Is 2018 the Right Time to Hunt Scotland?

“Country sports” (bird shooting, deer stalking and fishing) are big business in Scotland, worth well in excess of £200M ($263M US; €224M) annually. Scotland offers a variety of big game, including native red stag and roe deer, fallow deer (which have been roaming free there since the Roman Empire) and introduced sika and axis deer, Soay sheep and feral goats. Recent research identified more than 270,000 “country sports” trips with over 910,000 visitor nights. The total direct and downstream value of deer management alone in Scotland is pegged at £140M ($180M US; €152M). The Scottish Country Sports Tourism Group (SCSTG) has developed a five-year strategy for sustainable growth and has conducted or reviewed several economic studies to support their view.

On the other side of the coin is the desire by some currently in power to change land ownership patterns in Scotland. It is reported that only 432 landowners own 50% of the private land in Scotland. The Land Reform Act aims to change that pattern through a number of “reforms.” Those that directly affect shooting and stalking include (1) a “sporting rates” tax on the hypothetical sporting value of the land, whether it is shot over or not; (2) providing increased power to Scottish National Heritage (SNH) over deer management; (3) providing a £10M fund to support community buyouts of private lands (even in the absence of a willing seller) and (4) addressing agricultural land holdings, which often subsidize shooting and stalking estates.

Remember that under the European game management model currently in practice in Scotland the landowner owns the game on the property. Sporting estates generate income from a number of sources, including paid shooting opportunities, selling game meat and wildlife tourism (mainly bird watching). According to one report, 88% of the estates provide shooting (driven birds, walk-up bird shooting and deer stalking). Many of the estates are modest in size; the average income was reported by SCSTG at £51,000 ($67,000 US; €57,000). Additionally, 38% of the estates surveyed reported that the shooting opportunities were self-supporting and broke even, whereas 22% reported that shooting on their sites lost money but was financed by other activities.

Taking each issue in turn, much of the initial concern seems to revolve around the sporting rates tax and how that will be evaluated. The law itself is vague: “In arriving at the net annual value under subsection (8) of land and heritages consisting of deer forests, regard may be had to such factors relating to deer management as the assessor considers appropriate” (Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2016, Part 6, 76(2)(b)).

We contacted outfitter Mike McCrave of Mike McCrave Hunting Ltd. (see Report 9328) for his take, and he reported tax rates between £2 and £5 per hectare, depending on habitat type and use. One of the properties he hunts owns three estates totaling 110,000 acres (45,000 hectares), which likely will incur an annual tax of £110,000. These costs will doubtless be passed along to the shooters. The tax has been in effect (but had not been calculated) since April 1, and bills were scheduled to be sent out Sept. 30, 2017.

Increased taxes forcing estates out of business are not the only concern. Part 8 of the act makes several significant amendments to the Deer (Scotland) Act of 1996. The ministers have established practices to encourage local communities to be involved in deer management, and additional regulations may be enacted. Deer management plans are required and SNH must approve the plans. Further, SNH monitors the number of deer killed and can require additional deer to be removed by the estate to meet its objectives, which include agriculture, woodlands, “damage to public interests of a social, economic or environmental nature,” injury to livestock through overgrazing or deer that have become a danger or “potential danger” to public safety (Land Reform [Scotland] Act 2016, Part 8, 80(2) (a–b)).

It’s generally accepted that SNH is interested in seeing far fewer deer than are currently held on the estates and that deer management plans that reduce deer numbers will make several smaller estates economically unviable.

In fact, there are already reports about SNH requiring significant deer herd reductions, including a threat to order marksmen to cull deer against the wishes of the estates for the first time in Scottish history. As reported in Sporting Rifle Shooter magazine, the North Assynt Estate, purchased by the Assynt Crofters Trust in part with a donation from SNH, has been ordered to enter into a “voluntary” Section 7 agreement to reduce deer numbers on the estate. Reportedly, if the agreement wasn’t signed, SNH would invoke a Section 8 order to remove the deer against the estate’s wishes. The estate has been active in fencing off ancient woodlands to meet conservation objectives, but the aim here seems to be to reduce deer. Reducing deer will affect the economic viability of the estate and its shooting program.

Finally, community buyout of estates will not necessarily be for shooting purposes. Expect buyers to be more interested in local organic produce, B&Bs and community commons. The reduced acreage available for shooting estates will be reflected in decreased opportunities and, likely, increased prices for hunts.

So, what are the impacts of all this on visiting hunters? First, the imposition of the sporting tax will drive up prices starting in 2018. Once estates see this year’s bills, they will calculate it into next year’s prices. Depending on the type of game you seek, expect a 10% or greater increase in prices for 2018 and beyond.

Second, some estates will drop out of the shooting business. The likely victims are those smaller estates operating in the red that are trying to recoup their management costs by offering shooting opportunities. As smaller estates drop out of the marketplace, local UK and visiting EU hunters will be forced to move to more upscale estates, increasing competition for existing deer shoots. Supply and demand predicts that prices will increase. This may take a year or two to develop and may not be seen directly in the marketing of hunts, especially in the US.

Third, reductions in deer numbers also will reduce hunting options. Long-term reductions in deer herds will be through culling female deer rather than removing marketable bucks/stags. Trophy quality on the larger estates will remain, but they will have fewer animals to market and, again, supply and demand will kick in. Ironically, reducing the deer herds will only reduce tax revenues, as the sporting value of a property will decrease over time.

In the short run, estate owners can appeal their taxes (but only after paying them), and there will certainly be more attention paid to deer management plans and SNH’s attempts to manage them. If SNH proceeds with culling deer against estate owners’ wishes, it will call additional media attention to this situation. Ultimately, a political solution will be needed.

It’s clear that the best time to hunt Scotland might be right now. While 2018 prices will likely increase, they almost certainly won’t be going down any time beyond that. Full implementation of this land act can only diminish opportunities and increase the price of deer stalking and bird shooting.

Mike McCrave (011-44-1573-470-771; www.huntingvacationscotland.com) tells us, “Most of my hunts in Scotland are seven-night/five-day traditional free-range red stag hunts. Package prices were $5,995 per hunter in 2017, with sika an add-on for $1,400. Nonhunters are $3,850. The weeks I have available are Aug. 26–Sept. 2, Sept. 2–9, 16–23 and 23–30. Prices for 2018 are not yet set; I don’t know what they will be but hopefully not too much of an increase.

“I also offer hunts for hunters who want bigger red stags and Japanese sika, plus Scottish wild goats and some Soay sheep. We often continue these hunts in England for the deer species available there.”

Our database includes 10 articles on Scottish hunts (often combined with other UK hunts) and 48 reports. By far the majority of our Scotland reports are on hunts run by Michael Grosse of International Adventures Unlimited (970-641-5369; http://internationaladventures.us).

Grosse tells us he doesn’t expect any major impacts on his operation from the land act. “Most of the properties I hunt are maximizing their sporting revenues. They will be less impacted by the new tax than properties that get only a small portion of their revenues from sporting but must still pay sporting taxes on the entire property. The new tax won’t add much if anything to our hunts.

“This legislation was not well thought out. Ten million pounds is a drop in the bucket; it won’t buy much land at current prices. And it may even have a negative effect by making sporting opportunities even more expensive, putting them out of reach of more people.”

Grosse tells us he is roughly 90% booked for his 2018 spring roe deer hunts on the Royal Deeside estate and about 70% booked for his fall hunts. He expects to be fully booked by the end of show season. “With 40 properties to hunt, I’m well positioned to react to changing conditions. We are producing New Zealand–quality red stags for a fraction of the price of New Zealand hunts.”

Hunting Scotland in 2018 will reinforce the value of shooting to the industry there, and you’ll likely save yourself a good deal of money by hunting sooner rather than later. If you hunt Scotland this year, be sure to file a report.