The coronavirus crisis means keepers and shoot captains have no idea whether the shooting season will be affected and, if so, to what extent
Shoots around the country have been wrestling with decisions about how many birds to put down, how many days to offer and whether to shoot at all. One gamekeeper told Shooting Times: “It is an enormous gamble. Potentially we are paying thousands of pounds to buy birds, then paying thousands more to feed them, then come the season we may have no one to shoot them.
“If that happens we have no income and tens of thousands of mouths to feed.”
The ability to attract customers was only one concern. Wheat prices have begun to rise rapidly as harvest forecasts remained very poor, coronavirus disrupted supply chains and the pound tumbled. Concerns were also raised about the ability of shoots to access supplies of birds from the Continent and the willingness of Guns from overseas to travel.
However, it was the wider economic damage caused by the virus that was the cause of most concern. Another gamekeeper, who asked not to be named, said: “My worry is whether people will have the money in their pocket to buy a day’s shooting when this is done. It’s a luxury purchase.”
Some shooters suggested that the game season would effectively be cancelled.
But Chris Horne of booking website Guns on Pegs was confident, saying: “There will be a season. The only scenario where the game shooting season would not take place is one where the lockdown lasts nine months and I cannot see that happening.”
He admitted that enquiries via the website were down on this time last year but added: “I’m not sure that tells us anything important as the country is in turmoil and quite understandably people’s minds are elsewhere at the moment.”
Game farmers expressed concern over the situation. Shoots would typically be placing their orders for the season ahead at this time of year. The Game Farmers’ Association said: “The day after the UK lockdown game shoots were thinking hard but calmly about the implications for the 2020-2021 season. Game farms had experienced some cancelled or reduced orders but most will carry on with rearing pheasants and partridges this year.
“To share the inevitable risks of doing so amid such uncertainty, most farms are asking for a 50% non-returnable deposit. Encouragingly, many shoots have supported this approach.”
The importance of deposits to shoots was emphasised by BASC. Chief executive Ian Bell said: “The financial outlay of hatching, rearing and buying in chicks and poults is typically offset by deposits paid by Guns booking their shooting for the season ahead. We would encourage people, where their circumstances permit, to go ahead and make bookings for the 2020-2021 shooting season.”
Most deerstalking operations have also been suspended. Forest Enterprise, Forestry and Land Scotland and Scottish Natural Heritage have all halted deer management. The British Deer Society advised its members that “recreational stalking, and its associated travel implications, are not essential and should therefore not take place at the current time. Professional stalkers should seek the advice of their employers, line managers or landowners.”
Pest shooters faced a dilemma, with a high proportion of cereals being sown in spring rather than winter this year and lambing in full swing. The lockdown comes at the point when farmers most need the support of shooters. BASC advised that pest control shooting “must only be undertaken where absolutely necessary and in line with the latest general Government advice on coronavirus”.
The outbreak of COVID-19 has sent game prices tumbling with many dealers no longer accepting venison. The shooting community has rallied to use its resources to help those in need. James Chiavarini, owner of London restaurant Il Portico, has launched his community immunity programme.
“I asked my family in Italy what I could do to help people,” said James. “Their advice was to prevent the health system being overloaded so I have teamed up with a nutritionist to help keep people’s immune systems in tip-top shape. We have been buying produce fresh from the market every morning and delivering it at cost price straight to people’s doors.
“One of the best foods for your immune system is venison. It is full of iron, rich in B12 and has loads of omega-3. So we have been making venison stew in the restaurant kitchen and getting that out to vulnerable people.”