The modern sporting agent
The opportunity to sample fieldsports at home and abroad is best facilitated by a sporting agent, says Nick Hammond who explores an ever-changing market which relies on trust, integrity, and relationships on the ground.
Steam trains gently champ at Euston Station; valets load carriages with assorted guns, rods, hatboxes and suitcases. Their destination? The family seat in the Highlands and Islands. A month or more of grouse, salmon, hill and stag awaited these gilded few. It’s a scene from a bygone age.
“Queen Victoria and the trains,” says Mark Osborne of William Powell. He’s sitting alongside company sporting agent James Chapel in a sun-filled room in Banbury.
“That’s what opened up Scotland and the estates,” continues Mark. “Landowners realised there was money to be made from previously commercially useless land. Then the First World War left the great estates with terrible death duties and a lack of heirs, and they began to be broken up.”
Between them, Mark and James seem able to recall just about every sporting agent and agency of note in the last five decades.
William Powell manages a large proportion of the sporting estates it lets days on and our long discussion is a roll call of names synonymous with acquiring shooting and fishing in this country.
Names like Major Neil Ramsay, who was perhaps the first to convince private landowners in Scotland that there was a market of new money clamouring for access to sport which, until then, had been the preserve of the privileged few.
“Of course, there still weren’t that many people who could afford to decamp up to Scotland or wherever for a month or more at a time,” says James. “But people did begin to take shorter leases, or visit for less time but more frequently. Shooting lodges still in use today were built to cater for this growing market.”
These days you’d expect your sporting agent to know as much about bonefishing in Cuba as he does about deer stalking in the Highlands.
I’m told saltwater fly fishing at Alphonse Island in The Seychelles is, as an example, de rigeur today.
But back then things were somewhat more prosaic.
“It was a far simpler affair in the early days,” agrees Tarquin Millington-Drake, managing director of Frontiers, perhaps the most travel-orientated sporting agents.
“The agents let a day’s shooting and took 7.5 per cent from the estate and 7.5 per cent from the guest.
"A few Americans and Europeans trickled in. But there were virtually no Britons fishing abroad – and very few shooting.”
Improving transport links began to increase sporting traffic on the home front. Scotland and then other sporting pockets opened up elsewhere in the UK. Sporting travel offices opened and closed in Wales and the West Country several times before the right balance was struck.
Since then, sporting agencies have endured good times and bad.
“When E. J. Churchill Sporting Agency was set up, it was to make sure there was something different to offer; a reason for clients to come back year after year,” says managing director Rob Fenwick.
“The problem is, you have so many variants. I actually employ three sporting agents who all are very different characters, but each have the same ethos; passionate sportsmen who want to make sure that the clients have the best day possible, and will do anything to make sure this is the case.
"A good agent sees a problem on a shoot day before it happens. There is not one job that he doesn’t do and if he’s good, he will usually be able to sort anything out.”
Indeed, it is largely the things you don’t see or think about that you are paying for when you book a shooting or fishing trip with a sporting agent.
“Sporting agents have unrivalled knowledge of a huge range of estates and, more importantly, have personal relationships with the estate staff,” adds James Chapel.
“So, when a client buys a day from a sporting agent, he or she is not just buying the time and resources of the company to arrange the appropriate payments, but they are paying for all of the organisation that goes into it: the necessary documentation in terms of licences and insurances; the provision of any additional vehicles, any ammunition requirements as well as a myriad of other services.
He or she is also buying into that specialist knowledge and benefitting from what those personal relationships can provide in terms of getting the best possible shooting for the team on the day.
“Each team is different,” continues James, “and it is not always a case of having the highest drives or the trickiest downwind grouse, but ensuring that their expectations of the day are exceeded on a number of fronts and that the birds stretch but do not defeat (too often) the Guns!
"A good sporting agent acts on the client’s behalf and ensures that all these things happen while the client is able to relax and enjoy their day.”
Even a decade ago, communications and transport links with some of the more far-flung sporting destinations made the lives of sporting agents tricky.
Now, journeys abroad to encounter wild quarry in a host of different countries is a very real possibility for the adventurous Gun or Rod.
Roxton Bailey Robinson merged with Fly Fisher Group in 2015, with the new configuration including of some of the most experienced names in the business, combining luxury travel and the very best in shooting and fishing destinations worldwide.
“Being one of the oldest and most established sporting agents is something we are very proud of,” says Charlie White, director of fishing at Roxtons.
“But it could lead to us being quite slow on our feet and missing the next big thing while focusing on delivering the fishing and shooting that we know and love.
"The opportunity to merge with the Fly Fisher Group (FFG) was something we wanted to grab.”
Peter Rippin, Director of FFG and now Roxtons, agrees the coming together means the agency can cover all bases. “It’s a perfect fit. We were coming from a predominantly operational background, focusing on the on-site logistics from guides, chefs, staff, boats, rivers, loan equipment and so on.
"We bring a slightly “edgier” offering – tough physical rivers, more technical fisheries, private lodges for small groups, far “outer-island” saltwater fly fishing – all of which filled in the piece of the puzzle the established Roxtons fishing team were after.”
The Royal Berkshire Shooting School runs an agency with access to more than 40 estates in the UK and shooting as far afield as Morocco.
Gordon Robinson says times have changed for agents, but core skills remain the same. “Knowledge of the estate and personal relationships with the estate staff is what our clients pay for. Seeing problems before they even arise is key. Having a full-time member of our staff accompany the team on the day is what our clients pay for.
“We are now more like a roaming sporting agent – we work for both the client and the estate – so our only agenda is to ensure that both parties are paired with the best possible match.”
Ian Coley Sporting was a natural extension to the Olympic coach’s existing shooting school in Gloucestershire. It hasn’t all been plain sailing, though. “Some of the well-established names in shooting have been able to ride out the rough times,” says Edward Darbishire, sporting agent at the firm.
“The credit crunch around 2008 was a tough time in the business and there were people looking for cheaper ways to book their sport.
"But in a way it also reinforced why people use sporting agents; if you book direct with estates or people you don’t know, there sometimes isn’t someone accountable when you need there to be. We are around, within reason, seven days a week; we organise everything for our clients so that they don’t have to.”
All these established names vying for your business appear to leave little room for entrepreneurs. But there is always room for a good agent with a speciality.
“We work with a number of excellent shoots from Cornwall to the Highlands,” says Simon Griffiths of Siparium Sporting. “Many are typical of what other sporting agencies offer – grand estates offering a premium experience.
"But unlike many, we also curate a list of high quality smaller shoots – syndicates and family shoots which are able to offer smaller days and extremely good value.
"While we can, and do, book big bag days, one of our founding objectives was to offer the benefits of a sporting agent to those seeking a more intimate day.”
The planning of a sporting trip is a large part of the fun, months and sometimes years in advance. These days, the use of stunning photography, film footage, drones, websites, tablets and social media means you are able to get a look and feel of your destination like never before.
You can now fulfill your heart’s desires in the field or on the riverbank at a range of costs and levels of luxury, too.
New destinations and itineraries are constantly being ‘discovered’. Sporting travel has become a truly level playing field where, for perhaps the first time ever, incredible sports and experiences are open to all.
A far cry from a steamy Euston station and those lucky, lucky few.