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Shoots press ahead despite uncertainty over COVID-19

While some shoots have closed their doors for the season, most are planning to offer days, though a large number are scaling things back

Suffolk shoot on an autumn day

The likely effect of COVID-19 on shooting in the UK is becoming clearer as the initial panic starts to subside and more shoots decide how they will approach the coming season.

The majority of shoot operators who spoke to Shooting Times said they intended to go ahead with shooting this winter. A significant number, however, said they intended to cut back or not to make planned expansions this year and some have decided to end operations, at least for the next season.

A number of larger commercial shoots we contacted had yet to make a decision on how many days they would offer in the 2020-2021 season.

However, Bettws Hall, one of the country’s leading shooting operators, said: “The season here is well under way, with eggs in the incubators, and the first chicks have been hatched this week. We are fully committed to carry on as normal and making the coming season one to remember, in a good way.”

70% of British Game Alliance shoot members plan to shoot next season

The British Game Alliance (BGA) surveyed its members in order to share an early indication of what shoots are planning to do this season, beginning as early as August 12th. To date, 332 members have responded with 70% planning to shoot next season,  25% of those shooting running a full shooting calendar, with the other 75% running a reduced operation, with an average drop of 35% in numbers of birds being released. When looking at grouse moors, 90% plan to go ahead with many expecting/planning to push back the start of their season. Like with the larger commercial shoots, the grouse moors rely on overseas clients who are proving reluctant to commit to deposits and their days.

Looking at shoot size, 83% of the BGA’s £1,000 shoot membership (annual bag size of 10K+) and 70% of the £500 shoot membership (annual bag size of 3K – 10K) are shooting. As a total view of the surveyed membership, a further 18% are currently unsure and 12% have taken steps to cancel this season. The larger commercial shoots have taken a big hit in days booked, the medium sized commercial shoots, seem to be the largest category stopping shooting. However, it seems private and syndicated shoots are pushing ahead.

Cambridgeshire gamekeepers

Shooting Times spoke to brothers Ed and Neal Coles, both gamekeepers in Cambridgeshire. Ed said: “My shoot is going ahead; however, I had planned on going full-time this year, running another shoot alongside my own. I was offered it four or five weeks ago, managed to price it and get most of the syndicate in place, but over the past fortnight all but two syndicate members have pulled out, so I’ve had to shelve it till next season.”

Neal, however, faces a much more difficult situation. He said: “My shoot has stopped due to the coronavirus. The shoot operates on deposits from the Guns and, due to the uncertainty of the next couple of months, a few weren’t willing to commit. We had to order our poults from the game farm 
by the middle of April and the cost, at more than £34,000 plus the feed, wasn’t viable in the shoot captain’s mind.”

Worrying situation

This has left Neal jobless, he explained: “I do my keepering on a part-time basis; the rest of the time I drive a taxi doing airport runs, which obviously has stalled due to the virus. My wife is a horse-riding instructor whose work has also tailed off during the crisis, so together we don’t have enough money to cover the bills. It’s a very worrying situation.”

He is also concerned about the conservation impact of the shoot closing down.

“I had increased the number 
of grey partridges by 20 pairs, 
and alas, without a keeper I fear the magpies will have a field day,” said Neal, who is currently looking for work at local supermarkets.

In the first piece of solid good news for shoot operators, wheat prices, which peaked on 23 March, began to fall rapidly as the pound recovered value, making imports cheaper, and panic buying eased. An industry expert told Shooting Times that he expected wheat prices to quickly return to their pre-COVID-19 levels.

The general economic slowdown also pushed fuel prices down, reducing costs to shoots yet further, and in an effort to support the economy, the Bank of England cut the base rate of interest, reducing the cost of borrowing.

The classification of transport workers as “essential” should also mean that lorries are able to bring birds from game farms on the Continent this summer.

Despite this, the question of demand for shooting remains. Many Guns are waiting to see how long the lockdown and social distancing measures will last in order to assess their likely affect on income. However, others have booked.

Reader, game Shot and wildfowler Gary Bruce told us: “My roving syndicate has booked up its shooting for the season ahead. There are a lot of shoots that have treated us well in the past and it’s time we stood by them.”