Robin Scott investigates how to find affordable roughshooting and what it costs

Not so long ago a rap-a-tap-tap on a friendly farmer’s door was enough to secure your own walked-up roughshooting piece of heaven, free save for a brace or two of duck or partridge in lieu of rent — or possibly a bottle of Scotch, if he wasn’t a staunch methodist or Quaker. Woodpigeon? Well, of course, it was taken as read you would keep them off his cereal drillings in spring and his brassicas in winter without having to be asked twice.

It’s still possible — just — to find affordable roughshooting on land that isn’t keepered or leased to a syndicate. However, such opportunities more than ever now tend to go to friends of the family, relatives still on talking terms, people who work on the farm and trusted neighbours. I was going to say the village bobby too, but there aren’t many of those about these days. Anyway, count your blessings if you’re one of the lucky ones with shooting under your belt, because the chances of finding some through cold calling are now all but gone. Last time I found a reedy patch this way I discovered half-a-dozen other people wandering the same ground at a weekend, all chasing a handful of rabbits and a few woodies.

Sadly, it seems that if you want a slice of proper roughshooting action you now have to reach for the chequebook, or a bundle of banknotes. Yet I suppose it’s the way of things these days; farmers have long known that shooting over even the most marginal of land is sought after and has a value.

I am not sure when charging started for the privilege of shooting ground where bagging something, or anything at all, was a cause for celebration. Maybe it began around the same time as people started paying for goose shooting and pigeon decoying in the 1970s, when the emergence of a few professional guides and sporting agents finally opened farmers’ eyes to the money-making possibilities of their land.

If you live in the right countryside and know the right farmers, then walked-up shooting might still be had for services rendered. However, it seems such gift horses are becoming rarer by the season and shouldn’t be taken for granted, or looked in the mouth if one luckily comes your way.

Money talks
It’s hard not to feel a little resentful if walked-up shooting has been lost to someone, or a syndicate, prepared to pay for something you might have previously enjoyed gratis.

I remember my father, in the 1960s, calling on two farmers every February with a bottle for both. In return he got to shoot wild english grey partridges on one steading, and flighted duck on the other. Adjoining farms were shot by other locals on similar “leasing” arrangements. We moved years ago, and much has clearly happened in the neighbourhood since. When I last checked, both farms had been lumped together and now shot by a single syndicate; everything’s driven and nobody tramps the fields and hedgerows as we once did. The flightponds have been drained. Quite a few of the adjoining properties have suffered a similar fate, so goodness knows where the boys who used to shoot there have gone.

It’s thanks to the power of the pound and the sport’s continuing growth that organised gameshooting has mushroomed at walked-up’s expense. However, it would now seem that, given time, what goes around also comes around. Ironically, it’s driven shooting and the cost of it that mean demand for walked-up outings on a pay-by-day basis is growing. Shooters are discovering again that doing it yourself is more of a sporting challenge, greatly enjoyable and capable of delivering value for money.

Deerstalking aside, it’s hunting with a gun at its best where fieldcraft, not a beating line, is needed to put a bird in the bag. Then again is it, as we might like to think, cheaper per bird than the driven variety?

Neil McIntosh, Scottish vet and fieldsports writer, believes it is. “One of the guns I shoot with regularly is an obsessive ‘counter’ and he reliably informs me, season after season, that our walked-up birds cost about half a driven bird,” says Neil. “For me, that makes them great value, especially as I can remember every one in detail. Of course, you have to take the rough with the smooth. Some days exceed expectations, while others disappoint. For me, that’s part of the pleasure of walked-up shooting: a single spectacular bird can save a poor day.

“Some keepers see walked-up days as a bit of a nuisance, taking up a lot of their time for not much gain. others, though, seem to enjoy the relaxed atmosphere.

“The former often have the bag shot by lunchtime, then take you for a long barren walk in the afternoon. the latter are always prepared to go that last mile to make the day worthwhile.”

When I ask if he has any pet hates, Neil responds: “being charged for every bird over the bag with the agent conveniently forgetting that the bag hadn’t been achieved in the preceding three years!”

Any advice to shooters on walked-up days? “Take every opportunity to talk to the keeper, because you then know if you can strike a rapport, and this is more important than anything else,” says Neil.

“Asking if days can be booked in subsequent years is worthwhile if, like us, you want to build up a bank of reliable days, and doing so gives the keeper an incentive to provide a decent day.

“Lastly, we like to walk! Some folk obviously don’t, so it is vital to indicate the level of fitness of the guns. One man’s casual walked-up day can be another’s exhausting marathon.”

What the agents say
Nick Elsden of Anglia Sporting says walked-up shooting is popular. This season he expects to do about 30 days on estates in Suffolk and Norfolk. “We shoot the ‘dead ground’ for a very mixed bag that often includes not just partridges and pheasants but also woodcock, snipe, hares, duck and geese,” he says.

“We also shoot numerous vermin, which we don’t count in the (payable) bags.”

Nick says the cost compared to the driven days he runs is considerably less: “That’s because there is much less to organise in the way of beaters and hospitality, though we do still put on a good lunch. If compared, the price per bird is not that different to driven days, but then we don’t aim to shoot nearly so many, five or six head of game plus vermin per Gun is the norm on these days, though Guns can elect to pay for larger bags.”

According to Nick, November, December and January are the best and therefore the busiest months for the affordable roughshoots. “Most years we simply don’t have enough days in the week for the demand, what with all our driven  days and the rough/walked-up outings,” he says.

Who roughshoots? “Pretty much everyone from the baker, the candlestick maker… right through to multi-millionaire bankers,” he says.

Steve Nuttall of Border Fieldsports specialises in small rough days. The estates he works with generally charge from £150 to £200 per Gun for a five or six Gun walked- up boundary day with a bag expectation of 20 to 35 birds.

“Cost of a walked-up bird is the same as one driven, because the money to rear, release and feed it is the same as for all the others on that shoot,” he says. “It doesn’t matter if the shoot is run privately with a few walked-up days to offset costs, or a purely commercial venture — both have to cover costly overheads due to the rising price of poults, medication, diesel, motor vehicles and the rest. ”

Despite the cost, demand for walked-up is strong and growing. “A lot of Guns love the small days because they are affordable and they offer a lot more variety than you get at a peg,” he says. “Do the sums: a 100-bird driven day for six Guns at £30 a bird works out at £500 each plus tips. On the other hand, the same number of birds walked-up means you can have three days for the price of one.”

What advice can Steve give to anyone thinking of booking a day? “Nail down exactly what you are going to get for your money, and the type of shoot you will be on, right down to who takes the bag. The shoots and people I deal with charge only for gamebirds and duck, but some outfits have the nerve to put the same levy on every crow or woodpigeon that ends up shot. It’s wrong, but it does happen.

“I tell all clients what to expect from a day’s shooting. On boundary days at large shoots, where there will probably be birds under every bush, they’re told to show restraint otherwise they will reach their bag in no time at all. If that happens, they are given the option to carry on with a fixed-price-per-bird shot. “On smaller shoots, the fun is having to work for your bag and then, for a few extra bob, maybe enjoy a flight of ducks on fed ponds where the shooting can be superb, and you keep the birds.”

How to find affordable roughshooting:

  • Search “roughshooting to let” on Google and see what it throws up
  • Look through the classified adverts in Shooting Times each week
  • Contact your local wildfowling club – many have roughshooting attached to a membership