While wildfowling and walked-up days might be in slight decline, our sport in general has more participants than ever, reveals Matt Cross
It can be difficult to know what is going on across our sport. We can each see our own bit — our shoot, our team, our branch, our glen. But what may be true for one place might not necessarily be true for shooting as a whole. So what is going on? Is shooting becoming more and more popular? Is it shrinking? Is it changing?
This year, COVID-19 has muddied the waters to the point of impenetrability. Perhaps it is best to put 2020 to one side in favour of looking across a few years together.
Shooting more popular
On the face of it, there is excellent news. Home Office numbers show rises in the numbers of firearm and shotgun certificates. In the year 2002 there were 118,600 firearm certificates in England and Wales; in 2018 there were 159,745. Shotgun certificates are up, too, though not so dramatically, from 561,800 in 2002 to 567,047 in 2018.
One thing we can get good data on is what is shot, which reveals some striking changes. The GWCT publishes an annual gamebag census. In simple terms, the census gives the value of one to the total bag of a bird or mammal shot in 1961 and compares every subsequent year to that value. This tells us that, for example, the number of grouse shot has roughly halved since 1961. The number of grey partridges shot has dropped even more steeply and is now at about 20% of 1961 levels.
The reasons for this decline, particularly in regards to grey partridge, are largely due to habitat loss, something the GWCT is fighting to reverse. But just as grouse and grey partridge shooting has declined, pheasant and red-legged partridge shooting has boomed. The number of pheasants shot has more than doubled since 1961 and the number of redlegs shot is 7.5 times higher.
While more participation is something to cheer, it must be noted that in some areas gamebird releases are so high that they can have a detrimental impact.
Popularity of shooting pheasants
In filtering the numbers collected by the GWCT, a trend becomes clear. Between 2004 and 2018 the total number of quarry birds shot in the UK increased by 1.5 million. Most of the increase has come from the rocketing popularity of shooting pheasants, redlegs and mallard, though snipe shooting, encouragingly, has gained ground.
Woodpigeon have benefited from the intensification of agriculture and from about 1980, pigeon bags and numbers of shooters have grown and grown. However, between 2004 and 2018 the number of pigeon shot dropped from 3.6 million to 2.2 million.
In February this year the AHDB (Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board) reported that, “with the EU banning the neonicotinoid dressing on seeds we are seeing oilseed rape production drop off a cliff edge”. Oilseed rape has sustained overwintering pigeon since the early 1980s and, with its decline, numbers of pigeon may already be starting to drop. This looks likely to reduce numbers of pigeon shooters, perhaps steering even more Guns onto the pegs of formal driven shoots.
The numbers of birds being shot is increasing but what about the way we are shooting? The trend will come as no surprise to those who have watched the countryside and the shooting scene over the years. In 2004, consultancy company PACEC calculated the number of ‘Gun days’ spent on different types of shooting, then repeated this exercise in 2014.
Between 2004 and 2014 there was almost no change in the total number of days Guns spent shooting. But what did change was how those days were spent. Coastal wildfowling days halved, pest control declined and days of walked-up game shooting dropped from 820,000 to 680,000. Perhaps buoyed up by booming goose numbers, inland wildfowling held steady and deer stalking grew. But by far the biggest growth was in driven shooting, with 100,000 days.
Shooting is seen as facing an uphill struggle. Society is becoming more ‘Disneyfied’ — animals are our friends not food. At the same time we are uniquely positioned to take advantage of the wave of consumers seeking ethically produced and wild foods.
Ethically produced meat with provenance
Since the BSE — or mad cow disease — scandal in the 1980s, there has been a steady shift away from the anonymous and mass produced, particularly in the meat sector. Pheasant, partridge, grouse, rabbit, hare, duck and venison are natural fits for the consumer who is looking for a healthy, ethically produced meat with a clear provenance. The market is moving in our direction, not away from it.
The number crunchers at PACEC picked up on this, too: “It was commonly reported that game had become more popular: there was greater awareness of game among the public, it was appearing on restaurant menus, in recipe books and on television, and was becoming more available outside specialist retailers”.
The rigorous and systematic data gathered by GWCT and PACEC is excellent, but there is much to be said for a person who knows the shooting scene through and through and who has the breadth of experience to offer an opinion. There can be few people better positioned to do that than Curtis Mossop. A lifelong countryman, former gamekeeping lecturer and now BASC’s head of pathways into shooting, Curtis knows more about change in shooting than almost anyone else.
“Clay shooting is obviously doing very well,” he said. “I don’t personally know of any clay grounds that are shutting down and I’m hearing about lots setting up.”
Curtis highlighted the recently opened multi-million-pound shooting ground on the Swinton estate. “They aren’t doing that on a whim, there is clearly a demand for it,” he said. “Where there are established clay grounds, what we find is that they are adding things like air rifle ranges.”
The bridge between clay shooting and game shooting remains a tough one to get people across, but the development of simulated shooting may be helping that. “Sim days have exploded,” Curtis pointed out. “Simulated game shooting is the new big thing, I’m seeing tonnes and tonnes of people and some really big estates taking it up.”
So there are more clay shooters and more clay grounds and the path from clay shooting into game shooting is becoming clearer and easier. The Home Office figures put it beyond doubt that there are more firearm and shotgun certificate holders, and the number of guns have also risen over the past 15 to 20 years. GWCT figures show an increase in the numbers of birds being shot, though at the cost of variety, and the economists at PACEC found no drop in the number of days spent in the field.
As things stand, the idea that shooting is in decline is a myth. The evidence shows that shooting is, at worst, holding ground but, more likely, it is expanding.