The UK shooting industry reacts to the news of ‘no birds’ from Europe

Red-legged Partridge, Alectoris rufa

Partridge shoots have been particularly hard hit by the shortages, with only 30% set to take place as planned - Credit: Alba Casals MitjÃ/Getty Images

We outline why there are shortages of game birds this season in the UK, and gauge the reaction of key organisations in the shooting industry

After more than two years of Covid restrictions and disruption, we’d hoped that this season might see a return to normality on UK shoots. Unfortunately, this is looking unlikely.

Obviously, last year we suffered our own relatively minor outbreaks of avian flu and there were more on the continent, in particular France, which provides UK shoots with a significant amount of hatching eggs, day-old chicks and 7-week old poults. While outbreaks on these shores were largely contained, those in France developed rapidly, ultimately leading to the freezing of all poultry movement.

As the authorities on both sides scrambled to find a solution, there were faint hopes that we might be able to see some “late” game to provide some much-needed stock. However, these faint hopes have been dashed as it has now been confirmed that we are not to expect any French game for the coming season, the reason being that both UK and EU law prevents all imports for 90 days following an outbreak of avian flu.

Initially, there was a great deal of confusion due to changes in EU law which shortened the time period for which restrictions would apply. However, these changes were introduced after Brexit and therefore do not apply to the UK. Worryingly, the latest figures from France show a slight resurgence in cases in the Vendee and Pays de la Loire areas, known as the French game farming hub.

Consequently, an increasing number of shoots have been informed that they won’t have any game this season, a fact compounded by the prices of fuel and essential shoot supplies which have increased dramatically as the war in Ukraine affects supplies. 

The consequences of such drastic reductions are sure to be felt throughout the industry. Liam Stokes, CEO of the British Game Assurance says: “The avian flu outbreak that has devastated the coming season is putting livelihoods at risk. We will all know of shoots that have mothballed and we are already hearing of redundancies across our sector. Many gamekeepers are feeling the pressure, the same gamekeepers who make game shooting possible, who are responsible for the conservation that beautifies our countryside and undertake the husbandry that puts game on the nation’s plates.”

According to a recent survey by Guns On Pegs, planned shoot days with partridge shooting will be particularly hard hit. The survey found that while around 70% of pheasant shooting was set to go ahead, only 30% of partridge shooting would take place as planned. It is feared that the disruption could turn out to be much worse, with some estimates placing the reduction in pheasant shooting closer to 50%.

Alex Keeble, Game & Wildlife Advisor for the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust (GWCT) says: “Although avian flu has reduced both red-legged partridges and pheasants this season, partridge numbers have been greatest affected due to the reliance on imported stock. With the lack of early-September partridge days, some shoots are diversifying and are hosting simulated game days to try and balance books with the lost revenue. 
“Shoots which are going ahead have increased the price per bird shot to compensate for the increased cost of wheat, diesel, fertilizer, game feed, and game cover. However, the prices are continually rising so is the initial price increase enough? It could be time to focus on quality rather than quantity. Smaller bag days, instead of larger days and sell shoot days as per day instead of per bird to make the day more about the experience. 
“More shoots are beginning to think about setting up laying units for this coming season to be less reliant on game from abroad. Liaising closely with your gamebird vet and Game Farmers Association is vital for anyone who is thinking about setting up laying units this season.
“Gamekeepers are already being made redundant, shoots which have to pay for sporting rights are one of the main groups who have been hit harder due to avian flu. Rent still needs to be paid regardless of whether the shoot is operational or not.” 

We would like to remind our readers that the Gamekeepers Welfare Trust (GWT) is there to help gamekeepers and other professionals in these difficult times, providing confidential advice and guidance to anyone feeling that pressure. In the meantime, if you currently have a day booked with an Estate, we strongly recommend that you contact the shoot to establish if they are still able to provide your day.

The ripple effect
The knock-on effect from such drastic cuts are sure to be felt industry-wide. Liam Stokes, CEO of the British Game Assurance says: “The avian flu outbreak that has devastated the coming season is putting livelihoods at risk. We will all know of shoots that have mothballed and we are already hearing of redundancies across our sector. Many gamekeepers are feeling the pressure, the same gamekeepers who make game shooting possible, who are responsible for the conservation that beautifies our countryside and undertake the husbandry that puts game on the nation’s plates.”