Commercial shoots managed to hold their prices in check last season but struggled to rein in rising costs, a new study has revealed.

The 2010-2011 shoot benchmarking survey, carried out by rural consultant Smiths Gore and shooting broker Guns on Pegs, showed that commercial shoots held the price they charged for pheasants and partridges but has to absorb higher costs for poults, feed and fuel.

And profitability remained marginal, with 42% of shoots in the survey making a loss.

Presenting the findings of the second annual survey at the CLA Game Fair, Smiths Gore’s head of sporting, David Steel, said shoots were unlikely to be able to absorb costs for another season and it was likely they would have to pass some of this on to guns. “Variable costs for commercial and non-commercial shoots have grown, mainly due to feed, fuel and beaters’ costs rising,” said Mr Steel. “The average variable cost of putting a bird down rose from £7.33 last year to £8.08 this year – up 10%.”

The average cost of pheasant poults was £3.43/bird for pheasants and £3.78 for partridge, with the top 25% of shoots managing to acquire pheasant poults 18p/bird cheaper than the average, or 26p/bird cheaper for partridges.

Commercial shoots struggled to turn birds put down into birds shot, with the average returns falling from 42% in 2009/10 to 37% in the last season. Non commercial shoots managed 42% returns, although this figure was slightly down on the year too.

Fixed costs added pressure on shoots too. “More than 50% of fixed costs are in staff salaries,” said Mr Steel. The average salary for head keepers in the survey was £20,146 before additional benefits like accommodation, vehicles and clothing, with gamekeepers earning £16, 097 on average.

Customer service was becoming all-important for commercial shoots, Guns on Pegs’ managing director James Horne said. “Guns like to be able to pay for the number of birds shot, and one increasingly hears stories of days where shooting has to stop at lunchtime because the bag has been shot.

Tailoring the shooting experience to paying guns was seen as an increasingly important element of ensuring repeat business, Mr Horne said. “You do hear stories of birds with baler twin loops round their necks being found in ditches just outside the estate, because guns going back to London either don’t know what to do with them or don’t want to.

“So far more commercial shoots are giving guns who want to take birds away plucked and dressed – 47% of them in our survey,” said Mr Horne.

On the top 25% of shoots, 100% of let days were sold within three months of the season ending, and all were repeat business with regular guns. On average, shoots sold two-thirds of their days by 1 May, and 83% by the start of the season.

The 2010/11 survey was based on 110 shoots (up from 78 in the first survey) shooting over 2400 days and accounting for over 1.1m birds put down by keepers.

The average bag for commercial shoots in the survey was 196 birds, compared with 114 birds for non-commercial, private shoots. Commercial operations shot 33 days a season on average (of which 24 were let) while private shoots averaged 11 days.

“The survey is completely free to take part and all data is completely confidential,” said Mr Steel. “All shoots that provide data receive a bespoke report comparing their results with the benchmark.”

Mr Steel can be contacted on 01904 756316 or at david.steel@smithsgore.co.uk

View pictures from the CLA Game Fair 2011