Sunday, 14 August 2011

Feet on the Ground, Head in the Clouds

As my wife tells me, I am a grumpy old man, not fit for polite company. Good, because I don't much care for company.

I adore hill walking, particularly in very high places with very few other people. I love the solitude and the contemplative nature of walking in wilderness. Yet it is truly hard to find real solitude, no matter how high you go, how much it hurts to get up there or how early you get up on a morning. There is generally some other hardy soul up there, trying just as hard to get away from you as you are from them.

I'm not totally inured to the pleasure of walking in company – it's great to be able to turn to someone and share the delight in a breathtaking view or a joke to lighten a painful ascent. But for the most part I'm very choosy who I walk with. I love walking with my son Connor – he brings a different dimension to my walking. For him it's all about harder, faster, better – he likes to know how fast he's walking, how many miles we've covered and how much faster we did it compared to last time. He's a good foil to me; I like to walk at a pretty quick pace, but it's not all about speed; much more it's about taking in the beauty of our world and finding space to hear your inner voice. I hope that I slow Connor down just long enough for him to see the splendour of the landscape and I hope he goads me into pushing myself harder than I would naturally. A good compromise on both sides. I hope he'll continue to walk with me for a long time.

It's hard to find a walking partner. Silence is just as important as conversation......

All of which means I don't go on many family walks. Until recently the kids were too young to take up really high and Anita doesn't see the attraction. All the more surprising then, when she suggested a "proper" family walk this weekend. Family walking for us normally consists of somewhere flat, usually near a river, with frequent stops for food. All of which is very nice, but it's not walking – it's a picnic. I normally get grumpy because I've been promised walking and have to settle for a stroll in the valley, next to a river I can't afford to fish, when all I really want to do is get up high.

Today however was different; proper walking was on the cards. And indeed it was; whilst it wasn't the highest or hardest walk in the world, it was a proper family walk on Mam Tor in Derbyshire. Good start, let's have some more!

I may even learn how to behave in polite company if this carries on!

Thursday, 4 August 2011

Orchards’ End

The old apple tree in the back garden finally succumbed to the ravages of time whilst I was away in Scotland. I came back to find it had demolished the roses, but missed the greenhouse.

Sad to think that it had stood there for nigh on 150 years.

It was planted by my great grandfather as part of a substantial orchard at the back of the farmhouse. This tree was the last of that orchard. The poor old thing had seen off two World Wars, as well as the selling off of the farm. Unfortunately it couldn't see off the rot that set in its' heartwood. I feel sad that such a majestic old tree has gone. I am going to plant another tomorrow – it seems only right.

The wood is far too precious to burn for heat, although having said that apple wood makes a pretty good fire – marvellous smoke. And there is the key; lots of the wood will be used for hot and cold smoking. Some will go up to my friend Andy Richardson in Fife, where I hope it will see some salmon or maybe a sea trout. Some of the bigger bits I hope to get turned into bowls. Something to remind us of the end of a legacy.

Then there are the apples – not fully ripe unfortunately, but ripe enough to make chutney and ideal for cider. Maybe we can drink it from the wooden bowls?

The Shoot Benchmarking Report

A pdf of this can also be found here

Shoot Benchmarking

I've just received a copy of the Shoot Benchmarking report 2011. This is a joint venture between Guns on Pegs and the sporting agents, Smiths Gore, to survey the shooting market to assess a number of key parameters that can be tracked across time.

It makes for interesting reading....

The first thing to say is that this is laudable effort from the two companies and as a piece of research is a pretty good tool. This is only the second year that this survey has been undertaken, and I for one look forward to the time when the survey becomes a bit more established and some real trend data can be properly assessed.

I'll append the full report for anyone who wants to go through the detail, but it is also available here here .

I spent a good deal of the 20 years that I worked commissioning and looking at market research, so I hope that I can view this from a professional perspective.

Firstly, there are a number of weaknesses of the study; the sample base is only 110 shoots – a very low number when you consider how many shoots are running at either a DIY or commercial level in the UK at the moment. This is in no way a statistically representative quantitative sample – it is however a pretty robust qualitative sample with lots of numbers. This is important because in effect it means that findings from this report cannot be interpolated for the whole population of UK shoots. A shame...let's hope they get much more participation next year.

Secondly, data is not split between England, Scotland, Wales and N. Ireland, which I think is a mistake. Obviously data has been aggregated as I would surmise that there are insufficient data in each cohort for a statistically significant result. This is a shame as highlighting inter-regional differences is not only interesting, but also important.

Thirdly, they have opted to split the data by Commercial vs. Non-commercial shoots. Shoots were able to decide for themselves if they were commercial or non-commercial. This can lead to significant errors in the data; shoots were advised that this decision should be based on if the shoot had any "let" days or not. However, you can envisage a small shoot that maybe has one or two lets days considering itself a commercial shoot and a shoot that has ten let days, not considering that this is sufficient to be considered commercial. This distinction needs to be tightened up, perhaps based upon a combination of the number of let days sold and number of birds put down?

Finally, they don't actually say who they have spoken it solely gamekeepers, as in the recent NGO survey, or it is a combination of gamekeeper, factor and the Shoot captain.....For it is my experience that the wide variety of data reported here is rarely held in a single pair of hands in a shoot. Rather the gamekeeper will be expert in the bird numbers and returns, whilst others will be in a better position to talk about profitability.

However, enough griping, this is an interesting report and as such should be applauded.

110 shoots were surveyed, accounting for 2,400 day hooting between them, over 350,000 acres of land, with a total of 1.1 million birds released.

Let's have a look at some of the really interesting findings...

Firstly, bag sizes on commercial shoots were not massively bigger than on their non-commercial counterparts; the average bag size for a commercial shoot in this survey was 200, in comparison to 110 for non-commercial shoots. This is an encouraging finding, as tales of very large bags abound. However, it should be remembered that market research is a pretty poor tool at getting to the real truth rather than the perceived truth. Bag sizes showed little variation between let days and private days, irrespective of commercial or non-commercial shoot.

Secondly, the internet is playing an increasingly important role in finding shooting. Whilst word of mouth recommendation and repeat business were the two key methods of finding shooting, the role of the sporting agent suffered at the hand of internet sites such as guns on pegs.

Guns paid an average of £30 + VAT for pheasants and partridge (range £26 to £32)

Increases in corn and fuel prices drove up the fixed costs running a shoot however commercial shoots were adept at controlling variable costs to contain the overall cost of shooting. Non –commercial shoots were less willing or able to control variable costs.

Consequently Keepers salaries remained the same as seen the previous year (£20K for head keeper, £16K for gamekeeper), however benefits in kind such as housing, utility bills, clothing... were reduced to control costs.

Profitability seems to be a function of the ability to control fixed costs and having greater numbers of let days. The most profitable shoots had the highest number of released birds and the highest number of let days.

Fascinating stuff. Let's hope some of the wrinkles get ironed out next time they do it.