Everyone has thought about what it would be like to own a sporting patch and Patrick Laurie thinks it’s possible if you look hard enough
Many sporting folk dream about owning their own shoot. The idea can become a constant, niggling temptation and it is a recurring topic of discussion at shoot lunches. We all love to compare and contrast different shoots, and everybody has a favourite sporting scene in mind when we’re left nursing fond memories of high birds and happy days at the end of the season. Imagine if you had unlimited resources to buy a shoot; how it would feel to own a Highland deer forest or a rich Devon valley where the pheasants come hard and high? Even the thought is enough to make you sigh wistfully and gaze into the middle distance.
Having visited dozens of grouse moors over the past decade for work and play, it’s perhaps inevitable that I should have played a similar game in my own quiet moments. Every grouse moor has something different to offer, so when a long car journey beckons or I lie awake in bed at night, it’s fun to rank them in order of personal preference. Sometimes I imagine how it would be to have a vast Highlands moor in the Angus Glens, but then I compare that with some smaller, classic spot in the North Pennines.
Buy a shoot – a daydream
By sheer chance, my favourite piece of moorland came up for sale two years ago, and my imagination flared at the prospect of taking it on. Of course, it was never going to happen, but I allowed myself to enjoy a moment of sheer fantasy. My heart sang to imagine packs of my own grouse passing in a storm above the butts, turning like cinders down steep-sided glens where the burns rumble and summon salmon out of the Tweed. I thought that would suit me quite nicely, but then I happened to catch sight of the price tag and my dreaming came to an abrupt finish. My sporting paradise, tucked neatly away in the Scottish Borders, would set me back almost £2million, let alone the cost of maintaining the place and housing, employing and providing equipment for two gamekeepers to the tune of around £80,000 annually.
Perhaps I have developed expensive tastes but those figures would cause most eyes to water. Sure enough, the place did find a willing buyer and continues to go from strength to strength, but it set me thinking in more practical terms about the value of land and what it might offer to shooting folk who have saved up some cash and are willing to lay it on the line for the chance to buy.
It’s hard to give an overview of land values across the country without paying attention to geography. For the sake of imagining, let’s assume that you have £300,000 to spend on a shoot of your own. That is still a big piece of money, but it feels a good deal more achievable than multiple millions. Depending on where you are in the country, £300,000 might buy you very little or rather a lot. In the south-east of England, you might be lucky to pick up a hundred acres of ponds, reeds and trees in order to set up something resembling a small rough shoot. Meanwhile, here in Galloway that same sum could buy you 300 acres of wet moorland with the occasional grouse and an abundance of snipe and wild duck.
Of course, most land is valued according to its ability to provide a commercial return. Buying some of the most agriculturally productive land in East Anglia might strain the coffers of even the wildest millionaire, but sporting folk are not always interested in sugar-beet yields and what suits a farmer does not always suit game or wildlife.
Meanwhile, if your dream is to take on a snipe shoot in Cornwall, be prepared to pay through the nose for land that might otherwise go on the market for development or tourism. A quick glance over the online market revealed a hundred acres of rushy sheep grazing near Bude that might easily be managed for winter waders. However, with options to develop this land, it was listed at well in excess of £1million and may already be on its way to becoming a housing estate.
If you play with the idea of buying a shoot and land for long enough, you start to realise that value is not always proportionate to its potential for sporting fun. Away from the grouse moors and the high bird pheasant days, there is plenty to excite a window-shopping Gun in the rough hillsides of North Wales or the scruffy margins of Argyll. Expect to pay a fraction of East Anglian prices for land in the rushy, scrubby corners of the north and west, where rough shooting and the pursuit of wildfowl makes up the order of service. A quick search online revealed a 50-acre plot of mixed woodland near Aberystwyth for just under £200,000, with the prospect of a lifetime’s supply of woodcock to sweeten the deal.
If deerstalking is your bag, the extensive Highland deer forest is beyond the reach of most. You’d be better advised to save your money and visit as a guest, but with roe on the rise and muntjac creeping out into new corners of the country, now is probably a good time to be looking to buy land for stalking. Major government incentives in Scotland have led to an explosion of woodland creation, and the grants available to plant trees make this an interesting avenue to explore. As the owner of a new wood, you would then be in the perfect position to design the rides and the mix of tree species to suit your sport. You would also enjoy the added satisfaction of watching a new wood grow as you stalk and shoot over the years, becoming ever more intimate with the place as each season passes. Woodland has the added advantage of paying off nicely when the time comes to harvest, and with an eye on the conservation potential of your land it would be possible to stagger felling so that deer are not unduly disturbed.
This is all food for thought, but while the temptation to own a shoot is exciting, it’s worth remembering that the shooting season is brief when measured against a calendar year. Land can serve a multitude of purposes beyond the pursuit of game, and in order to get the best out of your fantasy shoot at least part of it should be farmed or planted with trees according to sustainable principles.
You could jump in at the deep end and do all this management work yourself, but you might find after a year or two that you are no longer a shoot-owner — you’ve become a farmer or a forester who also runs a shoot. The reality is that ownership is often less important than how the land is being managed. Guns who can team up with a willing and passionate landowner might get everything they want and more for the price of an affordable rent. Having spent time around shoot owners for the best part of 20 years, it’s clear that the responsibility can be wearing and stressful. For those of us who rent ground to shoot or visit as guests for pleasure, perhaps we should be careful what we wish for.