Over this period, like many people, I have had a chance to reflect and think about the future of the shooting industry as a whole but mainly to do with Stalking and the differences in the way it is managed through modern changes within the industry, and, for the most part how much relevance the Old Victorian Style Estate Stalking has in the future.
The Romanticism of the Victorian Estates has been the forefront of the Stalking industry for a very long time, in fact, many stalkers still perceive the practices and the customs held within those ideals as being what stalking is all about. The idyllic atmosphere of the “Victorian Highland Estate” of long open hill and catered for days in the most secluded parts of the UK by experienced estate stalkers and a team of ghillies is the aspiration of many a hunter. Hunting that majestic Red and picking just the right beast is still today in many a stalkers dreams. It has always been the fact, along with African big game, as a must do for every “hunter” to experience that hospitality for themselves and undoubtedly it is also where “Hunting Tourism” originally started. For almost 200 years Scotland has been a prime location for the hunting world and to bag that majestic “Royal” that “Monarch of the Glen” will probably always attract some level of interest.
It is now 2020, we are sitting in the middle of an international pandemic crisis over Covid-19, stalking at the most part is non existent at this moment in time due to travel restrictions and for us in the Highlands it is strange to see barely a tourist on the road let alone anything in regards to hunting tourism. So while this crisis is upon us it is a time to reflect on how our industry is run. Over this period I have been told many times, by those involved, of Estate workers, from keepers to cleaners, being paid off and losing their jobs. This has showed a heavy lack of loyalty from estate owners towards people who essentially work tirelessly to keep their assets working on a daily basis in their absence. So this article is a projection of MY OPINION on what the future holds for the traditional Highland estate.
Estates in general are usually not the main business of their owner, yes, they are run as businesses but in many circumstances they are run as subsidiary businesses from their main income, but, that does not mean that estates run themselves. The average Estate still has Factors/Estate Managers, Gamekeepers/ Stalkers, Grounds Keepers/Maintenance, Cleaners, Cooks etc etc. so they are not small operations within themselves and for the most part have to earn its own income, although, subsidised by the main income interests of the owner/s many estates, like any other business, also rely on other factors to keep running, part from the initial investments by the owners they also require other forms of income to keep their estates running which could come in the form of Holiday Lets , Tourism, government grants and of course the main topic of this article , Stalking and Fishing. Over this period, again like most other businesses, estate owners have had to rethink how they run their own assets and in return work out how to make the most out of what they have, hence why the massive loss of estate jobs. This leads to question how a restructure of these estates will look and in return the services these estates provide as well as the type of staff they would need to employ.
Over the years there has been a clear increase in the amount of people interested in fields sports, shooting in general has became the largest part of this market. With this increase we have seen a huge increase in independent sporting and shooting businesses offering the same services that traditional estates offer but at half or even quarter the price an estate has to charge. The estates are feeling this change, the pressures on estates are immense, financially for many estates their outgoings are far more than their income as a stand alone business. Because of this estates are also having to adapt and instead of employing people to do certain jobs themselves they are now leasing out their facilities to third parties, using this method they are increasing their returns and in return removing some of their own pressures on their own finances and responsibilities. Do not get me wrong there is very little government backing for sporting estates and increased taxes like the sporting tax has added pressure on the estates to restructure their business models.
So how does this look for the future for stalking?
In my opinion, bare in mind this is my opinion only, I can see the days of the Estate Stalker or Gamekeeper being a thing of the past, in many regards it already has with gamekeepers becoming more self employed or part time as well as taking other roles on away from their gamekeeping duties. For some estate owners to guarantee a salary of £26k per annum plus house plus vehicles and clothing etc , just for one member of staff, is becoming very difficult to justify, then the maintenance of buildings and grounds as well as sporting taxes and other legal and political responsibilities and obligations make their current business model seem not worth it. Due to this I see estates using third parties to make money from their current assets. Lets take sporting for example. an estate can lease out their sporting rights to an individual third party company, with this they can maximise a steady income from a guaranteed yearly lease (whether sporting is happening or not due to seasonal restrictions) as well as remove other taxes and responsibilities that are now moved on to that third party company they have leased the rights too, such as sporting tax and cull obligations etc.
They also do not need to provide a house or vehicles or clothing etc to an employee but instead LET out the property or properties they would usually retain for employees, these properties then can contribute either monthly or weekly income depending how they would like to market their Lets. This business model to an estate maximises financial return of assets that they would normally lose money on also with this model you can focus reinvestment into estate infrastructure and development. Easy now to see where I am going with this.
What this means for stalking though is that you will be less likely to receive the same hospitality as you would have had from an estate run day, staff numbers maybe less or the level of hospitality will again be dependent on another party providing it, such as a hotel etc. To be honest though, in regards to accommodation many stalkers prefer to find their own accommodation that suits their own budgets. Part of the package an estate offers is the expertise of an on site guide/stalker, I do not see this changing as even the third party deer management company can offer that level of expertise. What I do see and already have seen is an increase in unaccompanied and syndicate stalking being available offering a more flexible service than an estate can offer, whether this is a good thing or a bad thing is up to the individual to decide. One of the benefits I do see for the individual stalker is that what was less affordable before may be now open to the average person, estate stalking is still very much an exclusive experience and un-reachable for many on an average income so this change might shorten the gap.
I am not advocating that this change is good or bad for the industry, a lot of parts to the shooting industry relies on stalking and the sports to happen to thrive. Opening up stalking though will increase the retail sector of the market which will mean shops, gunmakers and clothing manufacturers may see added revenue in the industry and there will be a change on how the landscape looks in regards to outdoor pursuits.
In conclusion the market is changing, Covid-19 or not it has been changing for a while, Traditional Victorian Estates are having to adapt to current climates, although interest in shooting has increased the political climate over hunting in general has never been more volatile and estate owners have seen this. The Highlands still attracts millions of tourists a year and over the last ten years many estates have adapted into offering weekly let accommodation and building chalet parks etc. I see fishing pursuits increasing to add to the idyllic marketing of those holiday Lets but I see stalking and shooting being put aside as a priority for these estates. What hospitality that was once reserved for the rich who wanted to stalk a Royal will be expanded to open up those exclusive estates to families to enjoy the outdoors, with the increase of revenue from tourism we will see an increase of hill paths and cycle route offering better infrastructure for families to enjoy. Some Estates already offer this with chalet parks, quad biking experiences and outdoor adventure programs. The prestige of being the “Game Keeper” of such and such estate maybe a thing of the past very soon which in that respect will be a great loss to country life. Opening country life to everyone is big business and this has not gone amiss to landowners and with many already having facilities available it is not a huge financial change, but, it will be a big change on how the landscape of country living may look in the Highlands. This change has happened from time to time throughout history though, once upon a time whole villages in the Highlands were dedicated to the accommodation of the workers of those estates now it is not, for example look at Tomich village where I come from was once only inhabited by estate workers for Guisachan.
The debate will go on and the old timers will reminisce, but, change is inevitable.