What is the value of shooting? What does it contribute to the economy?
With a think tank suggesting that grouse shooting is a drag on the rural economy, Matt Cross gets out his calculator to do the maths
What is the value of shooting? What is it worth? Of course, this question cannot be answered definitively. How can you place a value on a day out with your friends; on a child learning to climb a barbed-wire fence; on serving your friends food you have hunted yourself; on the feeling of the wind in your hair; on watching a red-listed wader getting a brood away? There’s more to value than money.
But once we have acknowledged all of that, let’s ask the question again. What is the value of shooting, in pounds and pennies? If the numbers were neatly written out in columns and totalled at the bottom, what would an economist conclude shooting is worth?
Of all the many forms of shooting, grouse shooting is the most intensively studied, though the quality of some of that scrutiny is rather doubtful. When Revive — the anti-grouse shooting campaign organisation based in Edinburgh — first launched, it commissioned a report from left-wing Scottish think tank called Common Weal. It unsurprisingly concluded that grouse shooting was the worst possible thing you could do with land and that it was a drag on the rural economy.
However, it rather diminished its credibility by comparing grouse shooting with land uses such as housing and horticulture. The idea of lettuces 2,000ft up in the Angus Glens or rows of bungalows marching steadily across the Lammermuirs didn’t really cut the mustard with any serious economists.
Unimpressed with Common Weal’s analysis, in 2020 the Scottish government looked at the issue again. This time it made a substantial effort to compare like with like, matching grouse shooting against such things as forestry or sheep farming, which could take place in at least some of what is currently grouse moor.
The government economists found that a hectare of driven grouse moor cost about £38 a year to run and brought in about £20 a hectare of income. Once you have discounted the public money that supports tree planting and sheep farming, the profit-and-loss figures for most forms of traditional upland land use look broadly similar.
Apart from wind farms and hydro schemes, no one is making much money out of the hills. On paper grouse shoots are losing money, but money doesn’t simply disappear; when spent on a grouse moor, it goes into the pockets of its staff and the premises of its suppliers. So what is grouse shooting worth? To the owner it’s a loss of 32p per hectare, but to the community around the moors it is worth a huge amount.
When the Werritty review into grouse moor licensing in Scotland ground its way through the data, it found evidence that “more intensively managed estates have an average annual wage bill of £210,000 and support suppliers (often rurally located) with around £515,000 of annual expenditure”.
When you get right down to that very bottom line, according to the Werritty review: “This yields a total gross value added £23 million contribution to the Scottish economy annually, concentrated in rural areas where there are considered to be few other economic opportunities.”
In England, the economics have been less thoroughly studied, but the Moorland Association claims more than £50 million a year goes into grouse moors and, of that, £15m finds its way into rural businesses.
The number of grouse shot every year and the number of people who killed them are dwarfed by the number of pheasants and partridges shot every year. However, the data is much less current and authoritative than the data for grouse. The most widely cited piece of evidence is the 2014 PACEC study, which found that all forms of shooting put together added £2 billion to the UK economy.
While PACEC is often referred to by the shooting organisations, a lot has changed since 2014. Shoots’ costs have increased hugely and on-the-ground prices paid by Guns have responded accordingly. A few years ago, £45 represented a rough average price for a driven bird; you would now be hard put to find many offers at that price point.
Noting the 2014 study was increasingly out of date, in 2020 GunsonPegs attempted its own analysis of the contribution of shooting to the UK economy. Extrapolating from the PACEC figures, the website calculated that there were 12,870 shoots in the UK providing 163,449 days of shooting. A bit more multiplying suggested that shoot days alone generated £540 million for the economy. It added £413 million for the cost of birds, £255 million spent on full- and part-time employment, and £81 million for accommodation. Its conclusion was that “this gives the staggering total of £1,280,000,000, or put another way, £1.28 billion”.
I mean no disrespect when I say that there are problems with this analysis. You can’t simply calculate shooting’s value to the economy by adding up everything that is spent everywhere along the chain. First of all there is a very fair chance the bird in question is French, so that money goes across the Channel. But even if it’s a true blue British bird, an analysis that counts both the price paid by the shoot to buy the bird and the price paid to the shoot to shoot the bird counts the bird twice.
Think about it like this: if you buy a £4 poult on credit, you have minus £4; if you sell that bird for £50 you have added £46 of value. That is what we should be counting, the added value. Not the total spend. Pulling out the ubiquitous economic fag packet we can cross off that £413 million for birds released and revise the figure down. It still equates to a lot of money but not quite as much as supposed. As the Werrity report explained when discussing the economics of grouse shooting, that money lands with incredible accuracy where it is most needed. In the small village where I live, a shoot day on one of the surrounding estates will put £40 into a lot of pockets. That money passes in short order into the till of the community shop or over the counter of one of the local pubs.
We hear a lot about the fragility of services in rural areas and, as someone who is involved in the daily fight to keep a village shop open, I can tell you the battle is real. The flush of cash that a shoot drives into the remote rural economy is very important — a Government scheme to support deprived rural areas could hardly spend its money better.
Shoot closures Since the GunsonPegs analysis, COVID-19 and bird flu have intervened and there can hardly be a Shot in the country who hasn’t seen a shoot close or at least radically cut back. Best industry estimates are that game shooting has reduced by around a third nationwide since 2019. It is tempting to take away a third of that £800 million and to confidently pronounce that shooting is worth £533,333,333.33.
But we have built a tottering tower of extrapolations and estimates, but economics are best left to economists. Fortunately, the economic cavalry is on its way; this summer a new Value of Shooting report will be published.
Shooting is in a fight for its survival and cold facts are vital. Hopefully, once the new Value of Shooting survey — now closed — is completed it will allow real economists to make our case. That way we can pass on the real value of shooting to the next generation: muddy boots, curlew nests and delicious dinners.