The guns are back in the security cabinet, the dogs are taking a well-earned rest, the shooting season is over for another year. From all accounts it has been successful although the weather has been diabolical for weeks on end. I have been lucky, most of my days have been fine or, at least, the rain has not been torrential.
Lowland shooting has grown at an amazing rate over recent years with no sign of any slowdown in the demand for days in the countryside with friends. That growth has brought its own problems, not least ensuring that the quarry enters the food chain. Whilst many small shoots give the shot birds to their guns, local pubs and residents, most rely on game dealers to process and sell them. From game dealers giving a fair price for the birds a few years ago, such has been the supply that many now charge to take them.
Shooting has been under sustained attack by those who wish to see it banned, not least Chris Packham, Mark Avery and their Wild Justice campaign lobby. Yet the shooting community has a positive message to convey, a major boost to the rural economy and extensive conservation work carried out by gamekeepers that benefits wildlife. If it wishes to counter the arguments of those opposed, the shooting community needs to spread the message and prove that it upholds the highest standards of animal welfare and safety.
The British Game Alliance was launched a couple of years ago to address both of these issues. It acts as a marketing board to expand sales of game meat and as an assurance scheme to ensure the highest standards. Shoots join the scheme and undertake to uphold the list of 23 standards, submitting to a regular audit to ensure compliance. The standards are built around the Code of Good Shooting Practice but go further to guarantee quality to customers. The assurance scheme is administered by Acoura, part of Lloyds Register, which also runs the Red Tractor scheme so has a good track record.
By the middle of November, 620 shots had signed up, a quarter of them small, representing one third of all game shot. Membership is growing by around thirty per month with a 95% renewal rate. Half have been audited and it is hoped that all will be by the start of next season. The process has been seen as positive with shoots helped to comply after minor infringements have been found. The most common is a failure to register with the local authority as a food business, a legal requirement when game is sold, but most local authorities are unaware of this requirement!
The biggest success has been in the promotion of game as a nutritious source of protein. After months of negotiations, contracts are beginning to be made public, increasing the demand for game meat significantly. The first was a deal with Sutherland in Hong Kong to import a quarter of a million birds from the UK over the next season.
Samworth Brothers is one of the country’s largest food manufacturers with a turnover of over £1 billion and brands such as Ginsters, Melton Mowbray Pies and West Cornwall Pastry Company. It is now developing new products based on game including game pie, game pork pie and pheasant and fennel sausage rolls using BGA assured meat. This will give a major boost to sales and public awareness as through Samworth and other processors, game products will be on sale at airports such as Heathrow and sports stadia such as Wembley and Twickenham.
Agreements have now been confirmed with Compass, Sodexo, Delaware North and Aramark, the four biggest catering companies in the world, along with a number of prominent hotel and restaurant chains. The volume is staggering, Compass has a turnover of £1.9 billion in the UK alone. It is hoped to break into government procurement through these companies, including the NHS and MOD. They need to source protein and there is no healthier, more nutritious and cheaper source than game meat.
These achievements in such a short time have been extraordinary and bring huge benefits to the food chain. Game dealers have much to gain as they supply the meat for these new customers. The largest, Lincolnshire Game, has just announced that, from the start of next season, it will only buy birds from BGA assured shoots to satisfy the demands of their customers. It is expected that others will follow suit which will give a big incentive for shoots to join the BGA. As the game dealers can improve profit margins, they will be able to pay shoots for assured game. If the price were to rise to £1 per brace, that would mean an extra £10 million into the rural economy, a great boost especially in remote rural areas.
The supermarkets have also recorded a big increase in demand for game and set high standards, including guaranteed lead free meat. This specification will require investment by the processors but that should give a significant return.
Of course, there are still challenges, lead shot amongst them, but the BGA has made great strides in its short existence. It is essential that politicians and others see a community that is capable of self-regulation and promoting the highest standards to counter the campaigns attacking the sport. Everyone who loves shooting must get behind this initiative and ensure that the progress is continued.