How to get ground – and keep it!
- Credit: DOM H
We are often asked the best way to get new shooting ground on our overcrowded island – without paying through the nose. Here are some of our top tips
It’s one thing getting down to your local shooting ground to shoot a round of clays, but if you want to go after the ‘real thing’ and you don’t happen to know the right people, how do you go about it? We’ve called on the experience of our trusty contributors to give you a few tips…
Get to know the locals It’s not what you know, it’s who you know, and that can certainly be true when it comes to tracking down new ground. And if this means spending a bit of time at the local pub, then so be it! If you are looking to get involved with a driven game syndicate, a good way is to join the shoot as a beater or picker up first. Contact the National Organisation of Beaters and Pickers Up (NOBs) to find out how. If you have a gundog that you want to work, even better. A good bet would be to find your local gundog trainer, have some lessons to see if you are up to the job and ask if he or she knows of any shoots locally that you can get involved with. Spaces that come up on small syndicates (which are the more affordable ones) tend to go to people already involved with the shoot (either as a beater or picker up). You might have to be patient, but again, it’s about knowing the right people. Many beaters often beat on several shoots and you may get to hear of a Gun vacancy on another shoot.
Websites like www.gunsonpegs.com are also worth a look: they advertise all sorts of vacancies on shoots, not just the mega expensive ones – and it costs nothing to use. But if pheasants aren’t really your thing and you’d rather spend a few hours in a pigeon hide, shoot some rabbits or stalk some deer, then the affordable option is to find a farmer who needs some help managing numbers on his ground.
Without doubt, the best person to speak to about this is our game chef Mark Ghilchrist, who, over the last four years, has picked up around 30,000-45,000 acres of permission. He doesn’t share any of it and he doesn’t have to pay rent anywhere. “Getting the first farm is the hardest part,” says Mark, “but it won’t come to you – you have to go out and find a farmer that will let you shoot on the land. Ask friends if they know any farmers but if the worst comes to the worst, you will have to cold call.
“The farmer is looking for three key things from someone who shoots on the land,” explains Mark. “You must be trustworthy. Farms are multi-million pound installations, so trust is important. You need to be reliable, so do the things you are telling him you are going to do. And you need to give feedback about what you have done.
Don’t worry about how much or little experience you have, either. “If you can get the land and put the effort in, you will get good at shooting,” says Mark. “For the most part, it’s just about practice. A prime example of this is my rabbit shooting. I had none, couldn’t shoot a rifle, got a piece of land, went all the time, got good at it, got a .22. Now the farmer is happy because he no longer has a rabbit problem, which in turn means I get more shooting.”
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Create a good first impression
You wouldn’t turn up to a job interview in tatty overalls with a roll-up hanging out of your mouth (or maybe you would?!) so why treat a meeting with a new landowner any differently? Look presentable and listen. Who would you be most likely to allow onto your land: a smart, polite and courteous lad or a gobby, scruffy know-it-all?
Pick the time you go to approach the farmer wisely. “Trying to make friends with someone while they are in the middle of harvest will result in four letter words and he will remember you as an irritation,” warns Mark. “If you don’t have a reputation for getting a lot of stuff shot, you need to make a good first impression. Farmers are generally well educated so you should start by addressing him as ‘Mr’. Make sure you give him a polite get out. I normally say: ‘Hello Mr X. I’m not sure we have met but I am Mark Gilchrist. I was wondering if there would be any chance if I could come and shoot the rabbits on your land.’ If it is a yes then the ball starts rolling. If you want to get a ‘no’ then call him “mate” – he isn’t your mate.You need to take rejection well, if the farmer says no, he will normally do so very politely.”
For more tips on keeping farmers happy, see this month’s Fieldcraft feature on p66.
Mark has developed an App (G4EMA) to help smooth the way. He explains: “The introductions that I make are a bit easier as I will turn up to the farm with my Android tablet and show the farmer what I have done for other farmers. This does three things: it shows that I can get bodies on the deck, that I will be giving him feedback (the system is now automated) and that I am trusted by other farmers.”
Mark describes the App as a “serious tool for keeping permission”. “If you are not doing what the App does automatically, then you either have to spend a lot of time telling the farmer what you have done or you are not supplying him with the feedback, which will mean you struggle to get more land or hold on to the stuff you have.”
It is a great act of trust on the part of a landowner to allow you onto their ground with a gun. Especially if there is not already a long standing personal relationship there. Sometimes a bit of airgun work on feral pigeons can lead to more. Mark is another case in point here: he has picked up a great deal of deer stalking and pigeon shooting of the back of his pest control. “If I promise to solve the farmer’s rabbit problem – and deliver on that promise – they are more likely to be receptive when I ask for other shooting opportunities.” Which brings us to another crucial point…
Do a good job
If you get the chance to shoot on some new ground, make sure you do the very best job you can. Go when you are asked, or when you say you will – not just when you feel like it. “If the farmer rings you with a problem then you need to solve it,” says Mark. “If you are the sort of person that wants to shoot big bags only or just the bucks when it suits you, then your best approach will be to get out your cheque book.”
Clean up after yourself. Stick to the landowner’s ground rules. And always be courteous to other people on the ground: we recently heard of a gamekeeper who took offence at a dog walker trespassing and warned them that the dogs might get shot. He failed to recognise that the dog walker was a good friend of the farmer and the dogs themselves belonged to the farmer’s wife!
Join a club or syndicate
It doesn’t have to be a pricey game shooting syndicate – there are plenty of ways to get quality sport on a budget. Alan Jarrett is chairman of Kent Wildfowling and Conservation Club, which, despite what its name suggests, offers members more than just wildfowling opportunities. “Joining one of the wildfowling clubs is great for people that don’t have the time or the contacts to find shooting of their own – the club does it for you,” says Alan.
“At KWCA we have managed to pick up 600 acres of pigeon shooting for the club through a mutual contact that Joe Bloggs driving around looking for shooting wouldn’t have found. Joining a club also takes away a lot of the uncertainty – the club administrators are the ones who have to worry about finding and keeping the shooting rights.”
The type of shooting that club members have access to obviously depends on the club, but like one or two of the bigger clubs, the KWCA has diversified into pigeon shooting and rough shooting – and latterly, even fishing. Airgun hunting in a number of woodland sites in Kent launches on 1 April, and the club has also expanded the area it covers. A constant push to acquire new land now means that 35% of its members come from outside Kent. So it’s worth looking into your local (or even not so local) wildfowling club to see what’s on offer. Annual KWCA membership costs just £230 – and that includes £56 BASC insurance – so it really is good value. “It’s an affordable and trouble-free way of getting into the sport of shooting and making new contacts,” adds Alan. “The club has more contacts than the individual would have, and in many cases, access to greater funds.”
You might even set up your own syndicate with some like-minded friends – landowners in these straitened times might be happy to generate a little extra revenue and by splitting costs and workload, it’s amazing how cheap a spot of shooting can be. Again, ask around. And if you need any legal advice, contact BASC.
On the DSC course we recently attended there were a couple of candidates that had been required to get the qualification to conform with their employer’s insurance criteria, but most people felt it could only help your case if you could show dedication and professionalism in the form of a qualification. If you were a landowner and you had to choose between two people with the same level of experience, wouldn’t you choose the one that also had a professional qualification?
One of the most important things you can do is get your own shooting insurance. Ask any farmer about this and you will get the reply: “I wouldn’t allow any shooter on my ground if he couldn’t show me he had insurance.” This is a no-brainer.
Sporting Shooter offers its own insurance cover through the Sporting Shooter Association (SSA). Membership offers you up to £2million third-party public liability insurance cover for any one incident arising from using your shotgun, rifle or air rifle. You get an ID card to show landowners as proof of that insurance. There are lots of other benefits and discounts too – all for just £17.95 a year by direct debit. You never know when you might need it, as Dom recalls: “I still remember with something approaching horror the time I encountered a rambler illegally camped on a local farm. I was out night shooting with some pals. We had permission to be on the land and had cleared it with the farmer that we would shoot that night.
“My lamp man spotted the green of canvas in the hedgerow and when we investigated, the culprit was hidden in a one-man tent in the verge. He was trespassing. He shouldn’t have been there. But he was, and I still shudder at what could have happened.”
Mark Gilchrist: email@example.com
SSA: www.subscription.co.uk/ssa/SSPG; tel: 0844 848 8058