So you want to… Improve your farm shoot

What is the market for shooting?

It’s a big one.

Shooting is reckoned to contribute more than 1bn to the UK economy with around a million people taking part in the sport each year.

Demand for good shooting is growing and both cartridge sales and shotgun registrations are rising.

However, there is competition from other sports and activities and at the top end of the market a drop in the number of visiting American guns.

Is it profitable?

Often not, after the management time and unpaid gamekeeping on many farm shoots is accounted for.

If profit is the main motive, there are quicker and less risky diversification enterprises than this.

Some shoots are profitable, but costs are rising while competition is keeping a lid on the prices they can charge.

Some have struggled to sell all of their days recently, says Denise Ranger of Bentley Jennison.

While separate accounts are not necessary for most farm shoots, the shoot should at least be separately costed so that you are aware of how much it is contributing or losing, she says.

Game Conservancy Trust figures for the 2004/05 season show that the cost per bird shot for five rented shoots was £21.17, while for 13 owned shoots the figure was £24.80.

The difference is mainly accounted for by much higher keepering costs on the owned shoots, although rented shoots spent slightly more on replacements, beaters and equipment.

First-season costs could be higher than this as the percentage shot is likely to be lower if the shoot is newly established.

Roughly two-thirds of the shoots which put down pheasants buy them in as six-week poults (£2.75-£3.25 a head) to rear on in basic release pens.

Don’t expect to make a fortune on game sales – prices are low at present.

What about tax?

A private shoot which doesn’t sell days cannot offset its costs against the farm income to reduce the tax bill because it is not trading.

Where a shoot sells days, input tax (VAT) can be reclaimed but output tax must be charged, so VAT must be added to the price of a day’s shooting if the business is registered.

Where a shoot is split between private and sold days, the private element should be taken out of the costs in proportion, as with a car which is used for both private and business purposes.

Some keepering costs may be allowable against the farm for vermin control and estate maintenance.

The official line on payment of beaters is that they should be treated as part-time employees, so they should be identified and PAYE and National Insurance should be accounted for in the normal way.

Do I need planning permission?

“You have to appreciate that shooting is not a form of agriculture,” says Christopher Price, a solicitor with the CLA.

“The exemptions from planning controls and business rates that agriculture enjoys don’t generally apply to land used principally for shooting.”

The crunch comes when it is deemed that the activity has intensified to the extent that there is a change in the use of the land, says Mr Price.

In addition to planning permission, business rates will also be an issue.

Although it will depend on the number of days used for shooting, there is a distinct probability the agricultural exemption will be lost.

Are there landlord and tenant issues?

“It is important to check the terms of the tenancy agreement and the sporting rights,” says Mr Price.

“Though a Farm Business Tenancy allows greater flexibility than a 1986 Act tenancy, a standard agreement will generally only allow the tenant to use the land for agricultural purposes and shooting is not agriculture.

Moreover, the landlord will usually have retained or reserved the sporting rights.

So the tenant will need to check exactly what species he is permitted to shoot and to permit others to shoot.”

What about game licences?

Anybody killing or taking game needs a game licence.

In addition, a person dealing in game needs to obtain both a licence from the district council and an excise licence, and there are specific meat hygiene rules.

Is there a minimum acreage?

“This totally depends on the landscape, but 300 acres would support a farm shoot,” says Tim Russell of Smiths Gore’s York office.

“You may need to plant game cover to support woodland and obviously would need more land if it is a prairie landscape.”

Neighbours sometimes co-operate in running shoots, or one takes on another’s shooting rights in exchange for a day’s (or more) shooting.

“This may be more straightforward and avoids fallouts as different farms have different characteristics for holding birds.”

What else do I need to consider?

“There is a lot of risk associated with running a farm shoot, much of which is out of your direct control, such as weather, disease, foxes, etc,” warns Mr Russell.

One option is to lease your shooting to a syndicate which will manage its own shoot.

Depending on what they are getting for their money, this could bring in between £5 and £25/ha (£2-£10/acre) and can also benefit the farm in terms of conservation and landscape improvements which a syndicate will often undertake, says BASC’s David Ilsley.

Expect to offer a three-to-five-year lease with break points for this sort of arrangement, he says.

“This gives you a guaranteed income regardless of how successful the shoot is while someone else has the financial responsibility for buying birds, feed and gamekeeping.

“Consider also any restrictions this might place on your farming – good communication and clear procedures are paramount in making arrangements like this work.

“Others may want to shoot pest species in return for payment or help on the farm.

You may be able to let the game shooting to one group and the pigeon/rabbit shooting to another.”

How do I create the right habitat?

The moment you sell a day’s shooting, you have to guarantee results, warns Martin Tickler of the Game Conservancy Trust.

“Getting the andle of crop right in relation to woodland, together with the direction of driving, can greatly improve the spread of birds.

With pheasants, the quickest way to do this is with new game crops to hold birds in the right place where they will fly well.

They tend to fly the shortest distance to woodland but you want them to spread well across the guns too.

“You need woods that offer warm, sheltered roosting with a shrubby layer on the ground to offer cover.

Bare-floored broadleaved woodland will not hold pheasants.

It can take up to 10 years to get things right, but red-legged partridge can offer more instant results as they only need game cover crops.”

Getting these right is crucial – the game cover option under ELS has to be a mixture of three species and this makes weed control difficult, so don’t rely on it, says Mr Tickler.

Consider using cropping land to make sure you have got game cover crops of the right quality in the right places.

The drop in wheat prices has made this decision easier on marginal land, he says.

Because of the high cost of rearing birds, it is vital that you hold them in the right places and maximise the number of wild birds by providing the right habitat, says Richard MacMullen, a FWAG farm conservation adviser in Norfolk.

“But with conservation in mind, take advice over the siting of release pens and the strawing of rides in ancient woodland sites.”

What should I charge?

Most driven pheasant and partridge shoots charge between £20 and £30 a bird, although some top-bracket shoots charge up to £38 a bird.

Charges are usually based on a set number of birds a day and it is sensible to have a margin of about 10% either way, says Mr Ilsley.

Guns will expect a brace each at the end of a day but usually pay for any above this.

A tally of the number of shots is usually kept so that the ratio of shots to birds killed can be worked out.

“Many contracts contain a shots-to-kill ratio to avoid arguments over differences between the bag booked and the number shot on the day,” says Mr Russell.

For successful commercial shooting, make sure all charges are clear up front, says Bryan Nelson of

“The worst thing is when people pay for the shooting, only to turn up and be told that lunch is extra, beaters are extra, and so on.

This gets the day off to a bad start.

They like to know what they are in for.”

Mr Nelson believes there is a growing market for mid-priced, friendly, well-organised farm shoots, not always necessarily in conventional driven shooting.

For example, he recently booked a boundary day with just three beaters on a Shropshire farm for £1500 for the day.

Charges for walked-up days, usually for just a couple or a few guns, usually range in cost between £100 and £200 a gun.

This type of day is often sold at the end of a season.

What about health and safety?

You should operate under the Code of Good Shooting Practice, produced by BASC and a steering committee of other organisations.

A thorough risk assessment is crucial for workers, guns and beaters.

The National Gamekeepers’ Organisation website also has comprehensive briefing sheets on risk assessment and health and safety on its website.

Beaters’ transport is important. It must be weatherproof, well constructed and fully serviceable on a shoot day – safe, secure and in a roadworthy condition and it must have seats, warns BASC guidance.

What about insurance?

The farm policy will only cover you for farming activities, so you need specialist insurance cover for shooting.

A typical public liability premium for NFU Mutual existing customers (up to £2.5m per claim) covering the whole year would be around £200 for game shooting.

Employers’ liability cover of up to £10m per claim for beaters and other employeesis around £290.

Game shoot cancellation insurance for bad weather is available from some insurers but is expensive.

What about biosecurity?

The threat of avian flu has raised the profile of biosecurity.

The Game Conservancy Trust’s biosecurity checklist includes clean clothing, keeping visitors away from stock, pressure washing and disinfecting equipment, keeping wild birds and mammals away, supplying clean fresh water, keeping food fresh and uncontaminated, removing deadstock and eggs, isolating new stock and feeding them last, watching for signs of illness.

What are the most common problems with selling shooting?

Achieving the bag evenly throughout the day is a skill, given the unpredictable nature of pheasants,” warns Mr Russell.

“Inexperienced guns can also be frustrating – organisers and beaters work hard all day putting good birds over guns, but the bag is not shot.

So it is always sensible to agree with guns a shot ratio – for example if the bag is not met but they have shot 6:1 all day then there will be no underage refund.

Can I get a grant?

The English Woodland Grant Scheme is not specifically for shooting, but offers grants for new plantations, open space, creating rides and so on, which can benefit the shoot.

Entry Level Scheme points can be earned from game cover crops on field margins.

But beware – game crops can only be grown on set-aside if they are not for a commercial business.

However, many farm shoots put their game cover crops on other land and this does not present an SFP conflict.

Should I use an agent?

Most good shoots manage to sell their days by reputation and through word of mouth, but the increasing number of shooting days on offer means that agents are busier than they used to be.

Most charge between two and 10% of the price of the day.

Some will come along and act as shoot captain.