The crack of 12 bore and the taste of game as shooting season hits its stride
Spotted those long wheelbase Landrovers packed with tweedy gents heading up winding country lanes in the past couple of weeks? Seen many chaps in plus fours and bright-tassled socks queuing at the bar in your local country pub? Heard the distant crack of 12-bore carried on the wind from the estate down the road?
All are clear indicators that pheasant shooting – the most significant game shooting sport undertaken here in the Westcountry – is under way now we are well into October. The outward signs and its economic benefits are well documented and well known. Country publicans who can serve up steak and kidney pie for 20 or more will be rubbing their hands, if there is a shoot nearby. Country hotels are welcoming shooting guests from all over the country, most of them big spenders. Even members of small syndicates have been buying cartridges, updating their shoot wardrobe and having guns serviced and repaired at local gun shops, ready for the first big day of the season.
For gun shop owner John Rogers, of the Ivybridge Gun Room, 2013-14 is shaping up to be a very good season. "It is looking very promising," he said. "I am quietly confident. The pheasants have had a good year, the cover crops have had a good year and it will hopefully be a cracking season. In South Devon we are blessed with a number of shoots that sell the odd day to help cover costs. They should be doing all right this year. Apart from anything else the weather has been completely different this year and that has definitely helped."
For gamekeeper Neil Rogers, who looks after Michael Hockin's Brownstone Manor Shoot, near Holbeton, in the South Hams, the weather plays a big part in his work. When the summer is wet, as it was in 2012, every job on the land is a challenge.
NEW IN : for those cold winter nights highland check dog and cat beds in stock, fleecy and washable ideal for those nights snuggling by the fire...... available in 3 colourways
Contact: 01271 440626
Valid until: Saturday, January 25 2014
He said: "Gamekeeping is a year-round businsess – it is not only about rearing the poults and keeping vermin under control. There is maintaining the woodland, the access tracks, the ponds and the streams – it never really stops." This year, thanks to a good summer, he is – fingers crossed – expecting a good season for the syndicate members and guests.
At Brownstone Manor, owner Mr Hockin gives each guest a card on which to record the day's bag. The real message is printed on the front. "Good company, good countryside, good food and good shooting," it promises. The shooting is some of the most challenging in one of the most beautiful landscapes to be found in Devon. There are steep valleys, well maintained woodland, lakes and streams. The food served at lunch is supplied by cook Sandra Vallance, a farmer's wife from Tavistock who augments the farm income providing outside catering for shoots and other rural gatherings all across south and central Devon. She is one of an army of cooks who make a part of their living catering on shoots all over the Westcountry at this time of year.
At Brownstone lunch is served in Mr Hockin's very own pub, a converted outbuilding with warming woodstove and its own bar, named the Dog and Duck. At other shoots the guns might well sit down to a lunch of sandwiches in a barn. At the very top end, the paying guests will retire to the big house for several courses and a glass or two of claret and pay for the privilege.
The last survey into the value of shooting sports to the Westcountry put it at £280m a year. Two million hectares of South West land are managed for shooting and – across Britain – 70,000 jobs are supported by the sport. Nationally shooting was reckoned, seven years ago, to pump £1.6 billion a year into the UK economy. In the intervening years that figure is expected to have risen significantly.
Clay pigeon centres, like the Ashcombe Adventure Centre between Newton Abbot and Exeter, have been helping game shooters whose technique has become a little rusty since the end of the last shooting season in February get back into the swing of it. As well as operating as a year-round facility for target shooters the centre is especially busy pre-season in September and early October, giving game guns the opportunity to get their eye in on clays before tackling the real thing.
As Ashcombe's experts promise. "The clay site has been purpose built with the clay and game shooter in mind. All of the clays are thrown as realistically as possible – so targets like driven pheasant, springing teal and dropping duck fly just as you would expect the real bird to do."
Stewart Lees of Safe Shot Coaching, based in the Tamar Valley, near Plymouth, specialises in coaching clay and game shooters and puts particular emphasis on showing people who shoot how to turn game into delicious meals. He runs several "shoot, cook and eat" courses every year, with one this month and one next. And he also welcomes young shots and women to his shooting school. "They are the future of the sport," he said.
For many game shooters pulling the trigger is only a part – and often quite a small part – of the overall experience, which is about a day in the country enjoyed with friends.
Shooting is emphatically not a numbers game for the vast majority. But the numbers are, nevertheless fascinating and tell a story in themselves. This year a shooting census carried out by gunsonpegs, the online booking service that puts guns in touch with shooting estates, found that the average game shooter had invested more than £4,300 in his shotgun, spent some £5,000 a year on his sport and – in 70% of cases – was earning £50,000 a year or more.
At the very top end you need a good deal more than £50,000 a year to indulge your sporting passion. Commercial pheasant shooting costs on average £30.17 per bird plus VAT. On a big day, say 400 birds, which would be normal for many of the prestige Devon shoots, that equates to a day's sport for £12,068. Divide it between eight friends and it is still £1,500 before VAT. Add in another few hundreds for hotel accommodation, food and drink, £100 or so for a slab of cartridges, cash for tips for beaters and loaders and the shooting man may be parting with well over £2,000 for a day in the field. If he gets out – at this sort of level – ten times between October 1 and February 1, the overall bill is £20,000. The really smart shoots, where the guns clatter in on helicopters and Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich once reputedly took the first team for a day's shooting, you can pay much, much more.
At the other end of the scale a small shooting syndicate member might pay less than £500 for the year to help pay for pheasant poults, feed and rent to the farmer, with a few hundred more for his petrol and his cartridges.
But whether it is a walk around the hedges with a dog and a couple of mates or standing on a peg in a deep valley waiting for fastest pheasants to zoom over, it is the major country sport through the Westcountry winter. Keep an eye out for those Landrovers – and the tassled socks.