Game on!

Natural Resources Wales (NRW) is consulting on proposals to licence and restrict the release of game birds. We meet and discuss the impact with Andy Matthews, a farmer and land manager in Wales, his shoot business partner, Steve Barnard and poult supplier, Clive Hussell.
Sennybridge shoot managers
CLA Cymru’s Charles de Winton met (left to right) Steve Barnard, farmer Andy Matthews and game-bird rearer, Clive Hussell to discuss NRW’s proposals in Andy’s shooting cabin.

“It’s not a great earner,” Andy says. “But the shoot helps us get more value from the land. We’re managing woodland for bio-conservation and tackling climate change, we’re employing a ‘keeper, beaters and pickers and a caterer. We buy-in our birds and feed from a local supplier, and the guns often hotel-it overnight. And, of course, it’s recreation – vital social activity – part of rural culture we all enjoy.”

Andy Matthews manages a farm of 600 acres in Bannau Brycheiniog – a mix of rented and owned land. Here he keeps traditional beef and sheep stock and 150 acres in arable. He’s also diversified into pick-your-own and a small campsite. His shooting operation is typical. A report published by NRW itself says that there are between 171-431 shoots in Wales, 75 percent of them release fewer than 3,000 birds a year. “We put down 5,000,” says shoot business partner Steve, “And through arrangements with other landowners we’re active over 1,500 acres – well-within the stocking-density guidelines. We run about a dozen days a season for up to a dozen guns a day.”

Steve is a retired NHS manager with a passion and expertise for the pass-time. He provides hours of his time feeding and managing the poults, maintaining woodland and ground for their dispersal, fencing and tackling vermin: many of the important jobs undertaken by a gamekeeper. “If only I could bring the two worlds of health-management and game-rearing together,” he says. “The Welsh Government itself is aware of the health-giving benefit of game in the diet – and it’s even successfully trialed it in the healthcare sector. Government should support investment into a game processing unit. There’s a great public service opportunity here.”

Clive’s business Hardwick Sporting, supplies poults in low numbers of thousands to about 10 shoots. His business also runs a commercial shoot which runs over 60 days a year. It employs two full time employees, a handful of seasonal staff and, like Andy and Steve’s business, the “casuals” – beaters, pickers (up) and caterers which makeup the shooting party. “This isn’t just employment, it’s really important to the local community,” Steve says. “Many of our people are retired and they highly value the opportunity to get out and about, supporting the shoot, in the depths of the winter when they can be quite isolated. We distribute the game to the whole team – so it’s healthy food.” Clive’s business produces more birds: at his cost he supplies a local processing business. “Nothing gets wasted,” he says.

The real economic benefit of shooting is hidden from view because of the high level of investment which is a side-effect of other land management activity, the casual nature of some employment, and the fact that a brace of pheasants is more likely to be remuneration than a wage-packet. “Government needs to understand the high contribution to rural economic churn in areas where there’s not much money,” Steve says. “Our beaters and pickers get £35 per day, guns’ll pay £25 a head for refreshments and a shooting-lunch – and, of course, we’re buying poults, hardware and feed.” The profit-margin may be modest, but the annual turnover of this shoot is about £70,000.

Much of the land in this area is marginal, barely suited – or unsuitable for - livestock. It means putting it down to woodland – which has many benefits. These areas also need to be stock-proofed and this also suits game-rearing. Andy says, “We’ve also noticed that where we’re rearing poults and have game, biodiversity is improved. Where possible we’re putting-in cover crops to protect and improve our ground. Of course the ground is only exposed to game birds for about six months of the year, leaving time for further growth of ground vegetation and other fauna. One of the issues raised in the consultation is about stocking-density. Everyone inside game-rearing knows that the best determinants here are ground conditions, availability of food and loss from predation or other causes of wastage (such as road-kill). Market-forces have a role to play too: birds stressed by over-stocking and poor conditions make poor shooting. Here’s another reason for government to learn from the expertise of the game-rearing community.”

Another problem faced by this shoot is the proposal to prevent birds from being released 500m from specially protected land. “The river Usk catchment – including all the tributaries – is all-around us,” says Andy. “This proposal would wipe us out. The irony is that in high summer and early autumn the catchment shrinks as the bournes dry up.”

“NRW say the proposals are not ideologically driven. The Welsh Government made no election manifesto commitment to ban shooting, so there’s no electoral mandate. But we know that Welsh Government Ministers have long been openly opposed to shooting. Equally, we understand that lawful shooting businesses were declined business support during the pandemic.”

Andy says, “The circumstances that really bring the consultation process into question are firstly the absence of data on which the proposals are based - their own report’s data on the number of shoots in Wales at between 171-431 - is so wide that it’s very difficult for them to draw any sensible conclusions and any credible proposals. The same report isn’t really sure of the scale or the scope – or distribution - of game-bird release. NRW’s consultation document tell us up-front that they don’t really know whether there’s a problem or not – and this is a main purpose of the process.”

There’s a consensus between Andy, Steve and Clive that the perceived problem will be ideological and cultural rather than factual. Equally they agree that a proposed licence and creeping regulatory conditions will make game-bird rearing increasingly unviable for small shoots. And it is the small shoots which are arguably the most sustainable.