Pheasant shooting starts today. Philip Bowern looks at the economic importance of the sport.
In the old days (no one seems quite sure when) the economics of pheasant shooting were expressed as follows: “Up goes ninepence, bang goes threepence, down comes half a crown” This was supposed to illustrate the relative cost of a pheasant, reared and released in the countryside (9d) the price of a 12-bore cartridge to shoot it (3d) and the supposedly excessive cost, to the shooter, of two shillings and sixpence for actually carrying out the deed when he paid for his day of sport through a fee for every bird killed.
Today, post-decimalisation and after many years of inflation, the sums can be scaled up pretty dramatically but the proportions are not so different. A pheasant poult in 2011 averages around £3.40, a single cartridge costs about 25p. Paying for the bird, as part of the bill for a day’s shooting on a well-run Westcountry estate will be around £30. That makes an average 300 bird day – not excessive on many Westcountry estates – cost £9,000 or £1,125 per gun in an eight-gun team – plus VAT. When you add in the other costs of going shooting and the value in jobs and investment of game rearing and keepering, it’s not hard to see how shooting sports are worth around £280million a year to the South West rural economy. A big proportion of those earnings, and the jobs and businesses they support, are on the back of Phasianus Colchicus, better known as the common pheasant which officially becomes fair game today with the start of the season.
Many enthusiastic shooting sportsmen prefer to put the money side of their hobby to the back of their minds. But as farmers look to diversify and holiday businesses to extend their season, earnings from country sports are becoming ever more important.
So will the 2011-2012 season be a hit or a miss? Simon Clarke, spokesman for the British Association of Shooting and Conservation (BASC), is cautiously optimistic. “I think shooting, from all our indicators, is very much holding its own,” he said. But he believes there is a shift away from the larger shoots and particularly the big corporate days when blue chip companies picked up the tab for a day’s driven sport. “By far the largest sector is the do-it-yourself syndicate of people who rent a bit of land and do the work themselves. They might only let a day or two to help offset the costs,” he said. “Then there are the roving syndicates who want to buy a day’s shooting. They book hotels, eat and drink in local restaurants and bars and their partners might well go shopping in the local high street. The trickle-down effect of money spent on shooting is huge.”
Country Sports South West is helping the region benefit from that trickle down. It aims to extend the Westcountry visitor season by bringing in shooting parties, anglers and other rural sports’ enthusiasts. Annette Cole, who leads the three-year, EU-supported project, believes that the coming season will still be a good one . “I don’t think spending on shooting is going to be hugely down this year which, in the current climate, is pretty good,” she said.
Country Sports South West uses its website to encourage those who want to take advantage of the sporting opportunities in the Westcountry to find what they are looking for. They are working to keep prices down, introducing a “passport” system which will give a taste of the sport for between £100 and £150 per gun on smaller farm shoots.
James Horne, managing director of GunsOnPegs, which matches shooting enthusiasts with places to shoot, tends to operate at the higher end of the market.
He said: “Bookings are patchy across the UK. It does seem that the further away from London, in general, the more difficult it is to sell all the days.” But a survey of shoot-owners conducted by his organisation and rural property consultancy Smiths Gore, revealed the majority were still optimistic. John Duncan MD, at Roxtons sporting agency: said: “The majority of estates we represent have by now managed to sell their days for this season.” Shoots are, however, adapting to harder times. More than one in ten shoots put down fewer birds this year and although few shoots are reducing charges there is, clearly, some sensitivity over price, with overage charges – the extra cost for birds shot above an agreed limit – no longer imposed by many shoots.
For the average game-shooter in the Westcountry, however, thoughts about the cost of his day in the country will be well to the back of his mind. He will be listening for that call from the cock bird, straining eyes for the flash of chestnut feathers mottled with greens and blues, and waiting for the beat of wings as the bird takes to the air. And he will be lifting his gun in the expectation of a good shot, a clean kill and – once the bird is plucked, drawn and dressed – an excellent meal.