Staring along the barrel of the gun, the shooter takes a deep breath and waits. Suddenly, out of the corner of their eye, they spot movement and bring their weapon to bear on an object flying through the air.
With a squeeze of the trigger, the gun discharges and the target falls from the sky, the sound of the shot echoing across the heather moorland. Yet this is no pheasant or grouse that has plummeted to earth – instead, it’s a clay.
Kellas Estate near Elgin has installed a simulated game shooting system, which uses different sizes of clay to let guests experience shooting grouse, pheasant, partridge or duck – but without firing a single shot at a real bird, and all under the watchful eye of experienced head gamekeeper Ed Gormanley.
“It’s quite common in the south of England,” explained Roy Van Vessem, who runs Kellas Estate with Vivienne, his wife. “In England, a lot of shooting estates found that corporate customers couldn’t justify taking clients out to shoot birds anymore, so they began offering simulated game shoots instead.
“You get the same experience basically, but you’re shooting clays. Corporate customers can still take their clients out for a nice day.”
He added: “There are now also a lot of shooting syndicates that want to ‘get their eye in’ before the season starts. Some of our shooting guests come from Holland and are maybe only shooting higher birds a few times each year, so we get them out on the simulated clays first for a day to get their eye in.
“The next day, when they’re shooting real birds, you can really see the difference. For us, it’s also a great way to offer people a real shooting experience outside the shooting season.
“At first, I thought it would be popular with stag parties, but we’ve not seen that so far. I think that’s because it helps to have at least a little bit of experience with shooting – if a whole group of, say, eight people don’t have any experience then you’re better off doing normal clays instead of the simulated shoot.”
Mr van Vessem installed the system at Kellas about a year ago, after watching a demonstration of the equipment on an estate near Liverpool. “I’d heard about it, I’d read about it, I knew it was good fun, but having spent the day testing it out I knew it was something for us,” he said.
“Once people have done it, they can’t stop talking about it.”
Offering simulated shooting complements the estate’s other activities, including traditional pheasant, partridge and duck shoots, roe deer stalking, fishing, and holiday accommodation. Kellas also works with local companies to offer golf and whisky trips for its guests.
“It’s great to see sporting estates diversifying,” said Alister Laing, manager at Glenrinnes, a hunting estate and organic farm in Speyside, which offers duck, grouse and pheasant shoots, as well as roe deer stalking. “It’s important to look at ideas like simulated shoots, just in case there are changes to legislation.”
Glenrinnes – which is owned by Alasdair Locke, chairman of Motor Fuel Group and former executive chairman of Abbot Group – has diversified by opening a distillery and launched its Eight Lands vodka and gin. Its latest venture is a red deer farm, which will also offer opportunities for tourism.
Marc Crothall, chief executive of the Scottish Tourism Alliance, said it was important to recognise the role estates can play in the rural economy. “Scotland has many thriving rural destinations, with innovative forward-looking businesses keen to diversify and provide economic benefits to their local communities by tapping into opportunities to create new visitor experiences in the area,” he said.
“Planning is key to enabling estates to explore these opportunities for diversification and generate new income streams, which in turn create employment opportunities for local residents and boost tourism in the area. Rural estates can be the mainstay of Scotland’s rural economies and it’s important that their value and contribution is recognised.”
Claire Bruce, sales and marketing director at Glen Tanar estate near Aboyne and chairperson of VisitAberdeenshire, highlighted the potential for estates to diversify. “Recent investment in infrastructure and visitor facilities within the north-east have opened up new and exciting opportunities for the region and for traditional Scottish ‘sporting estates’,” she said.
“Timely and well-deserved focus on Aberdeen and Aberdeenshire presents an opportunity for estates to diversify and capitalise on the increasing demand by domestic and international tourists for authentic experiences. The north-east has always been known for its high quality and exclusivity when it comes to tourism experiences; our region is now attracting new visitors that are ready to discover what we have to offer.”
Diversification helps estates to tap into other sources of income beyond their traditional markets. And some of those alternative activities can be very lucrative.
Highlands & Islands Enterprise’s 2013 adventure tourism report compiled by Ekosgen said tourists spent £520 million on walking holidays in Scotland in 2008, with £159m spent on wildlife watching, £66m on adventure sports and £14m on mountain biking. For comparison, a report compiled by Public & Corporate Economic Consultants for the Scottish Country Sports Tourism Group (SCSTG) calculated guests spent £155m on hunting, shooting and fishing in 2013.
Fresh data for the SCSTG is on its way; the organisation is working with Interface – the matchmaking service for businesses and universities – to find an academic to calculate the “current economic benefits, volume and value” of the sector. The results will then influence the SCSTG’s refreshed strategy.
Pressure is also growing from the environmental community for estates to change, with five organisations coming together last November to launch Revive, a coalition for grouse moor reform, which was backed by Chris Packham, the naturalist and BBC Springwatch presenter. Craig Dalzell, head of policy and research at the Common Weal think-tank, which is part of the Revive coalition, said: “Our research into alternative visions for grouse moors discovered every reasonable alternative use provided more in the way of economic value to the Scottish economy than shooting birds does.
“The business case for an industry that generates fewer than 3,000 jobs but requires almost 20% of Scotland to do it is unsustainable. Scotland should diversify its land so that more of us benefit from it rather than the tiny elite.”