With Louisa North
Operations Manager at British Game Assurance
As with almost all field sports, shooting in UK has for a number of years faced ongoing and growing threats to its very existence. While debate has often been strident, it has had the positive effect of forcing its defenders to examine their own practices and assumptions. The British Game Alliance was set up in 2018 to act as umbrella operation for the game community in the UK. Its purpose is two-fold: to ensure and underwrite best shooting practice in order to preserve shoots from external, possibly hostile, regulation; and in parallel to promote and develop the consumption of game meat by creating a thriving market assured by quality control. Recently the BGA has renamed itself British Game Assurance to better reflect these aims.
Joining the not for profit organisation in its early stages, BGA’s Operations Manager Louisa North brought not just a wealth of administration, marketing and business skills but a passionate belief that country pursuits can assist in creating a sustainable future for all. What, then, does being OM involve?
“What doesn’t it involve? On an administrative front I make sure the day to day running of the business goes ahead. I oversee all the marketing, and run Eat Wild, our consumer-facing campaign.” Eat Wild is the successful initiative set up to promote game as a valuable, accessible, and sustainable meat source, that in order to reach a wider market has deliberately distanced itself from the shooting world. “The way we set it up has no relation to shooting, it’s simply about the promotion of game as a great alternative meat source, healthy, natural, and non-intensive.
“We have a commercial director, whose job it is to go out and find new markets, and help the processors and dealers where he can. We’ve been building up our social media presence, setting up collaborations with chefs. Last year we ran a campaign designed to bring grouse into the home. Normally grouse goes primarily to hotels and restaurants, but of course they weren’t open. So we set up as recipe box with Mac and Wild [the Scottish restaurant and butcher in Fitzrovia]. People got a whole grouse, a recipe showing how to cook it, and it opened up a lot of people who’d never tried it before, certainly not at home.
“We’re now talking to several other companies to try and expand the idea, get game out to a new customer base. When people are buying game, they need to be sure it’s BGA assured so they know it’s come from a high welfare source, with high environmental standards. We want everyone to eat game, but we want them to be sure it comes from the best. Of course, it would be nice if we could also be encouraging people to enjoy it while eating out, as opposed to having to stay at home.
“And then I’m in charge of all the shoot audits, setting them up and liaising with our auditors.” This, I take it, refers to the critical aspect of self-regulation, part of the formal process of accreditation to become a BGA member. “Exactly. You register on the website, we hand over your details to our third-party auditors, who then allocate an assessor. Usually there’ll be a couple of non-conformances, which the shoot has 28 days to rectify.”
Such as? “Usually it’s really simple things that they fall down on. The most common one is having an uncovered light bulb in the chiller. Sounds silly, but actually it’s really important. If a bulb shatters, glass can get into the meat. It’s such a simple thing, but these small things are missed. The other big failure is not being registered with the local authority as a food business. A lot of shoots simply don’t realise that they need to do this. It’s fine if you’re a tiny shoot and you’re eating all the game yourself, but as soon as the game is going to a game dealer, you must be registered as a food supplier.”
It’s a long way from the shoot supplying the local butcher, turning up at the village pub with a few brace, and rightly so. So, how long does a typical audit or assessment take?
“For a medium size shoot the inspection will take about an hour, for larger operations – some of which are huge – up to three hours. In the best possible sense of the word, it’s box-ticking. We’ve found the vast majority of shoots are already observing best practice, we’re just rubber stamping. And, as I said, pointing out details they might have overlooked.
“The government has told us that to show that the sector is properly self-regulating there needs to a body that has every shoot in the country signed up to it. That’s why we brought in associate memberships for smaller shoots, that maybe aren’t that bothered about getting their game out into the retail food chain. They may not need or want registration as a food supplier, but they want to be – and be seen to be – part of self-regulation. The lower band is £80 including VAT per year, so pretty manageable. And the standards are very short and very simple. Associate members merely have to fill in a form online, and the only time we audit these small shoots is if we receive a complaint.”
Does that happen often? “Not often, but from time to time. If we do receive a complaint, backed up with evidence, against any of our members we’ll investigate. But first we satisfy ourselves that it’s a serious accusation, not just something made up by a disgruntled ex-employee seeking revenge or by someone with some other axe to grind. But if someone makes an accusation supported by proper evidence – dates, photographs – we’ll get an inspector in straight away. There’s only been one shoot that we’ve had to notify agents and people like Guns on Pegs that they were no longer BGA, and that they shouldn’t sell days or otherwise support them. They were burying whole birds. That person completely lost their livelihood, and I don’t know if that shoot is still going.
“Of course, covid has been a disaster. It’s been a horrible, horrible time for shooting. Obviously loads of industries have been affected, but it really has been dire. But we’re staying positive. We’ve had 26 agents come together to say they’re only going deal with BGA members from 2023, which is great. Because if we want to still be shooting in twenty years’ time, we need to show now that we’re properly self-regulating. That’s the truth of it. We need every single shoot to sign up, doesn’t matter if you’re shooting fifty birds a season, or two hundred a day. Everyone has to sign up.”
For more information or to join the BGA please visit https://www.britishgameassurance.co.uk/