As we head into November, we are entering the main period of the shooting season, thankfully free of the draconian Covid restrictions it faced during the last one. The start was not auspicious as the Glorious Twelfth, the opening of the grouse season in August, was not as resounding success. Grouse are entirely natural, not reared and released, and thus vulnerable to vagaries of the weather and other limiting factors. The cold late spring and wet May were less than ideal for chick survival so grouse numbers have been low this year. This has resulted in many shoot days cancelled or reduced.
Pheasant and partridge are released on lowland estates, most reared on game farms and delivered in late July. In the spring of 2020, the pandemic was rife and the first lockdown imposed. Not surprisingly, many shoots were reluctant to order poults, paying a deposit as usual, when it was not clear whether there would be a shooting season at all. Some decided to close for a year, others reduced numbers. The upshot was that some 50% to 60% fewer birds were released and the season severely disrupted with lockdowns in November and January.
However, there appears to be a strong recovery this year, reflecting repressed demand. Some shoots may have closed for good whilst others have reduced their activity either in the numbers of days or the birds shot per day, but those shoots letting days report that the vast majority have been sold. It is true that sales from game farms were around 20% lower than before the pandemic, but that reflects the number of birds left on the ground from last season. Some shoots caught up hens and reared their own poults.
It is three years since the British Game Alliance was launched. It has recently changed its name to British Game Assurance to more accurately reflect what it does and in the light of the launch of Aim to Sustain, an alliance of sporting and conservation organisations. The main objective is to promote sales of assured game and, by imposing strict standards on shoots through assurance audits, encourage self-regulation in terms of animal welfare and nature conservation.
There are signs of success which have recently been published. Retail sales of game have grown by 9.6% over the three years since the launch of the BGA with many supermarkets increasing their offers. The hospitality sector has taken a hammering during the pandemic but there are reports that here, too, interest is increasing.
For example, Youngs, the south of England pub and hotel chain, is to promote game in over 200 restaurants, Thwaites Hotels will be featuring game across their range on all their menus together with the BGA logo, whilst Peach pubs in the heart of England will have game on their menus and specials boards. The BGA only promotes feathered game but it is hoped that venison will be widely available on restaurant menus as the weather gets colder. This is particularly important as the lack of demand for venison over the past eighteen months has led to reduced stalking and a huge increase in deer numbers.
In terms of retail sales, Sainsbury’s sold over half a million pheasants last year and has increased orders for the coming Christmas season. The Co-op was delighted with the success of its BGA Game BBQ last summer and intends to repeat the offer next year. Waitrose continues to sell large numbers of birds in all its stores whilst Morrisons, which has historically never sold game, will be stocking six lines of BGA Assured products from the end of October, including whole birds for Christmas.
The MoD buys game to feed the armed forces and the Combined Services Culinary Arts team has adopted BGA assured game to showcase in its competitive menus. There are several other opportunities for public sector procurement and these are being actively explored. It is quite remarkable what the small team at the BGA has achieved in such a short space of time, progress that is warmly welcomed. Pheasant was even on Sodexo’s menu at the recent Chelsea Flower Show with sales exceeding expectations by 100%. Game can also be bought at numerous sporting venues such football stadia.
It is obviously critical that shoots sign up to the BGA and their produce achieves assured accreditation to exploit these new and expanding markets. Game meat has many advantages, both in terms of healthy nutrition and animal welfare, so it is good to see consumption rising. The demand for shooting has grown rapidly over recent years and it is critical that best practice is demonstrated to the wider public. The assurance scheme guarantees that the highest standards are upheld, important in the face of increasing pressure from some quarters to restrict or even ban game shooting. One essential feature is to ensure that all game fit for human consumption enters the food chain with any remainder going into pet food. After all the disruptions season last year, all those involved are looking forward to a successful season over the next three months.