This feature first appeared in the Shooting Times.
Game shooting has entered a new and exciting modern era. There has been a lot of talk of late of the challenges these developments present, but not enough of the solutions we need. Negotiating this modern era will require modern structures, the building of which will require some radical thinking.
The number of people involved in game shooting has never been higher. There are more paying guns, more shoot days being offered, more people going beating and picking up. This of course means a larger area of land under game management, more birds being released, more game being shot and more game meat available for cooking and eating.
There can be no doubt that this presents some challenges, particularly to a community that is quite rightly proud of its traditions. As game shooters we strive to be conservationists, and the desire to conserve goes hand in hand with (small-c) conservatism.
We must not allow our conservatism to morph into a wish that game-shooting were not growing. We can’t confidently trumpet the benefits of shooting while also wishing there were less of it. More game shooting means more jobs, more money for conservation and more investment for local rural communities.
The growth of shooting has gone hand in hand with a rise in commercialism. People get very prickly around the term “shooting industry” or “commercial shooting”, yet we proudly proclaim the £2 billion annual contribution we make to the UK economy. Farming friends of mine are fond of saying “if you haven’t got a profit you haven’t got a farm”. All the public goods that flow from farming can only be considered in that context, and the same is increasingly true of shooting. Of course, some very wonderful family-run and syndicate shoots exist and do great conservation work, but more and more shoots need to turn a profit so that the environmental and economic benefits can be realised.
This growth in commercial shooting also means greater accessibility. The surest way to safeguard game shooting as a way of life and a conservation tool is to grow participation. It is a little too easy for those who can rely on a steady stream of invitations to decry commercial shoots as mere profiteering, when these operations offer shooting to an ever-broadening spectrum of the public.
So let’s embrace the growth of shooting, let’s not shun the development of commercial shoots, and instead let’s focus our minds on radical and forward looking solutions to our challenges. At the Countryside Alliance we think more shooting equates to two potential issues that require urgent redress to prevent them becoming dangers to the future of game shooting: shoot standards and game meat marketing.
Put simply, more people selling shooting means a greater need to police what we as a shooting community expect as a minimum standard of practice. More game meat means a greater need to bring that game to market efficiently and profitably to ensure it all reaches the consumer.
Game shooting is not currently equipped to deal with these challenges. As shooting has grown and changed, our structures have been somewhat left behind. We have representative organisations who all do something a bit different, be that membership services, representing moorland owners or gamekeepers, driving scientific research or, in the case of the Alliance, politics and PR. But what we don’t have is a group that represents shoot owners and sporting agents, those who buy and sell shooting and whose businesses depend on getting shoot standards and game meat marketing right. The radical solution we need is the establishment of just such a group.
At the Alliance we are on the frontline of defending shoots from unwarranted regulation from Westminster or the devolved assemblies and parliaments, and we are increasingly certain that the only way this is going to happen is for shoots to regulate shoots. To this end, there needs to be an association of shoot owners and agents who can decide upon their own standards and their own processes through which miscreants can be pursued and, if necessary, ejected. It is not enough to say that we want to root out the bad apples, we need a mechanism to identify exactly who these bad apples are and through which they are clearly excluded by their peers.
Without this mechanism, regulation from outwith the shooting community becomes much more likely, and believe me when I say this regulation will be influenced, if not driven, by those who do not wish game shooting well.
How would such an association help to modernise the marketing of game meat? There has been a great deal of talk about the need to establish a Game Meat Marketing Board, but little about how such a body might come about. My preferred model is that of the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Boards, supported by Defra but levy-funded. The Alliance can work in Westminster to seek Defra support, but an association of potential levy-payers will be needed to give any such organisation credibility and direction.
The existing organisations are not positioned to do this themselves. The radical change we need cannot be driven by top-down committee. Shoots must regulate shoots, which means a grassroots movement of those involved at the coalface of shoot management and the sale of shoot days. Of course not every shoot will need to sign up because not every shoot is commercial, but what is needed is critical mass behind the idea of effective self-regulation.
None of this should be read as a foretelling of any pending apocalypse. People are eating more game meat, and some innovative work is already being done to boost profitability. A well-funded marketing board would pool and share that best practice while opening up new markets. Similarly, the Code of Good Shooting Practice lays out the standards expected of a well-run shoot, and its processes will continue to resolve disputes over best practice. An association of shoot owners and agents would be able to go further, to police the minimum standards expected of anyone selling shooting, and to identify those shoots not complying.
Effective self-regulation is a part of every commercial activity in the modern world, and that is the world in which game shooting now exists. Without some new form of self-regulation, we risk finding ourselves publicly identifying problems while leaving our opponents to fill in the gaps with solutions of their own.
The future of shooting has never been so exciting. The potential for the rural economy, for conservation and simply for more people to enjoy our wonderful way of life, is enormous. To realise that potential tomorrow, we need to think and act radically today.
Read our previous article about how game meat marketing and the need to develop effective self-regulation are top of the future proofing agenda for our Campaign for Shooting this year – The Lobby: Securing the Future.