Michael Wood [pictured] has been the CEO of Westfield Farms since 1968. Today the 1,000-acre mixed arable and game breeding farm provides permanent employment for 33 people and breeds game birds including pheasant, red leg partridge, grey partridge, wild mallard. The birds are maintained as a closed flock, with the farm running two of its own shoots each winter season. However, the impact of recurring Covid-19 lockdowns on the farm’s annual timetable has left Wood faced with not only huge amounts of disruption, but also 25 per cent in lost revenue. In an exclusive interview with The Leaders Council, Wood discusses exactly how Covid-19 has hit a business that is doing its best to fend for itself, with no government support to fall back on.
Westfield Farms’ work as game bird breeders is spread over two years, effectively starting every July. The game birds hatch in the summer and are then raised to create the game bird stock. By the following spring, the birds have matured enough to become breeders and lay their own eggs. The progeny will form the stock for the next winter shooting season either at home or be sold to other shoots across the UK.
Elaborating on the timetable, Wood explained: “If you think of a crop, we create the seed to grow the crop the following year, it is a real chicken and egg situation. Our cycle takes two years starting in July. So, in July 2020 the birds raised will be harvested at the end of 2021 and the beginning of 2022 in the next winter.
Because of how the never-ending timetable works, at the end of every January, Wood and his team begin taking orders and payment for the shooting season that will come the following winter.
Wood recalled: “From February 1, 2020, I had the largest order book I had seen in 67 years of business.
But before the end of March, the Covid-19 pandemic began to hit the UK. By the end of March when the first national lockdown was called, everything changed, and 75 per cent of that order book had been cancelled: the business which had been set up over a lifetime was looking into the abyss.
Yet, with a full flock of game birds already poised for breeding, Wood was left with little alternative but to continue to breed the birds and plan for the 2020-21 winter shoots. There was no going back, and the challenge was on to find new customers and make up for the lost orders.
Wood continued: “Gradually over the summer of 2020 we rebuilt our order book by finding new customers to take into the winter shooting season. At the time, restrictions were being eased and we looked ahead with optimism. We usually have international clients including Americans, Australians and Europeans coming for the shoots, but they were unwilling or unable to travel because of fears over the virus or ongoing restrictions, so we looked to the domestic market and had UK clients coming in to replace those from abroad.
“We did very well in this respect and had grown a full order book ahead of the 2020-21 shooting season.”
But by November, the first month of the shooting season, a second full national lockdown was called.
Wood said: “Locking down in November was a major problem. We had prepared to run a full shooting season, basically again we had no other option, despite losing all the November shooting, almost all was reset into December and January. Our social distancing regimes and track and trace were all in place, we were looking forward to getting started again in December, and the intention was to complete the season in the two remaining months.”
The December shoots went well and as planned the business was then looking forward to January. However, after the festive period, mere days into the new year, a third national lockdown was ordered and would remain effective until at least mid-February.
Reflecting on the ongoing lockdown, Wood continued: “Had we been able to shoot until the end of January we would have been okay, but after being forced to stop after Christmas and so soon into the New Year it was a disaster. The lockdowns over November and January have seen us lose 50 days of business with no other option open, the financial loss is unsustainable.
“In order to keep that revenue within the business, we decided that the clients who had paid but were unable to shoot would see their bookings carried over to the 2021-22 shooting season but having to do that has left the business with a gigantic cashflow hole.”
The farm’s financial woes have been left exacerbated by the fact that it was unable to fall back on the government’s furlough scheme or any other type of support, since the rearing of livestock feeding and caring for them is a year-round operation and is hands on twenty-four, seven.
Wood added: “We must go forward, there is never any going back even in desperate times. The worst thing is that there is no guarantee what the future holds, no way to plan and nowhere to go. The saying goes that it is always darkest just before the dawn but will that be the case this time I wonder?!
“Customarily during the winter shooting season, Westfield Farms opens seasonal employment opportunities to an additional 130 local people. The ongoing lockdown bringing an abrupt halt to the 2020-21 shooting season has meant that January employment opportunities for that cohort have been lost. This is uncharted territory for us all and we are so important for the rural economy.
“In the meantime, since we have not had the shooting, many of our birds are still on the ground. They cannot be left there as too many will create an imbalance which could affect all our conservation work which goes on continually in the background, mostly unnoticed.
“The pheasant we catch go through our processing plant creating game sausages, burgers, goujons and oven-ready birds. The market again is devastated because hospitality is non-existent in the UK right now due to Covid, it is also very difficult to take our product to the European market because of difficulties fuelled by Brexit, and Europe’s hospitality sector is also closed.”
While there is media speculation of future winter lockdowns which could threaten shooting seasons in years to come, Wood is determined for the business to continue and is also keeping a close eye on developments at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs [DEFRA].
Wood explained: “In the background of all this, we are aware that DEFRA are working on European directives that may restrict the release of game birds in certain areas, this could be critical in North Yorkshire and all upland areas. It could be devastating for the local economy already reeling from the virus restrictions. It is such a pity that the stakeholders working and living in the countryside who will be affected most are not really consulted, the situation is already devastating with the Covid-19 virus, so to add further restrictions will be serious folly.”
Yet, despite the sheer weight of the challenge at hand, the vaccination programme is underway offering light at the end of the tunnel and Wood is determined move forward.
“Despite being left without any government support, the shooting industry as a whole is valued at £2 billion per annum to the UK economy and must not be lost. If allowed, we will as always work to create a better future for the rural communities and will continue the good work we do in the countryside and the wildlife in it.”