The opening of the pheasant shooting season in Scotland on 1st October would normally be accompanied by a surge of activity, as hordes of keen shooters descend on farms and estates to pursue their favourite sport. Sadly, this year the sector is facing a serious downturn. The prospect for thousands who work in the industry looks bleak. Of the 480,000 people who enjoy sporting shooting in Britain, almost half of those shoot in Scotland. International visitors come to our hills, moors and forests every year, to enjoy some of the best sporting shooting in the world, hunting grouse, pheasant, partridge and duck. That is all about to change. 

Because of the impact of bird flu, Brexit and the Ukraine war, dozens of pheasant and partridge shoots have been cancelled across the UK and the blow to the livelihoods of skilled gamekeepers, stalkers, ghillies, wildlife managers and rangers is profound. Scotland’s fragile rural economy, struggling to recover from two years of coronavirus shutdowns when game shooting ground to a halt, is now facing the catastrophic impact of avian flu, a shortage of pheasant and partridge poults and soaring feed and energy costs. The additional expense of a looming government ban on lead shot for shotgun cartridges has added to the sense of despair descending like a black cloud over the industry.

In the spring, a French ban on the export of pheasant and partridge eggs and poults due to bird flu, had a massive impact on sporting estates and the rural economy. Some shooting estates and syndicates now face bankruptcy. Many of the main suppliers of young game birds and eggs to the UK come from the Vendée and Loire Atlantique regions of France, where there have been repeated outbreaks of avian influenza, with over 16 million farmed birds, including poultry, culled so far this year. Roughly 20 million pheasants and 8 to 10 million partridges were traditionally imported from France annually, the majority as eggs for hatching in the UK. Under current EU rules, when avian flu is detected on a farm, the birds have to be culled, but the farmer can start selling birds domestically again within 30 days. However, under World Health Organisation (WHO) animal health guidelines adopted into UK and EU law, international exports must wait for 90 days, effectively scuppering this season’s spring crop of eggs and poults from France.

In 2021 a 6-week-old pheasant poult was priced at around £3.90p-£4.10p. This year, due to the shortages, the price has rocketed to around £4.60p. Pheasant and partridge eggs have almost doubled in price. Spiralling gas, electricity and labour bills and the soaring cost of wheat and barley, due to the war in Ukraine, added to the escalating crisis, making the price of shooting almost unsustainable and forcing many estates to call it a day and cancel their planned programme of shoots. Now the collapsing pound has added to the crunch. Around 70% of partridge shoots and nearly a third of planned pheasant shoots are likely to be cancelled this year, according to the ‘GunsOnPegs’ shooting agency, with dozens of gamekeepers facing redundancy. Estate owners or those renting land for shooting say that last year they were charging people who pay for shooting by the day, around £42 plus VAT to £50 plus VAT per pheasant shot, depending on demand, location and quality. But this year prices have rocketed from £55 plus VAT up to £70 plus VAT in some areas, with even higher prices for partridges. Some estates have even charged £100 per pheasant shot. In a sport that has traditionally made only marginal profits, these rates are having a severe impact on demand, even for those who run their own shoots or syndicates.

The game shooting lobby are also deeply concerned about the SNP/Green Party coalition government at Holyrood, due to the Scottish Greens close connection to anti-blood-sport campaign groups. It is feared anti-shooting legislation might soon be in the pipeline. Last year, Patrick Harvie, the Scottish Greens co-leader, said in a speech marking the death of Prince Phillip: “Today’s environmental movement overwhelmingly places responsibility for the global crisis on the powerful, and would not seek to reconcile conservation with the blood sport of the wealthy, yet it is still the case that a debt is owed to those whose environmentalism did achieve global awareness, even if it was shaped by different values from today’s.” 

Patrick Harvie’s mealy-mouthed tribute to the Duke of Edinburgh revealed his core belief that game shooting is a pastime exclusively enjoyed by the super-rich. This is certainly not the case today. The shooting of game birds, particularly pheasant, typically takes place on driven shoots on estates and on small-scale rough shoots, usually on farms. The sport is enjoyed by many thousands of people from all walks of life. Pheasant, partridge and duck shooting are part of social life in many rural areas. It is no longer the preserve of the wealthy landed classes and can provide a valuable bridge between town and country. The efforts of shoot managers and conservationists within Scotland have achieved outstanding results in improving game bird habitats and the biodiversity of their land. Sadly, the current crisis could force farmers and ordinary shooting enthusiasts to abandon the sport, leaving only the super-rich to participate.

No doubt many urban-based politicians and animal rights activists who despise blood sports and know and care little for the countryside, will hail the downturn in game-shooting as a breakthrough. They will be sadly mistaken. Across the UK shooters spend an estimated £3.5 billion annually on goods and services, supporting around 74,000 full time jobs, around half of which are in remote rural areas, particularly in Scotland. Shooting is directly involved in habitat conservation and land management in more than two-thirds of our rural land area. Cancelled shoots will cost jobs and hit the rural economy hard, especially hotels, pubs and restaurants near shooting estates. It is a perfect storm.