‘Small knife in the rural economy’ as bird shortage triggers swathe of shoots to be cancelled

David Peters, a gamekeeper, on the Bartlow Estate in Cambridgeshire with his Labrador, Simba. The estate fears it will have to drastically reduce its number of shooting days - Heathcliff O'Malley for The Telegraph
David Peters, a gamekeeper, on the Bartlow Estate in Cambridgeshire with his Labrador, Simba. The estate fears it will have to drastically reduce its number of shooting days - Heathcliff O'Malley for The Telegraph

A third of shoots could be cancelled this year, as a shortage of birds threatens to cut off a “major lifeline” for rural communities.

Bird flu in France has led to a ban on the import of birds, chicks and hatching eggs from the region, which is normally a major source for shoots across the UK.

An analysis by Guns on Pegs has estimated that gamekeepers will put down up to 40 per cent fewer birds compared with a normal season. About 30 to 40 per cent of shoots are expected to be cancelled completely.

It is warned that the cancellations will have a “catastrophic” impact on shoots, as well as pubs, hotels and country sport shops. Shooting is estimated to bring £2.5 billion to the rural economy and support tens of thousands of jobs.

Government officials are now racing against time to strike a deal with Europe and end the ban on trade from restricted zones. Efforts to reach an agreement have so far failed.

'Small knife in the rural economy'

Tim Breitmeyer, owner of the Bartlow Estate in Cambridgeshire, said it is “coming up to crunch time” and that some shoots have already decided to pull the plug.

“We will definitely have a shooting season,” he told The Telegraph. “But we will have to reduce the number of days pretty savagely, I don’t know exactly how many.

“It is not by any means what we would have wished for. People are just getting back on their feet after Covid. It is another small knife in the rural economy.”

Mr Breitmeyer said that whilst his small family shoot would be able to weather the storm, larger commercial operations and businesses that “live and breath shooting” will experience a “very, very significant downturn”.

The news will also come as disappointment for people trying to book a day out, having been prevented by Covid for the last two years.

As preparations for this year’s shoots begin, the latest figures have shown a slight resurgence in cases of avian flu in the Vendee and Pays de la Loire areas of France, where the majority of game farms are located.

Both UK and EU laws prevent imports for 90 days after an outbreak has ended. Whilst changes to EU law have shortened the restriction period for trade within the block, these changes were made after Brexit and therefore do not apply to trade with the UK.

Partridge and pheasant shoots, which begin in September and October, make preparations - such as planting cover for the benefit of game birds and other wildlife - now. They face losing that money if they later have to cancel.

Mr Breitmeyer said: “If we could get the eggs into the country now, then people could start the season later. They might be able to get two-thirds of a season.

“But people are having to make decisions now and there is a cost attached. They might think they are not going to make the expenditure if they are not going to have any birds. Some of the shoots in this area have already decided to cancel, as they have to draw a line.”

The supply of partridges has been the worst hit, according to an analysis by Digby Taylor from Guns On Pegs, the UK’s biggest shooting marketplace which has more than 100,000 members.

He added that the issues have resulted in bidding wars on young birds, the price of which is already inflated due to rising costs of gas and wheat.

'Whole countryside suffers' from cancelled shoots

Tim Bonner, chief executive of the Countryside Alliance, said: “Shooting contributes billions to the UK economy and is a major lifeline for a wide-ranging list of other businesses, including hospitality.

“Many of the already fragile communities that will be hit with a bad season this year will not have many other sources of income to fall back on. This pain will only be exacerbated by the cost of living crisis. When shooting is negatively impacted, the whole countryside suffers.”

The impact will also be felt by pubs, hotels, caterers and country sport shops - some in areas that rely heavily on shoots for custom during autumn and winter, as tourists disappear.

Anthony Stone, a gunsmith and country clothing merchant who owns Emmett and Stone Country Sports shop near Marlow, Buckinghamshire, said: "Businesses like ours, that trade in products from other rural businesses, rely on a successful shooting season.

“The difference between a good season and a bad one can be catastrophic. When shooting is impacted negatively, many other businesses feel that pain too.”

Loss of income to hit conservation efforts

It is warned that the losses could also have a knock-on impact on future conservation efforts, to which gamekeepers are said to be central.

Garry Doolan, of Aim to Sustain, a coalition of shooting organisations, said: “Shooting sustains huge areas of the countryside and is at the forefront of tackling the biodiversity crisis through the creation of habitat and management of species.

"The shooting community will continue to carry out that role whether or not they have partridges and pheasants this season, but the loss of income is bound to have an impact on future investment in conservation”.

A spokesman for the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said: "This has been a particularly challenging year for avian influenza, with many countries, including France, experiencing large outbreaks of this highly infectious disease.

“We are actively speaking with the European Commission about amending both our import and French export rules to facilitate trade from restricted zones. We will continue to support our game farming and shooting sectors and will be writing to them to update on progress being made to address the interruption to egg supplies.”