The most cost-effective way of shooting through the season is to join a syndicate. But how do you separate the wheat from the chaff? Robin Scott investigates.

Maybe you are lucky enough to own your own shoot or perhaps you are really fortunate and can rely on friends’ invitations to fill up the season’s shooting diary.

No? Then join the club! If you want to keep those barrels warm in winter you’re either going to have to pay by the day for sport, or join a syndicate.

Pay-by-the-day shooting allows us to sample sport on widely different shoots, take in fresh countryside and meet new people. But there can be disadvantages: the quality of the birds won’t necessarily always meet our expectations and unless we shoot as a friend-filled roving syndicate, there’s a chance we might not hit it off with the other Guns. The rest of the natives (if not actually restless) can sometimes prove unfriendly too.

Here I’m reminded of a Norfolk keeper who made no bones about the fact he hated outsiders and only tolerated “incomers” because the estate needed the money to offset feed costs. By elevenses I was convinced he headed up some sort of League of Gentlemen’s east coast chapter and that come next week I would be “special meat” sliced, diced and sold from a butcher’s slab in Norwich.

Going it alone among a team of strangers isn’t everyone’s cup of tea and from time to time you’re likely to be hit with unexpected “overages” that hadn’t been budgeted for. Getting clobbered with a bill for extras is especially galling if the exceeded bag is none of your doing, but the work of greedy Shots whom you had not met before — nor, doubtless, ever wish to clap eyes on again. So that leaves us with syndicates.

Whichever way you look at it, the emergence of syndicates over the past 60 years or so has transformed the UK shooting scene, and its countryside — some might say, not for the better.

Syndicates willing to pay serious money for sporting rights have swallowed up countless acres of wonderful mixed roughshooting, where farmers once allowed friends, employees and locals to shoot for free, or for a peppercorn rent. However, much of our sport’s soaring popularity is linked to the increasing availability of shooting through syndicates. It’s thanks to them that many more of us are able to enjoy gun ownership and access to the countryside than was the case half a century ago.

Word of mouth and personal recommendation are the best ways to find a syndicate. But if you’re new to shooting or looking for a new shoot, how do you get started? Let’s take a look.

Where to search?

  •  Check out the classified ad columns of Shooting Times — this magazine has long been the first port of call for syndicates announcing vacancies.
  • Find a country pub with strong sporting connections. Talk to the landlord and get to know his customers. It’s amazing how much information you will pick up about local shoots over a pint, especially the ones worth joining — and those to be avoided. If the ale house has a noticeboard for customers, make sure you use it!
  • Keep an eye on any shooting and fishing classified column in local newspapers; it’s the section mostly favoured by smaller syndicates seeking members.
  • While you’re at it, why not place a lineage ad of your own in the same paper enquiring about membership? The best time to do it is just after the season has closed, or in springtime, when shoots traditionally try to fill any vacancy.
  • Watch the noticeboard in local farm shops, and pin up your own postcard with a contact number and email address.
  • Take a look at wildfowling clubs in your area — many run gameshooting sections or syndicates for members alongside the usual ducking activities.
  • Keep an eye on the shooting available adverts on ShootingUK’s Marketplace

The Devil’s in the detail

  •  Unless it comes highly recommended by friends, don’t always rush into joining the first syndicate that comes your way. You need to ask questions.
  •  Find out how many members there are, how many birds are released, the number of shooting days and expected bag average. Is the bag shared, or sold to help shoot costs? In the absence of a paid gamekeeper, who is responsible for controlling vermin and the releasing of any gamebirds?
  • Before parting with any cash, make sure you are given a guided tour of the shoot so that you can see for yourself its boundaries, layout, extent and condition of woods, covercrops, release pens, feeders and where the equipment is stored.
  •  Check out the dog situation: how many members work their dogs on shoot days and, if you have one, can you bring it? Who is responsible for picking-up behind the line? Always be wary of joining a team that’s clearly short of dogs, but heavy on Guns, for obvious reasons.
  • Most syndicates keep costs down by getting members involved in work parties around the shoot. Some also set up rotas to keep feed hoppers topped up. Much of this adds to the fun and camaraderie of membership, so it might go against you if you’re not able, or capable, of doing the work. However, there may be other duties you can help with. Either way, be honest with the shoot captain at your interview.

The advantages of a shooting syndicate

  • There’s a massive choice available, from fully keepered driven shoots with woods plentifully filled with birds, to cheap walked-up mixed shoots where exercise is free and small bags are par for the course.
  • Location. You can almost always find a syndicate close enough to home that meets your expectations and budget.
  • Variety is the spice of life but you can take your pick from syndicates specialising in purely driven pheasants, or partridges, or exclusively duck. The same goes for grouse shooting and deerstalking.
  • Many syndicates offer half-Gun membership, saving you money but giving the opportunity to join in as a beater on your non-shooting days or, if you own a useful dog, as a picker-up.
  • Importantly, syndicate membership puts you in direct contact with other shooters — leading to more shooting opportunities in the locality.
  • It’s usually (but not always) the case that membership allows you to shoot vermin and woodpigeon during the close season, without charge.
  • The friendliest syndicates invariably have a strong social side to them in the form of pre-season work parties, shoot meetings, summer BBQs and an end- of-season dinner.

But there are disadvantages too:

  • You’re restricted to shooting the same ground with a finite number of drives each time. In the case of small shoots this will almost certainly lead to the same ones being carried out on a regular basis.
  • The other members. You will (hopefully) get on with the rest of the team but tensions sometimes arise and members can occasionally fall out. This is usually due to someone else’s unruly dog ruining the day by running- in, unsafe gun handling, shooting at low birds, shooting at other people’s birds, or the same members always wriggling out of work parties.

How others set up a shooting syndicate

Sporting artist Keith Sykes from Morecambe shoots eight days a season in a Lancashire “stand one, walk one” syndicate. Subscription is £1.080.

Keith says: “The best way to find a friendly syndicate is to be invited by someone you know and respect, and if it is ‘dead men’s boots’, all the better.

“Twenty years ago I joined a syndicate through a magazine advert and soon discovered why there was such a high turnover of members. Shoot days – despite some cracking birds – were not much fun because of the bickering and Gestapo-style shoot captaincy. I was then invited by pals to join a syndicate closer to home and had a great time; the birds went well, but sadly the shoot captain had a different agenda, with personal financial gain his priority.

“After a couple of years and a feeling of being taken for a ride, we threw in the towel to join another small walk/stand syndicate. The shoot was great and reasonably priced because the shoot captain was extremely generous with his own time.

“Regrettably, I couldn’t devote enough time to work parties and feeding rotas so I reluctantly resigned my Gun. The shoot is still going strong and is a credit to the captain and his men!

“I am now in a syndicate that has a healthy waiting list because (barring death or infirmity) few leave. I joined when it started in 2003.

“The members have really gelled as friends. The shoot encourages youngsters, family, friends and even the laird to join in on shoot days, the more the merrier. The shoot has a large shoot cabin complete with wood-burner, bar, tables and chairs which provide a great base for the day. Meat and potato pie and drinks for all follows the last drive and rounds off the day – priceless.

“I pay £1,080 for a full Gun which gives me eight days of beat and stand drives. We also have three ‘boundary/rough days’ over ground we don’t generally shoot for snipe, duck and woodcock. We average more than 75 bids on the main days. The excellent birds are too good for some and as a consequence a ratio of shots to birds is close four-to-one.

“We have half a dozen work parties during the close season, which are also great fun and a social gathering in their own right.”

Designer Rob Hardy from Rutland is a member of a seven-Gun Lincolnshire syndicate, shooting four days a season with an average bag of 70 a head. Subscription is £450.

“Finding a friendly syndicate? It’s like tracking down the right partner! Get it correct and you’re in for years of fun, pick the wrong ‘un and cracks soon appear. Niggles set in.

“On one I noticed certain members making excuses to avoid walking their turn, or they took the same place in the beating line every time because they knew where the birds would break and give them a shot. Some even left their dog at home knowing full well the shoot captain needed dogs in the line to flush birds on the best drives. Those without a dog were then allowed to stand and, before I knoew it, everyone in that syndicate was turning up dogless. Needless to say the shooting suffered!

“Never join a syndicate on spec, always go on recommendation and be careful when joining a roughshoot with untapped potential in the hope you might help improve the way things are done. This can create resentment among long-standing members.

“Find out exactly what you get for your money. Duck flighting, pigeon shooting, even stalking might turn out to be ‘extras’ or, worse, kept a secret for a few in the syndicate.

“Do your homework. If the syndicate is advertised rather than one you have heard about first-hand, tap into the shooting grapevine. Has the shoot got a reputation for being well run, with happy members, or does it have a record of Guns constantly changing and keepers moving on? The best syndicates have a waiting list, and the reason for that is the members enjoy one another’s company and there’s a willingness to try new ideas and keep things fresh. Syndicates such as this forge lifelong friendships.