Dominic Prince

The ultimate trophy asset for the new-money elite

Dominic Prince says grouse shooting attracts the super-rich — and demand will keep estate prices rising

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Grouse shooting and grouse moors have historically been the preserve of the British aristocracy. For anyone interested in game, shooting grouse is about as good as it gets. If pheasant shooting is a yacht, grouse shooting is a luxury private liner reserved only for the very rich.

Owning a grouse moor is like owning a very expensive, extremely high-maintenance toy — and there are a group of buyers who are making grouse moors one of the most sought-after assets in the land. With only 300 moors in Britain, specialist agents say that there’s a queue of newly wealthy buyers but very few sellers, and consequently prices are heading skyward. The people buying moors are invariably self-made men who are not worried about reaping an income from this most prestigious of sporting trophy assets.

However, according to the Moorland Association, a grouse moor let out on a commercial basis can in fact yield quite significant revenues. Shooting runs from the Glorious 12th of August to 10 December, and the association says letting out 16 shooting days in the season could bring an income of just under £300,000.

Last year one of England’s premier grouse moors, Wemmergill near Barnard Castle, recorded its most successful season ever: more than 16,000 birds were shot. The moor is not owned by a grand landed family but by a former chicken farmer turned pub entrepreneur, Michael Cannon.

Cannon joined the list of the new-moneyed sporting elite when he paid over £5 million for the moor in 2006. He purchased it from the Earl of Strathmore, the late Queen Mother’s great-nephew, and has invested another £3 million in environmental improvement programmes at Wemmergill, planting more than 250,000 trees and increasing the wild bird population sixfold. The moor sustained 48 days of grouse shooting last season, and remains one of the finest of its kind in the world.

In the past five years new money has been the saviour of many moors that had fallen into decline. Last year David Ross, co-founder of Carphone Warehouse with the better-known Charles Dunstone, paid £22 million for a total of 11,000 acres in North Yorkshire — £7 million more than the guide price. The moor came with a grand house plus several let farms and cottages, and Ross is considered to have bagged a bargain. It was one of seven moors that changed hands in the UK last year.

Other buyers have often made their fortunes in the investment world. Another purchaser last year was fund manager Stefano Roma, who splashed out £5.5 million for a moor, a keeper’s cottage and a game larder in County Durham, to add to the moor he already owns in South Yorkshire. Edinburgh-based fund manager John Dodd, of Artemis Fund Management, has a spectacular moor in Angus. Jeremy Herrmann of Ferox Capital has two moors, one in Yorkshire and one in Northumberland. But the nearest you’re likely to get to royalty in the new owners’ club is the motor-racing entrepreneur and former beau of Sarah Ferguson, Paddy McNally — yes, he’s got a grouse moor too.

Quite apart from the purchase price, a 10,000-acre moor will cost £200,000 per annum to run and although there are (incredibly, you might think, given the screamingly elitist nature of the sport) government grants available for the management of the moorland, you’ll still need colossal disposable income to take one on. Even if the moor remains dormant, with no shooting, the fixed costs can be around £75,000 a year. But that’s unlikely to impinge on the decision-making process of the wannabe grouse-moor owner. William Duckworth-Chad, an associate director of Savills specialising in grouse moor sales, says, ‘The reason these people have bought them is for enjoyment, not for income.’

But that doesn’t detract from the fact that the moors have proved to be a very good investment indeed. Jonathan Kennedy, of specialist land agent CKD Kennedy Macpherson, says, ‘Grouse moors have outperformed most other investments in the past ten years. The reason they are prospering is the investment put in to them by the new rich. Most of the old families couldn’t afford to put money into them. They were asset rich but cash poor.’ Quite the opposite of the new breed of owner.

The other reason they’ve proved to be such a good investment is that until recently nobody wanted them, so they could be had relatively cheap. Although the huge cost of running a moor could be partially offset by letting days out, the income at £75 per shot bird was minuscule.

A decent estate is about 5,000 acres, although some are as big as 15,000. The total area where grouse shooting occurs covers more than 1,000,000 acres in the UK and an average of 200,000 grouse are shot in England and Wales in a shooting season. Grouse is a short-lived species which relies on young heather shoots as a food source and, being ground-nesting birds, they have a high mortality rate within 12 months of birth, regardless of shooting.

Raising grouse is a time-consuming and costly business — roast grouse is by far and away the most expensive game bird to put on your table — and if the population fails and the moor is unable to sustain shooting, there’s no money back.

Irrespective of all that, Duckworth-Chad says that nowadays there is unprecedented demand for grouse moors. ‘Whenever a moor is advertised there are always some unknown and completely unexpected individuals who pop up [as potential buyers]. It is one of the ultimate playthings, for which people will pay well over the asset value.’

Indeed the simple economics suggest that you’re far better off buying a grouse moor than putting money into top-of-the-market bricks and mortar. After all, they don’t make grouse moors any more, and with only 300 to go round and 480,000 shooters in the UK, this has got to be one of the best sellers’ markets in the world.