Beautiful scenery, wild birds, a good lunch - so many things make up the shoot day but what matters most? Patrick Galbraith finds out
In a West Country inn on a crisp autumnal evening, Tim Maddams, whom regular readers will recognise from our cookery pages, tells me that he thinks we need to kick the habit.
“One thing I’m really trying hard with is to sell my days on an experience, rather than on how many birds we’ll shoot,” he explains.
What makes a shoot special?
Tim feels that for years we’ve been stuck in a rut of marketing our sport based on bag size rather than the things that make a shoot unique and special.
A while ago, I went to the Isle of Luing to meet a reader who has just launched a shoot in the Hebrides. In an attempt to confirm whether his plan of hosting guests for a long weekend — in which they might shoot a rough day followed by a driven day — was a good one, he asked: “What do paying Guns really want?”
It was a question I couldn’t honestly answer and I’ve been thinking hard about it ever since.
Tim continues: “Clearly, we do need to give some kind of indication, because I would be horrified if people thought I was ripping them off.” His model at the Cricket St Thomas shoot, however, is that six Guns pay £325 for their ‘ticket’.
“Sometimes you have a team who can shoot quite well and we don’t want to stop them shooting, and other times you have people who have had ample opportunity and can’t get pass 30, but they’re still having a great day,” he explains.
Unsurprisingly, one of the crucial points for Tim is the food he provides. The following day, after two drives showing some very high birds, we head back to the yard we met at for elevenses. On the way, I get chatting to Sue Booth, who shot a spectacular right-and-left on the second drive. She tells me that she only started shooting a couple of seasons ago and enjoys the friendliness of the days at Cricket St Thomas.
Elevenses is a real show-stopper with Tim cooking partridge teriyaki skewers on a wood-burning stove and handing round pheasant salami, made out of birds from the shoot. He says they make ‘a big thing’ of serving their own game, which always goes down well with the Guns.
After everyone is refreshed we head off to start shooting again. It is obvious that we had a rather bountiful opening to the day, with Tanya Jones telling me that she shot as well as she ever has. But, interestingly, we still have quite a number of drives to go. Skilfully, keeper James Mouland manages to combine two small drives with a very large one to make everyone feel that they’ve had plenty of sport.
While preparing lunch, Tim says he has a superb keepering team who never let him down, meaning that he can get on with hosting. As he grates some truffle over a pasta dish, which is to be the starter, he believes what Guns really want is attention to detail.
“We have spare shooting socks in the wagon in case someone gets their feet wet, we have cartridges in case people run out and I’ve even got a gun because mechanical failure happens.”
Over lunch, a number of the Guns reveal that the reason they keep coming back is because Cricket St Thomas feels like a gem of a farm shoot with very fine food.
At the other end of the country, Rob Rattray — who works for Ossian, a forward-looking sporting agent — feels “there’s growth in the smaller stuff”. The hardest thing, he reflects, is being able to find the Macnabs or “even the usual walked-up grouse shooting” clients are looking for. He says there’s even an uplift in the number of people “who want to shoot a ptarmigan”.
I ask whether the bigger days are still selling well north of the Border. “Scotland has never been that sort of venue,” says Rob, adding that he feels irked as a sportsman when “someone promotes something that reflects poorly on all of us”.
The morning after I spoke to Rob, GunsOnPegs, the country’s leading digital marketplace for buying shooting, released its annual census. The survey, which polled 8,900 people, hints at a changing attitude towards bag size, with 17 per cent of shooters saying that they intend to shoot smaller days in 2019. Chris Horne, managing director of the business — and a very competent pigeon shooter — says: “No matter how we phrase the question, the long and short of it is that Guns just want to have a fun day out and bag size is not the most important factor.
“Seventy-five per cent of Guns said that if a shoot had a conservation policy, it would influence their decision to purchase a day there.”
In God’s own country — according to Yorkshiremen, anyway — Frank Boddy runs one of the nation’s most successful shoots, frequently selling single guns. During his days, the Guns usually shoot a bag of around 250 and most of the pegs are booked up well in advance. The message he gets is that, to make a commercial shoot successful, you really need to make it feel like a homely syndicate.
But what about international clients? Nick Mason, who is a director of sporting agency Davis & Bowring, muses that what those coming from abroad really want is a quintessential experience.
In short, if they’re heading to Speyside they want to chase grouse over pointers and if they’re in Norfolk they want to be pitting their wits against grey partridges starbursting over a hedge. Essentially, they want to shoot like the locals do. The irony, of course, is that it seems many of the locals want to head to the Highlands to shoot French partridges.
It would be easy to suggest that the answer to the original question of what paying Guns really want is that it’s simply horses for courses, and to some extent that’s probably right. But 41 per cent of the Shooting Times readers we polled said that when buying shooting, the scenery is what matters most.
And 31 per cent said they would be swayed to hand over hard-earned cash if there was an opportunity to shoot wild birds.
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Thinking back across my sporting career, I can remember almost every time I’ve been out chasing game with a gun. I can remember snipe zigzagging away across frosty reeds; I can remember coveys of grouse breaking ahead of vizslas; and I can remember starting to shoot well again after lunch following a poor morning.
There have been great landscapes, too, of course, and memorable pints enjoyed in front of pub fires while my socks dry out.
It seems that it is these things, the things that stay with you, that Guns really want. While an estimated bag might be part of why people buy a day first time round, it’s the experience that keeps them coming back.