Sandy Mitchell on this season’s must-have accessory – a socking great big sporting estate in the country.
It is not the week off Cap d’Antibes on a 250ft yacht with a full crew of starlets and the scent of possibility in the sea air that is the most sought after invitation these days. The man who has everything dreams instead of the summons to an icy weekend in the English winter, staying at a house reeking of wet spaniels, standing for hours in a leafless wood, while taking part in an epic and heart-stopping pheasant or partridge drive.
Only at a shooting party on a prime English country estate will you find former presidents of the United States and France swapping hoary old jokes with local dukes, Middle Eastern princes and the cream of the global business world. And where else but here does Prince Pavlos of Greece invite his friend the hedge-fund manager Arki Busson (with über-girlfriend Uma Thurman in tow) when he wants to share some fun?
The cachet of owning the kind of rural property capable of producing first-class sport – preferably with a historic country house at its core and surrounded by at least a couple of hundred of acres of private land – has turned many half-forgotten agricultural landholdings into the hottest of trophy assets.
This explains why the sale of one of the bleakest hillsides in Britain is creating such a stir right now. The 11,000-plus acres of high heather moorland at Westerdale and Rosedale, outside York, are so poor in nutrients and so devoid of trees or shelter they are barely capable of keeping a sheep alive in winter, yet their thick cover of heather makes them perfect habitat for the world’s most sought-after gamebird: the red grouse, of which over 1,400 brace a year have been shot there consistently.
These two neighbouring moors, along with a substantial farm and lodge, came on the market this summer with price tag of over £15 million after the early death of their owner, Brigadier Tim Landon (a legendary figure known as the ‘White Sultan’ for his role as military adviser to the Sultan of Oman).
A deal on the moors is rumoured to be close – but not yet sealed. ‘There is huge interest, particularly from youngish men who have made a huge amount of money in the financial sector. Capital values on moors have now risen to £4,500-5,000 per brace of grouse. This is new territory. Every time a moor is sold there is a bun fight between potential buyers and records are broken,’ says an over-excited agent involved. (The sale is being handled jointly by Knight Frank and CKD Kennedy Macpherson.)
Potential buyers may be encouraged to throw in a late bid by hearing what happened to the 38-year-old hedge-fund manager Jeremy Herrmann, of Ferox Capital Management, after he bought a pair of grouse-moors in North Yorkshire named Muggleswick and East Allenheads a few years ago. Herrmann was well respected in the financial world well before his purchase, but the effect he has had on grown men since is astonishing to behold: they gibber and fawn in the hope of an invitation to one of his glorious 200-brace days.
Shooting on a private estate is a highly competitive experience, as well as discreet and outrageously expensive. In other words it has every quality that appeals to an alpha male from the City, and Alex Lawson, a director of Savills estate agents who deals in farms and estates at the top end of the market (from £7 million or so upwards), has seen his fair share of them this year. ‘The revelation in our market is the massive impact that the financial sector has had in last couple of years,’ he says. ‘They have all been interested in buying the complete package: house, land, farm and definitely sporting potential.’
Bulging in Lawson’s goody bag at the moment is the kind of estate that Gordon Geckos have been throttling each other to acquire. The Ruckmans estate, on offer ‘for in excess of £10 million’, has a Grade II-listed pile at its core (remodelled by Sir Edwin Lutyens no less), a garden designed by the illustrious Gertrude Jekyll, and more to the point it boasts 500-plus acres of field and mature woodland. ‘The land has some quite nice contours to encourage birds to fly and it is very well wooded.
‘There has been a shoot there in the past and there is certainly enough land to have a decent family shoot – which is what people want – with half a dozen days a season of between 100 and 200 pheasant or partridge,’ adds Lawson. And unlike Westerdale and Rosedale, you don’t need to flog all the way to Yorkshire to bang at the birds. Ruckmans lies just 70 miles, or 20 minutes in a helicopter, south of London.
Although Ruckmans is likely to spark some fierce bidding, being so handy to London, potential buyers should beware of bringing the win-at-all-costs mentality of the City to buying a sporting estate. That can only lead to costly mistakes. A cautionary tale is circulating about a ‘super-prime’ sporting estate in Dorset, with several thousand acres and a magnificent Grade I-listed pile, which came onto the market for the first time in several hundred years twelve months ago.
The sale inevitably went to sealed bids and the ultimate winner (almost as inevitably) was a shooting-mad investment banker from London who splashed out some £15 million. He must have felt a wonderful glow as he took possession of the estate and went for his first walk over the spreading acres among his fallow deer and pheasants. But what he didn’t know, and what would have spoiled his walk badly, is that the closest under-bidder offered a much lower figure – a whole £7 million lower.
There is something about the beauty and exclusivity of sporting estates that too often turns the head of the most grizzled veterans. A prominent property-search agent was showing a tough, American shopping-mall billionaire around a prize estate in Worcestershire a year or so ago and, as the agent was extolling the sublime view of ancient parkland from the parterre, he happened to remark: ‘The only pity here is that you don’t have a wood just on the brow of that hill because it would make the most sensational pheasant drive.’
The American bought the place with a pre-emptive bid (almost without noticing the price tag), and recently he invited the agent back to his pile to admire his improvements. The agent was struck dumb. An entire wood of mature oaks, beech and chestnut standing 60 feet high, had been planted to create the perfect pheasant drive.
So if you can’t find your perfect sporting property on the market just at the moment, don’t despair. Perhaps you could take a lead from that impulsive American billionaire or from the equally extraordinary British entrepreneur who is currently busy building a trout stream from scratch in Hampshire. He could probably have bought a decent stretch of an existing river together with a small estate for the same outlay, but then again he knew precisely where he wanted to do his fishing: in the backyard of his much loved home. Now with the help of fishing experts and biologists, he is digging out a stream that will run from the rear of his house down to the woods a few hundred yards away, the flow of water powered by monstrous underground pumps.
Here is a final word of friendly advice. Once you have acquired your dream estate, it is worth checking that your friends know how to behave on your inaugural shoot. There was a frisson of embarrassment on Madonna’s superlative Ashcombe Estate last season when a celebrity chef came to shoot Guy Ritchie’s partridges.
Overwhelmed by the spectacularly high birds driven off the top of the Dorset downs, the chef palmed the head gamekeeper a tip of £1,000 at the end of the day. The gamekeeper, more used to handouts of £50, handed the wad of notes straight back. Sporting estates are more awash with money than ever before, but they are still no place to flash the cash.