In in Alex Brant’s book "The World's Best Shoots" published in 2008, there is a chapter by Richard Purdey where he writes about his favourite shoots and the Lees Court Estate shoot was featured, writes Paul Millard.
It has a well-earned reputation as a first-class shoot, which takes place over much of the Estate with the highest birds being presented over the steep sided valley that runs north to south through the middle of the Estate.
The Countess Sondes took over the responsibility of running the estate on the death of her husband, The Earl Sondes, in 1996. She is a vociferous supporter of shooting. She thinks it is important that this historically significant way of life is maintained and believes the shoot improves biodiversity on the estate, as well as generating local employment and supporting the rural economy.
Strutt & Parker shoot adviser Rhodri Thomas has worked very closely with The Countess since the Earl died and the shoot has been through a number of manifestations – including being let to Holland and Holland – before they arrived at what they now consider to be the best structure.
He says: “We realised that the best outcome was going to be achieved by bringing the shoot under our own management and it took quite a lot of hard work to bring it all together as a successful commercial shoot.”
The key, they discovered, was to give it a sense of history, to replicate the sort of day private guests would have enjoyed in the late Earl’s day so the day is run as if the guns were a private day for invited guests and the hospitality and attention to the minute detail plays a vital role in creating the overall sense of occasion.
“We decided to play close attention to the market and try to understand exactly what it was people were looking for from their day’s shooting – and that is where my work with GunsOnPegs helped enormously, creating a far better understanding of what made a day special for people buying shooting.”
But the shoot has also brought wider benefits, helping to bond the estate and the whole staff team together as well as acting as a catalyst for environmental and conservation work – a story that Rhodri is seeing repeated in other locations.
Ease of communications is, of course, important and Lees Court is about an hour and a half’s drive from central London and approximately 15 minutes from Ashford International Railway Station – which also gives immediate access to the Continent. A mix of pheasants and French partridges are released and the first day of the season takes take place in October, with around 30 through to the end of January.
There are, Rhodri says, numerous reasons why people would engage a professional relating to establishing a new shoot or re-invigorating an existing shoot mainly to do with experience and expertise because there are some key boxes to be ticked before embarking on this particular journey. Rhodri thinks it is also important to identify what the real objectives are– and for many, if not most, it will not be just about generating additional income.
“In planning a commercial shoot I would advise people to make sure they identify exactly what their model is, what kind of shoot they are aiming for. There are, of course, economies of scale in running a shoot which sells bigger days but equally there is a brilliant market for smaller, boundary style days, with a relatively modest bag but equally modest cost to the guns - making it more affordable to more people. Overheads are also lower and many of the more inspired shoot operators are already tapping into this market very successfully.”
A change of ownership can often bring new energy and a change of direction to an estate but there’s no escaping the fact that establishing a new shoot is going to require a considerable level of investment in infrastructure and staff – so people need to have a very clear understanding of why they want to do it.
A shoot can bring significant environmental improvements in habitat management; it can benefit song birds and pollinators, offer improvements in forestry and woodland management and it also frequently beneficial to have a gamekeeper on the ground to help manage the deer or pest species or just in terms of overall security.
Customer loyalty leads to repeat business – and that is crucial, particularly if its booked year on year. If a shoot can be certain by February that it has sold the majority of the forthcoming season then much of the risk is taken out of the equation and it allows organisers to map the whole season, the keeper can plan and space his days in a way which suits the local environment and you can actually profile the year ahead to ensure that you can deliver exactly what the different groups of guns are looking for.
Marketing in the commercial shooting world is also changing, traditionally it was the sporting agent, and these well known names are still there and still operating very successfully. Rhodri isn’t keen on the classified ads style advertising in the sporting magazines, word of mouth is without doubt the best form of advertising but with guns travelling to the UK from all over the world he sees on line advertising as the future and, again, points to the ground breaking work that GunsOnPegs has done in this respect.
One of the key factors in assessing the returns on the shoot is to factor in only those birds which have been paid for. It is much more difficult to hit the 40% average than many people realise and shoot managers need to be sure that their profit and loss columns do not include birds shot on beaters’ days or family days which are not paid for.
Getting the bag average onto a predictable footing is important because it enables the owner and the keeper to plan and manage the days right across the season. Shoot too many at the beginning and you’ll run out towards the end – its about balance. Most of the research with GunsOnPegs indicates that people are much more focused on looking for a balanced day - they really don’t want to get to the end of the second drive and be confronted with an overage policy it is far better to manage the drives carefully across the day so that the guns get to enjoy a full day and at the end of it they might get a few more birds in the bag than they have actually paid for – but that’s good customer relations and will, hopefully encourage them to come again.
In spite of uncertain economic times and the changes which have taken place in both the market and the industry over the last few years, Rhodri believes there is still a very healthy demand for good shooting – but it is a crowded market place and there is no room for complacency - guns need to feel that they are being given value for money and that comes not just from the birds shot but also from the other, smaller, details – the lunch, the wine the overall hospitality, a sense of being welcome, all these things contribute to the final outcome.
Tips from Rhodri Thomas
- Keeper: A first-class keeper not only manages the shoots, but has a clear grasp of the shoot as a business.
- The numbers: Rigorous financial control is essential - it is a business!
- Standards: Set standards of service – the whole team must adhere to them – and meet them consistently
- Secure repeat business: Build up a loyal customer base
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