It’s important to do your homework before taking on any new ground, says Liam Bell
I know of several local self-run shoots that have decided not to start up again this year. The catalyst for the decision for two of them was the reduced number of days they shot in 2020 due to COVID-19 restrictions. The keepering team realised that the number of hours they spent looking after their birds, when added to the overall cost and worry, simply didn’t add up when balanced against the amount of shooting that they actually got in return.
That was not only the case this latest season, but for the last three or four years.
Another shoot not too far from here has simply decided not to renew its lease and is instead forming a roving syndicate.
Shoots close, shoots start up
It is rather sad that these shoots are closing, but it has always been so. Shoots close, shoots start up again, new people take them on and rejuvenate them and so the cycle begins again.
This year, though, I think there will be more shoots closing than reopening and that will give those who have been looking for a shoot of their own the opportunity to take on their own lease and have their own patch of ground.
So what should people be looking for on their new shooting ground and what should they be aware of in the lease itself before they sign?
First, it is important to find out why the last shoot closed. If it was simply the case that the Guns got too old or that they fell out over something trivial and decided to pack it in, then all well and good.
Investigating new shooting ground
If, on the other hand, you do a bit of networking and find out they had problems with poaching or public access or even had issues with the landlord and the farm itself, it is wise to dig a bit deeper.
Find out what their returns were, how many days they shot and, if possible, establish how many birds they put down. It will give you something to go on. There are lots of places that look good on paper and come up for rent quite frequently, but the reason they change hands so often is usually down to one of the above. Different groups take them on, work hard and find they are coming up against the same problems encountered by their predecessors, so decide they want to move on as well.
No one wants to pay rent for a non-starter, no matter how good the ground looks.
Also, try to find somewhere fairly local if you can, or at least reasonably local to the person or people doing the keepering.
Travelling in on shoot days is one thing, but having to drive an hour or more to feed birds and check release pens is another. It is a twice-a-day job for several months, never mind the time that needs to be set aside for dogging-in, predation control and all the other little jobs that need doing in order to make the shoot a success.
When you go to look around, see if the woods are warm and inviting. COVID-19 rules allowing, take a friend or fellow Gun. Someone to bounce ideas off; someone to double-check stuff with when you are back at home and having a proper think about it.
Check the ground cover, look for warm roosting, flushing and holding cover and see if you can get a feel for whether birds will actually hold there or not. High banks and deep valleys are very impressive, but they are next to useless if they are cold and bare and the birds won’t go up there, never mind hold there long enough to be driven back home.
The woodland — and game crops if there are any — needn’t be huge, but do need to be big enough to hold the number of birds you are planning to put down. Neither do they necessarily need to be on banks, because you can still present perfectly good birds from flat ground, if they are fit and healthy and the Guns are well placed.
Have a look at the pens, if there are any. See if they are repairable and find out who owns them, in case the previous tenants are expecting to be paid. If not, are they planning to take them down? This rarely happens, but it is still worth checking. Building a new pen is quite an expense if it hasn’t been budgeted for.
When you’ve had a look, and if you are keen to sign, go over the lease for the new shooting ground with a fine-tooth comb.
Most leases are fairly standard and have been put together by agents and land management firms, which does mean that some of the conditions could be irrelevant and others overly restrictive and unworkable.
In addition, many owners will have added their own conditions and it is usually these that will need discovering and thinking about. I knew of one lease that stipulated all rabbit control was the responsibility of the shoot. On the face of it, that doesn’t seem too bad, but it transpired that the shooting tenants were liable for any crop or tree damage the rabbits caused. Another allowed unfettered access at all times to the local hunts — regardless of timings, seasons or location.
Other restrictions are more workable and understandable.
It is fairly common now for new leases to prohibit the shooting of woodcock and for there to be some sort of restriction on the releasing of reared mallard. It may not be a complete ban, rather a restriction on numbers and stocking densities.
Deer control, crop protection, access for vehicles for work and on shoot days, lamping and the availability of a shoot room or barn for storage and lunches — all these are all things that need sorting out before you sign.
There will never be a perfect shoot and I don’t want to put anyone off if they are considering taking one on. But it is always better to know what to look for when investigating new shooting ground and what you might be up against before you do.