British shooting widens its range

Britain’s £2bn shooting industry presents a supreme sporting challenge now enjoyed by an ever-wider circle from around the world – as well as a growing number of syndicates, says Clive Aslet

Lord Masham shoots grouse on Ilton Moor, part of his Swinton Estate in North Yorkshire
Lord Masham shoots grouse on Ilton Moor, part of his Swinton Estate in North Yorkshire | Image: Tim E White

Imagine this for an economic model. You pay £140-£160 including VAT for the right to obtain a commodity, a price that excludes the cost of the travel and equipment necessary to acquire it. If you sell it, you won’t receive more than a couple of pounds. Even in the smartest retail outlets, where you would see the commodity transformed through a number of value-added preparations involving technical skill and high temperatures, you would be aghast at being asked to pay more than £100. And yet the pursuit of this commodity is regarded as one of the world’s rarest pleasures by those who have a taste for it.

I am talking about grouse shooting. To shooters around the globe, the red grouse, a wild bird found only on the moorlands of Britain and Ireland, is a supreme sporting challenge. Pheasant shooting, in which most of the birds are reared from eggs or poults, costs the gun significantly less – around £45 per bird. But he (in 96 per cent of cases it’s a man, although shooting is acquiring an enthusiastic following among women) would think it a poor day if he had only shot a couple of birds. You don’t have to talk to a professional involved in shoot management before being reminded of the Victorian adage “Up goes a guinea, bang goes sixpence, down comes half a crown”. The denomination of the currency may have changed, but the principle remains the same: a game bird costs far more to rear than it’s worth on the market, and it will be served at Le Gavroche for less than the gun paid for the honour of bringing it down. So what exactly is the appeal of a shoot?

Guns and the beating team on a grouse shoot
Guns and the beating team on a grouse shoot | Image: Jonathan M. McGee www.shootingphotography.co.uk

According to Tim Bonner, director of campaigns and incoming chief executive of the Countryside Alliance, grouse shooting is “unique and in very limited supply. There are 484 grouse moors in the UK, and the number is limited by the amount of heather moorland that exists,” most of which occurs in the UK. “While a shipyard can make more superyachts to order, the supply of heather moorland is finite,” he observes.

Britain is not only blessed in its purple hills, but has a depth of experience in driven shooting that does not exist anywhere else. Driven shooting was, like so many sports, invented in Britain during the Victorian era, the key technical development being that of the quick-loading, rapid-action shotgun cartridge in the 1860s. “Previously gentlemen had walked through woods and shot pheasants as they flew away,” explains Jonathan Garnier Ruffer in The Big Shots: Edwardian Shooting Parties (1977). “Now it was the estate workers who did the walking, driving the pheasants towards the gentlemen, who stood the other end… No expense was spared.”

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As a result of this history, Britain is regarded as the home of driven shooting, not just of grouse, but species such as pheasant and partridge, which live in woods, farmland and heaths. Nothing on the same scale exists, for example, in the US or most European countries, whose methods tend to be more akin to Britain pre-1860. Although Hungary offers cheaper pheasant shooting than can be had in Britain (the cost of which has gone up, due partly to record wheat prices a couple of years ago, partly to rising employment costs), it is regarded as a distinct second best. Spain delights guns in need of a change of scene with its partridge shooting and Argentina with its untold numbers of doves, but the ritual and sport, however appealing, are different.

And Britain has a well-honed social scene at shoots: gone are the days, fondly remembered by some and not so long ago, when lunch would be a sandwich eaten on a straw bale. Guns are well fed at lunch time – perhaps at elevenses too. So for those who love the sport and have the wherewithal for the luxuries that can go with it, Britain is a natural destination (bearing in mind that a shotgun from London gunsmith James Purdey & Sons costs between £35,000 and £150,000). “There are a large number of extremely wealthy people who come over to shoot game,” observes Bonner. “It is attractive as an ultra-rich clientele, as one element in an elite lifestyle.”

A red grouse in the heather
A red grouse in the heather | Image: Roxtons Field Sports

Not surprisingly, the industry supplying this expensive sport contracted after 2008. “It was very much hit by the recession,” says James Horne, a man in a better position to know than most, being chairman of Purdey and founder of the internet shoot finder GunsOnPegs. While owners of modest shoots, run on a relative shoestring, continued to shoot as part of their way of life, “shooting as a form of corporate hospitality was badly affected”. Even companies that could afford to take days to entertain clients did not want to be seen doing so. But the sport has recovered with, according to John Duncan, director of shooting at the sporting agency Roxtons, “more syndicates of friends. A team leader may organise a group of 25 guns who take a day here and there. This is now the biggest part of our business.” A report from property agent Strutt & Parker and GunsOnPegs, Game On: The Game Shooting & Fishing Census 2014, found that guns spent 13 per cent more on their sport than the year before.

Domestic clients are strongly supplemented by international demand. There are no figures to quantify how much foreign currency this earns, but guns come, as they always have, from the US, France, Belgium and Holland – with signs that the appeal is widening in line with the growth of global wealth. “The Chinese aren’t into it yet,” notes Duncan, “but the Russians have shown the biggest increase over the past decade.” There is also constant interest from some Middle Eastern families, despite the traditional Arab preference for falconry. Some racehorse owners own shooting estates. Sheikh Maktoum is a case in point: Bonner notes that the birds shot on the Maktoum estates are all eaten – an important point to those anxious that the sport’s reputation could be tarnished by the overproduction of birds – though the amount that keepers are tipped has become a vexed subject among traditionalists.

Targeting high birds in Scotland, on a Roxtons-organised shoot
Targeting high birds in Scotland, on a Roxtons-organised shoot | Image: Roxtons Field Sports

According to Christopher Graffius, director of communications at The British Association for Shooting & Conservation, shooting is worth £2bn a year to the UK economy. The benefit is increased by the sport’s rural character: it happens in places that are often starved of alternative employment. Grouse moors are invariably in the uplands, and could only be used to farm sheep if they were not managed for shooting. Altogether, shooting – including the shooting of clays, pigeons, rabbits and deer – was found to provide 74,000 full-time jobs by a 2014 independent report into The Value of Shooting from Cambridge-based Public & Corporate Economic Consultants (PACEC). As many as 11m days are spent shooting each year. At least 600,000 people in the UK shoot live quarry, clay pigeons or targets, and the value of the spend is felt not only by the shoot itself and those it directly employs, but businesses within a 15-mile radius.

In an age of animal rights agitation, country organisations are keen to dispel the notion that only ultra-high-net-worth people shoot. There are many levels at which the sport can be enjoyed other than that of the super-deluxe end. “You can get rough shooting from £150 a day, with four or five guns going out with a keeper and coming home with 35 birds, having had a wonderful day,” says Graffius. “Membership of a wildfowling club, shooting migratory geese and ducks on the foreshore, may be between £200 and £300. It’s magical to go out at dawn and dusk in a truly wild place” – such as the marshes of Essex and Kent, only a few dozen miles from the office towers of the City of London. Furthermore, shooting is involved in the management of about two-thirds of the rural land area, the majority being farmland that supports copses, hedgerows and game crops, all of which are of value to wildlife in general, but would be without economic benefit if it weren’t for the sport.

A pheasant on coastal dunes
A pheasant on coastal dunes | Image: Getty Images

In North Yorkshire, Lord Masham runs a 20,000-acre mixed sporting estate (Swinton Estate, pictured on opening pages), of which 9,000 acres are moorland. When we drive out onto some of it – sweeping, open country, in which there’s hardly a building to be seen – it’s obvious that shooting contributes not just to the wellbeing of the grouse (until the moment it’s shot, that is), but other species. According to the Moorland Association, English and Welsh landowners spent £52.5m on these landscapes across 175 moors in 2010. The PACEC study found that 3.9m work days are spent on conservation as a result of shooting, the equivalent of 16,000 full-time jobs. Management for grouse provides moors that teem with birdlife. When I open the car door, three lapwings – a species on the RSPB’s red list of endangered birds – start up. A brood of curlew chicks is mountaineering over the heather towards their long-billed mother. Golden plovers aren’t quite invisible, despite the camouflage of their speckled backs. Quite a few grouse can also be spotted above the heather, with their long, erect necks. Somewhere, four gamekeepers, a solitary breed, are working away in this apparently unpeopled landscape. Part of their job is to reduce the predators that prey on grouse chicks, such as foxes, stoats and crows (though not raptors, which are protected by law). They also manage the heather. “You must have a mosaic of different ages of heather,” explains Lord Masham. “Grouse nest in the mature plants, but need the shoots of young ones to feed on. This means burning off the old heather in patches, so it can rejuvenate.”

To the shooter, pheasants may demand the same basic equipment: a shotgun, or preferably pair of guns. But they are quite different birds. Originally from China, pheasants roost in low trees and shrubby areas, which they leave during the day to find seeds, berries, insects and worms. Lord Masham drives me down from the high moorland to a richer landscape of valleys, variegated woodland and pasture. We stop in front of a field planted with tall rough grass; this is where the pheasants come to feed, the grass seeds being supplemented with grain. “Their instinct is to fly back to the pens in the woods.” But on shooting days, there will be a line of guns in the valley. Pheasants fly more slowly than grouse and much higher; they test a shooter’s accuracy more than speed of reaction (although some shoots may have a mixture of lower-flying partridge, to keep the guns on their toes). While grouse reproduce naturally, with broods of five or more at a time, pheasants are, in shooting parlance, “bad mothers”, especially when captive-bred; they are hopeless at protecting their one or two eggs from the greater quantity of predators that exist on the lower ground. So for 50 days’ shooting, Lord Masham releases 25,000 poults a year. I see them while they’re still in their sheds, cheeping balls of fluff with bits in their beaks to prevent them from nipping each other. “They’re really good chicks, very even,” a young keeper in camouflage trousers tells me. “They go off at about five weeks. That’s if the summer is decent, which is rare.”

Guns at a pheasant shoot are required to draw pegs to place them in order along the shooting line
Guns at a pheasant shoot are required to draw pegs to place them in order along the shooting line | Image: Jonathan M. McGee www.shootingphotography.co.uk

There are four keepers for the pheasants, as for the grouse. “There’s more cost, less income,” explains Lord Masham. “To make money, it would be easier for us to lease the shoot” to someone who might run it more commercially, saving them a lot of trouble in the process. But shooting isn’t all about money. “It’s a living thing, with habitat and conservation. I do it partly because I enjoy it.” A “full gun” in a syndicate at Lord Masham’s Swinton Estate, entitling the member to 16 grouse-shooting days, costs in the order of £20,000 a year; “half guns” are proportionately less. Because grouse are subject to a boom and bust cycle – numbers rise until disease takes hold, then crash – moor owners need to keep the population in check; if too many grouse are left at the end of a season, syndicate members are offered extra days at no cost. But the shooting’s substantial cost is not putting off the people to whom a day in the open, whatever the weather, is an atavistic pleasure, if not something of an addiction. At Swinton, as with other top shoots, there is a waiting list of would-be members eager to join.

Clive Aslet is editor at large of Country Life.

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