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By Jonathan Guthrie
The bright flank of a spring salmon flashes through the waters of the Tweed. “Just a small one,” says Bob Sanderson, a Lincolnshire property developer and farmer, his words belying the excitement in his voice.
Mr Sanderson is fishing the Junction, the place where the Teviot meets the Tweed and the most famous beat on Scotland’s most prestigious salmon river. But the fishermen have been working hard for reduced rewards – just three fish in five days.
The syndrome will be familiar to landowners faced with falling revenues from agriculture, shooting and property, amid a recession that is spreading its tentacles far beyond the country’s financial and industrial centres.
Jonathan Booth, a Lincolnshire grain baron, articulates the financial frustrations of the rural hunting and fishing set as he flogs the water downstream of Mr Sanderson.
“Land is a poor investment at the moment,” says Mr Booth, a big man in chest waders and a sun-bleached cap. “You are investing at £4,000 to £5,000 an acre but only seeing a profit of £100 to £150 a year.”
The price of wheat surged from about £80 to more than £200 per tonne before the recession, fuelling an impressive 36 per cent rise in per capita farm incomes last year. Now the price has fallen to £100 per tonne. But input costs, which also soared, have not dropped proportionately.
The collapse in house building has, meanwhile, forced Mr Booth, 41, to mothball his property development business. He has given up entirely on running a pheasant shoot.
Mark Merison, head of the sporting department at property agents Strutt & Parker, groans down the phone when asked about shooting, a business valued at more than £1bn a year.
“It is extremely bad,” he says, “As a result of the recession, a lot of customers cannot be seen to do it and are walking away from their regular pheasant shoots.”
Public hostility to displays of wealth mean that City investment banks and brokers are reluctant to pay up to £24,000 for eight executives and clients to spend a day blasting low-flying feather dusters from the sky.
The pheasant season does not begin until October. But shoot managers need firm bookings long in advance so that they can rear enough birds. The result of vacillation by shoot sponsors this year has been a wave of redundancies among gamekeepers, some of whom have lost tied cottages into the bargain.
The outlook for Billy Jack, the ghillie assisting Mr Booth on the Tweed, is rather better. Poor catches this spring “have worried people because fishing is such a big industry round here,” Mr Jack says.
However, crashes in salmon numbers are nothing new. They have never seriously damaged the near-religious devotion of anglers willing to pay up to £30,000 for six rods to spend a week on a top Scottish river in the peak months of October or November.
Mr Merison reports strong demand for available weeks this year. “Available” is an important qualification, since game angling rights are frequently passed down from father to son.
According to a yarn of Mr Booth’s, a Russian billionaire who arrived in Kelso hoping to fish the Junction was briskly told he would “have to wait his turn”. The new money departed without wetting a line.
Mr Sanderson, 41, brings his salmon – a five-pound hen fish – to the net before swiftly unhooking her and releasing her back into the stream. If she succeeds in spawning upstream, her offspring will provide income for Mr Merison and Mr Jack and sport for anglers such as Mr Sanderson.
He is doing nicely from a caravan business he set up near Skegness. Sterling weakness and the depressed pound are bolstering the domestic holiday business. If you cannot make money farming crops or cows, you can farm tourists instead.
Meanwhile, Mr Booth has been fuming over the new 50 per cent income tax rate that will hit high earners such as himself.
As he casts out, he ponders the possibility of a Tory government. “Perhaps they’ll repeal the hunting ban?” he suggests. His face brightens.