening to see what some people are prepared to pay to ensure they’ll get their birds this year. The big question is whether we’ll see those prices stay high for next year or if some sort of normality will return.”

While only 11% of shoots are run for profit, around 40% hope to break even and a further 14% look to subsidise the owner’s shooting, so it won’t come as a huge surprise that shoots are handing these increases on to their paying Guns.

The Shoot Owner Census 2022 results give the first proper, data-based picture of the increased prices that Guns are likely to see this season. The range of prices that shoots report they will be charging Guns is hugely varied, ranging from as little as £28 per pheasant to as much as £90 per pheasant (plus VAT). Overall, we have seen the biggest year-on-year increase in the history of the census for both pheasants and partridges.

In the 2022-23 season, the average price of a pheasant on the game cart has jumped to £45.81, an £11 per bird (31%) increase versus 2021-22. Similarly the average price of a partridge on the game cart has risen to £44.33, a £7 per bird (19%) increase on 2021-22.

These sharp increases have resulted in 45% of Guns planning to shoot fewer days this coming season, while 22% plan to shoot smaller bags. And 46% have had their plans disrupted by bird flu, in the form of cancelled or postponed days. But 53% of those who have had days cancelled will not attempt to replace them.

Feeling the pinch

While the cost of living has dramatically increased, on average the amount that Guns plan to spend is down from £7,585 in 2021-22 to £6,877 for the season ahead. Whether this is because Guns are feeling the pinch or because they are unable to shoot the days that they would like to is impossible to say. What we can say is that only 60% of planned days have been confirmed by the shoots, so these figures may fall even further. The average number of days Guns plan to purchase has dropped to 7.5 from 8.5 last season.

Blair Balment, a keen game Shot from Aberdeenshire who shot 30 days last season, has reduced his calendar to around 20 for the season ahead. “We’ve had a couple of partridge days cancelled, which is a shame but to be expected in the climate we’re in,” he said. “I’ve had a trip to the Isle of Muck adjusted from mostly partridge to mostly wildfowl. It’s a pity, but I’m sure we’ll still have a great season.”

All of the above sounds pretty gloomy, but we should take heart in the resilience and never-say-die attitude shown by shoots of all stripes. In the past few seasons there has been a gradual but consistent rise in the popularity of simulated game shooting. In 2021’s Game Shooting Census, 28% of Shots reported having attended a simulated game day in the previous 12 months, while this time around that figure has risen to 31%.

We are also seeing this desire to ensure that Guns have their days come hell or high water manifest in other ways. Across GunsOnPegs we are seeing shoots replacing September partridge days with driven ducks, while lots of syndicates and private shoots will still be heading out — even if they haven’t got birds to release — for knockabout walks and family days.

Sam Burge, who runs a private family shoot on his farm in Hampshire, said: “In a normal year we would shoot two-thirds partridge and one-third pheasants.

“Not being able to get hold of partridges at a price we are comfortable paying, we’ve chosen to reduce the number of days by about half, bring our bag size down to 50 to 60 and shoot only pheasants. It is sad, because the partridges are what have made the shoot what it is.”

Livelihood

Chris Horne, managing director of GunsOnPegs, added: “Once again, the shooting season is going to be far from what we originally hoped. The number of shoots going ahead is of great concern, and our thoughts are with those whose livelihoods are greatly affected by this.

“I tend to take a step back in these situations and ask ‘Why do we go shooting?’. For the vast majority, it is to have fun with their friends, and although the number of times that will happen this year will drop a bit, we will all still find ways of getting out and enjoying each other’s company, he added.

“Whether that is on a sim day you might not have otherwise attended, or a rough day on a shoot that only has a handful of birds, we’ll keep our chins up and enjoy this season to the maximum possible extent.”