What makes the ideal sporting estate, asks Anna Tyzack. Situation? Range of sport available? Luxury accommodation? Leading sporting land agents offer their opinions
Is the perfect sporting estate a short drive from London, entirely remote in Scotland or overseas? Does it have a range of sport and luxury accomodation? Anna Tyzack speaks to leading sporting land agents on what makes the perfect playground.
From the best shooting estates to creating the perfect sporting interior and the latest properties on the market, The Field’s Property section offers advice, guidance and plenty of inspiration.
THE PERFECT SPORTING ESTATE
The Royal Family knows better than anyone that a sporting estate is essentially a catalyst for a good party. “There should be so much variety of fun and sport that your friends are always desperate for an invitation,” says Jonathan Kennedy of CKD Property Advisers (ckd.co.uk). Exactly what makes an estate desirable is subjective, however; even Her Majesty’s Sandringham Estate in Norfolk – which offers wild pheasants, grey partridges, rabbiting, ferreting and trout fishing – and Balmoral in Aberdeenshire – where there are 50,000 acres of grouse moors, stalking hills and salmon fishing – aren’t ‘perfect’ sporting estates. Such a thing simply doesn’t exist, maintains sporting estate expert George Goldsmith, who has some of the country’s finest estates on his books (georgegoldsmith.com). “It’s like trying to find the perfect home – if you cover off three things on your wish list, you’ve done pretty well. Any more than that and you’ve nailed it.”
There are, however, a few fundamental attributes shared by Britain’s most revered estates, whether they’re a pure sporting estate with a simple lodge or a residential estate with a stately home. “Topography is always key,” explains property finder Mark Lawson of the Buying Solution (thebuyingsolution.co.uk), who sources high value residential and rural estates. “Plunging valleys and rolling countryside will present good, high-quality birds and you need a patchwork of strategically placed, mature woodland for cover – and some water; everyone likes shooting over water,” he says. The estate should also be a pristine wilderness, unblemished by footpaths, pylons and public roads, adds Tom Hudson, buying advisor with Middleton Advisors (middletonadvisors.com). “Remoteness spooks most people but you just want it to be you, your friends and your gun,” he says.
Then there’s the sport; a top estate will usually have at least three or four on offer: salmon fishing, stalking and grouse in Scotland; partridges, pheasants and brown trout down south, says Kennedy. The more diverse the offering, the longer you will be able to use your estate, adds Evelyn Channing of Savills (Savills.co.uk), who is currently selling the Urlar estate in Perthshire, with 7,400 acres of grouse moor, as well as just under a mile of single-bank fishing on the Tay, a six-bedroom shooting lodge, keeper’s house and three staff cottages. “Some people only ever want one sport – they love stalking or their thing is fishing – but for others the opportunity to experience the estate for longer seasons is key.”
For Kennedy, an ideal estate would have a Spey salmon river, trout loch, grouse moor, red deer, pigeon shooting, walked-up rabbits and a snipe bog – and a links golf course not too far away. “If I managed only half those things, it would still be fantastic,” he concedes. Such a place could only be in Scotland; there is no place like it in terms of diversity of sport and terrain, says Goldsmith.
“I was travelling in Africa a few years ago and returned to Scotland reeling at how much biodiversity and remoteness it offers in a relatively small area – stalking, grouse, salmon fishing, trout lochs,” he says. The most coveted estates also have access to sea and mountains, although the grouse deplete towards the west coast.
A client of his recently took Amhuinnsuidhe Castle – a baronial castle on the Isle of Harris with beach, golf and a billiards room – for his 70th birthday; by the end of day one he’d achieved his first Macnab. “He caught a salmon before breakfast, a brace of grouse in the morning, stalked in the afternoon and walked in at 6.30pm ready for a dram,” Goldsmith says. Knock House, amid 40,000 acres on the Isle of Mull, is another example of a near-perfect Scottish estate available for rent, he says, with salmon fishing on two rivers, a trout loch, stalking and a flotilla of boats, including a 46ft motor cruiser for deep-sea fishing. “You can spend a week there doing something different every day,” he says.
England’s lowland estates are a different beast – there are no grouse south of Derbyshire and the deer are roe rather than red – yet according to Clive Hopkins, a partner and farms and estates specialist at Knight Frank (Knightfrank.co.uk), even within two or three hours of London you can still find exceptional topography and a diverse bag. And unlike in Scotland, where estates are dependent upon a private airfield, heliport or trains for access, these properties can be reached by car on a Friday night – which is what many of his international and Londonbased buyers insist on. Chargot, a 2,340-acre estate in the wilds of Exmoor, is among his personal favourites, with deep valley pheasants, partridges and fishing on nearby rivers the Exe and Barle, plus sea-fishing at Porlock Weir. The estate was bought by Peter Davidson last year, at a guide price of £6.75m with shooting rights over three farms.
Hopkins also sold the 1,000-acre Great Durnford estate near Stonehenge in Wiltshire, which came on the market in 2013 for £18.5m and has such high-calibre sport and topography that even buyers with no interest in shooting were making bids for it. “Wiltshire has big open fields, which are great for partridges, which prefer lighter ground,” he says. “And all around Great Durnford there are strategically planted woodland, valleys and fishing on the Avon.”
In the early Noughties, when corporate shooting took off at estates such as Guy Ritchie’s Ashcombe, the 17th-century, six-bedroom Georgian house and estate that he bought with his then wife, Madonna, in 2001, it was a case of ‘the bigger the bag the better the shoot’ but, thankfully, this trend appears to be over. “People are thinking harder about what’s going to happen to the game at the end of the day and need to be reassured that it’s going to a useful cause,” says Alex Lawson, director of farms and estates for Savills. Hudson agrees: “If you’re a passionate sportsman it’s all about the sport – but it’s quality not quantity these days,” he says. “For non-shooting guests, the best estates also provide additional activities: quad bikes, archery, riding.”
Since 1849, gamekeepers on the Earl of Leicester’s 25,000-acre Holkham Estate have been wearing the Coke hat, a Lock & Co bowler designed to protect them from thorns and branches. Such uniforms aren’t the norm but staff must still be carefully managed and looked after, says Kennedy – an estate’s infrastructure is crucial to its success. Housekeepers, gamekeepers and gillies will need to be housed and the better the quality of the accommodation, the easier it will be to secure the best staff out there, he continues. When he sells a top estate it is usually on the understanding that these staff will remain and the estate will continue to be used in the same way and there will be good relations in place with the neighbours – that way interests can be aligned.
For purists, a simple lodge in the centre of the estate is all that is required in terms of accommodation, a place such as Gaick, a nondescript, five-bedroom lodge at the south end of Loch an t-Seilich in the Highlands, with comfortable beds and hot water but not much else. When Hudson goes shooting, he’s content to stay in a farmhouse or good local pub. “For me, the true sporting estate is closely aligned to a farm,” he says.
A PARTY HOUSE
For the wealthiest buyers, however, the shooting lodge has morphed into a party house. Take the Edwardian lodge at the centre of the Tulchan Estate on Speyside, for example, which was bought by Russian vodka billionaire Yuri Schefler for £25m – it sleeps 26 in palatial bedrooms with state-of-the-art bathrooms, a cinema, gym and spa. Even more sumptuous is Leon Max’s small but perfectly-formed Easton Neston, a Hawksmoor pile amid 500 acres, formerly owned by Lord Hesketh, where shooting parties enjoy hotel-style suites, customised Range Rovers and fine dining in the evenings. Even Gaick, which was bought by Danish billionaire Anders Holch Povlsen in 2013, is getting a facelift to bring it up to the standard of his other Sutherland properties, including Glenfeshie Lodge, which has a ‘pilot-room’ intended for travelling staff or security personnel.
While most buyers aren’t after such luxury, the dream residential estate would still have a pretty house as part of the package, Lawson says – a listed Georgian house in lovely parkland. “It’ll need at least eight main bedroom suites for guns and partners, a large kitchen and dining room with an open fire and a snooker room for cigars and brandy after dinner,” he explains. “Ideally, Guns will also be able to walk to the first drive after breakfast.” The Hexton Estate in Hertfordshire, which he sold in 2018 with an asking price of £19m, is on his list of ideal residential estates, with a 10-bedroom, 18th-century house, plus six estate houses and cottages, and two separate beats, comprising 11 drives.
There should also, Lawson continues, be a place for drinks midway through the morning and maybe lunch in the field. “It should be strategically situated within the estate,” he says. “Ideally, it will have a catering kitchen, big fire and civilised washrooms. I’ve even seen individual Guns having their own areas to dry their coats and warm their wellies.” And for the sake of both staff and guests there should be a useful village nearby with a shop, a post office and, most essential of all, a great pub, says Kennedy. Middleton, Richard Wills’ estate in the Test Valley in Hampshire, with chalkstream fishing and a wild bird shoot, has two – The Plough and The Cricketers – while the 1,000-acre Glenstriven Estate in Argyll has its own private pub, the Glenstriven Arms, in a former generator building.
Given the sporting aspect of an estate rarely makes money, an additional revenue stream from wind turbines or a hydroscheme can also be attractive, adds Evelyn Channing. She’s sold estates with successful sheep enterprises, holiday lets and even a gin distillery, while at Holkham the Earl of Leicester has created a 100-acre solar park.
For some, estates overseas offer an added X-factor, adds Kennedy, though they tend to focus on just one sport: boar in France; sea-trout in Argentina; salmon in Russia; quail in Texas. Accommodation also tends to be more basic but for a true adventurer, fishing in Iceland is unforgettable, says Hudson. “Iceland never goes dark so you can go on all night; you sleep twice in 24 hours and fish three times.” Shooting in your shirt sleeves in southern Europe is also worth experiencing, says Goldsmith. He recommends partridge shooting at Fuentelfresno near Madrid, a favourite of King Juan Carlos and his family, where tapas is brought out between every drive. “You get a slightly extended season and paella for lunch,” he says.
There is a reason why wealthy foreigners from all over the globe invest in Britain’s sporting estates, however. Nowhere else in the world is the tradition so ingrained and the infrastructure so seamless. Such is their appeal that only one or two change hands each year – usually quietly off market, according to Kennedy. “We discreetly marry up the people who might be considering selling with those we know are looking,” he explains. The coronavirus pandemic has only intensified demand from international and domestic purchasers, says Goldsmith, as buyers see sporting as a safe investment for their wider portfolio – and also a place to escape to in any subsequent crisis. According to Lawson, the grandest English sporting estates will sell for up to £75m, with the equivalent in Scotland costing up to £25m, while a “fun, down-to-earth shoot” is likely to be worth between £5m and £10m.
Given how difficult it is to acquire a perfect shooting estate, Goldsmith suggests taking a ‘try before you buy’ approach – a week at Amhuinnsuidhe Castle costs around £25,000 for 18 guests. “Many of our clients rent a house for decades before eventually buying it,” he says. Indeed, it was as a returning guest that Yuri Schefler ended up securing the Tulchan Estate, which he now runs as a private members’ club – £95,000 a year for two shooting days for eight guns with daily excursions for non-shooting guests and use of a Land Rover kitted out with a coffee machine and bar.
There is, however, another option – you can create your own sporting estate from scratch. According to Hopkins, increasingly buyers see designing and cultivating their own estate as a lifetime achievement. “They love the idea of finding something pristine and creating their own playground – rivers can be stocked, woodland can be planted. An estate doesn’t have to have a proven track record.”
Every farm in the country with upwards of 600 to 750 acres has the potential for a shoot, he adds, and it will add value to the residential aspect. “Your estate might not be in the top 10 in the country but it will still be yours to manage and control,” he says. “And there’s no doubt it will enforce a slower pace of life.”
In this respect, at least, all sporting estates are equal.