The value of a shoot day should be assessed by the overall experience, not the weight of the bag explains Hugh van Cutsem.
The volume of criticism against shooting only appears to be gathering pace, and as our critics get increasingly sophisticated in both their angles of attack as well as their methods of watching how we conduct ourselves, it becomes increasingly clear that we need to be taking a long, hard look at how we do things.
One particular area that is bearing the brunt is the rearing of birds to shoot. I am not about to repeat the clear defence of this practice, but we cannot escape the fact that as soon as commercial interests are at play in an area as sensitive as this, then we must be absolutely sure that our house is in order and above reproach. I don’t know the facts or truth behind the photographs that appeared last year of pheasant corpses being buried but, legitimate or not, it was a massive own goal for game shooting.
If one were to look to rent a day’s shooting, almost certainly the first question asked is ‘what sort of bag do you want?’ Most of us are aware that the fixed costs for a 150-bird day are similar to a day with a bigger bag and if the shoot is being run as a commercial operation then clearly there is potential for pressure to try to push the buyer towards a bigger bag. Alternatively, a 150-bird day is agreed, an accurate and selective team of Guns achieves this in four drives, and then an awkward conversation follows between shoot operator and host. We have all seen or heard of this and it is far too common. It suddenly and completely changes the whole point of a day’s shooting. If someone has taken a day with a specified bag, then it is the operator’s job to ensure that they have a complete day. There should be no embarrassing conversation if he or she manages the day correctly.
However, what really mystifies me is why the first question outlined above is not about the bag but rather along the lines of “what sort of day out do you want”. Do you like to walk; does anyone enjoy stalking; do you want to flight duck? Surely, we should all, as both providers and takers of sport, be remembering days for the substance of the day and what we have experienced over the course of it rather than what the bag was. If anyone opens a conversation about shooting with me and tells me in the first sentence the bag they shot, I immediately switch off. I am just not interested. I want to know what they did in the day, how the birds flew and about the variety of sport they experienced.
As a provider of a day, why are shoot owners not offering teams a day which consists of as much variety of sport and species as possible? Why not walk lots and enjoy a day out in the countryside as it is meant to be enjoyed? Could they be offered over lunch (taken outside or in a barn around a fire, far more convivial) a demonstration of plucking and drawing a game bird or skinning and butchering a deer carcass? Perhaps a cookery demonstration. As the numbers of people who shoot grow, so do the numbers of participants who haven’t had the opportunity to grow up in the countryside and enjoy many of the things outlined above that others may take for granted. I’m willing to bet that some want to learn but are reticent to ask assuming they will be a minority.
I can guarantee that participants on a day like this will talk in glowing terms of their experience: of waking at dawn and stalking a muntjac, having a hearty breakfast and then a series of small drives taking in spinneys, pits and small strips of wild bird cover. The thrill of a single high cock pheasant fast approaching, and the very real pressure to bag it as it might be their only opportunity all morning, is a hard one to forget. The unpredictability of a day like this is something to aspire to, chasing wild game mixed in with small numbers of reared birds. What a different experience it would be to standing under an endless stream of reared birds whilst deep in a valley, neck craned upwards.
How does the financial side of such a day stack up? What you don’t have to fund includes any number of reared poults and all the fixed costs that go with them, large numbers of beaters, the environmental impact of 4WD vehicles crossing the countryside. Gamekeepers could be gamekeepers without the pressures of ensuring poult safety in a pen. They could spend their time being custodians of the countryside ensuring the best possible habitat for all forms of wildlife, nurturing and protecting them from predation. The person taking the day would pay a fixed cost, understanding there would be no guarantee of any sort of bag but undertaking that the experience they would have would be a memorable one. They would be challenged on many fronts and come back at the end tired but with a host of fond moments from the day. A fabulous retrieve by their somewhat unpredictable dog, or a haunch of venison they’ve perhaps shot and butchered themselves.
Suddenly the whole aspect of the day is changed. People don’t have the opportunity to talk on mobiles or sit in solitary confinement in a shiny 4WD. They get the chance to walk with, and talk to the keepers and beaters and really understand the other side of what happens on a shoot day and perhaps learn a little more about the flora and fauna that is all around them. They may come home and tell others they had a day where they walked five miles, fell in a ditch, shot their first deer, got a bag of 43 including eight different species, four of which they put in the freezer and are going to cook for friends.
The shoot owner is still able to cover the much lower fixed costs of a day like this and most importantly invest in providing diversity of game. Money can be spent on new spinneys, dredging a flight pond, bringing a water meadow and snipe bog back into existence. Wildlife starts to thrive in a greater area and in greater diversity.
I am not suggesting that existing reared shooting should not continue but rather that some might look at alternatives. We all know that it is difficult to cover costs and one’s conscience on a shoot day. This alternative route will give buyers choice and we all know how free markets work and buyers lead suppliers. This is, therefore, as much a rallying cry to those buying shooting. If you are a part of a roving syndicate for example, why not be bold and try and find a day similar to the one outlined above and offer the provider a fair fixed price? Tell them you don’t care about the bag. Tell them you want the experience. Who knows, you might just come away from it wanting more of that experience and shoot providers may well follow your lead.