It’s only 23rd June 2020. I never imagined I’d be summarising 2020 as a memorable year so early on. The Covid-19 disease spread. It reached pandemic levels. The UK was locked down on March 23rd. We didn’t see it coming, or fully understand what it would mean to us on a local level. Infection numbers increased, the future looked uncertain and bleak. It was difficult to comprehend the sheer enormity of the virus. Scottish countryside business was hit hard by the 2020 pandemic.

Scottish countryside business

The lockdown days rolled into weeks then stretched to months. Many of Scotland’s countryside businesses are part of the huge Scottish tourism and leisure industry. Scottish countryside business brings in millions to the country’s economy. They are dependent on people visiting and travelling around Scotland. When lockdown was announced sporting estates closed their gates. Hotels, B&Bs and self-catering lodges and cottages shut their doors, deer stalking days out and fishing dates were cancelled.  

Freelance writing work disappeared

Linda Mellor collecting cast antlers

As a freelance writer and photographer, I experienced the force of lockdown in business very early on. Positively, my working environment remained unchanged by the virus as I worked on my own from my office at home. However, my income stream evaporated within days of the lockdown announcement. Editorial staff in established publishing houses were furloughed as offices hoped to survive with leaner departments. Advertising budgets ceased to exist and smaller specialist magazines closed their doors hopeful of a re-emergence in 2021. Regular work disappeared, and invoices went unpaid. Magazine features were cancelled, series of web-based articles put on hold and promotional pieces shelved. Staying safe, and virus free became the priority. Managing the lack of work, stress and worry was, and still is, a juggling act. I found out how other countryside businesses were struck by the pandemic and lockdown.

Fishing and the pandemic

Before the 2020 pandemic, March was a busy time on the water for fishing related Scottish countryside business. Scotland’s salmon fishing rivers enjoyed a positive season as anglers took to the water after winter months. The trout fishing season had not long opened before the country went into lockdown. I asked Fishpal’s CEO, Mark Coburn, if he imagined the UK would go into lockdown? “Never expected it and never saw this incredible situation being as serious and damaging as we now know it has.”  In the early stages of the pandemic, surrounded by so much uncertainty, I asked Mark if Fishpal were able to prepare. “To a point but the whole situation seemed to grow arms and legs every day which made planning extremely difficult.”

Fishing business impact during lockdown

Fishpal’s CEO Mark Coburn fishing for salmon

“Our business has seriously struggled to generate income with anglers unable to go fishing,” said Mark. “Not only that, as a gesture of goodwill to the industry we have dealt with literally hundreds and hundreds of rebookings for anglers who had booked fishing but were unable to go as a result of the lockdown – all of this extra work with no income generated.”

Adapting to working life during lockdown

The majority of working lives have been shaped differently by lockdown. How did the Fishpal team adjust? Mark said, “we have all been used to working from home when required so we were easily able to adapt from this perspective. The Facebook live sessions we ran through the lockdown were really well received. At least allowed us to continue to be proactive during these horrendous times.”

Future in fishing

Mark continues to be optimistic about the fishing season, he said, “once out of lockdown there will be a real stampede of anglers wanting to make the most of the remaining season so we need further restrictions lifted, accommodation back open to see our income streams, once again, start to grow.”

Roe deer stalking and photography during lockdown

Peter Keyser, photographer and deer stalker with his gundogs

Deer stalker and photographer, Peter Keyser, told me, “my businesses are small fry in the bigger picture; I am basically retired (age!) but continue with roe stalking and photography. The pandemic has had a major effect on my roe stalking business: unable to take out clients which gave a return; unable to sell carcasses to Game Dealers during most of the lockdown.” Peter continues, “however, with written permissions from estates etc I have been able to continue stalking ON MY OWN under essential deer management. Of course access to here and there for delivery/collection has been difficult. My game dealer (Simpson) is now back on collecting but the roe are not being very co-operative in the high undergrowth!”

2020 pandemic cancelled bookings

“I was certainly not able to prepare. Most of my bookings are made a year ahead. This must be the case for most in the same business,” said Peter. “All bookings were cancelled at the start of the pandemic. My photography has taken a knock with commissions cancelled. Notably the GWCT Scottish Auction where I have input. The lockdown has had a very restricting influence on both the roe stalking and the photography. I continue to stalk at half cock. I hope that the camera will be released from lockdown. So much of what we enjoy and appreciate in Scotland is going to be affected. I am hearing of so many shoots shutting down or not shooting this year at huge financial cost. We hope for the best.”

Lockdown impact on Sporting business on Skye

Scott MacKenzie, Gamekeeper Stalker at Fearann Eilean Iarmain, an estate on the Isle of Skye. “We knew most of our businesses would be affected. I don’t think any of us could foretell to what extent lockdown meant or how long it would last.”

Rural business income

“Predictably most affected are our hotels, restaurants, and bars,” said Scott. What about the estate’s sporting interests? “I would be taking out Roe buck stalking and fishing guests. We would have hotel guests looking to take part in our many outdoor activities. I have also had a few stalking cancellations for further on in the year from international guests. They’re all valued income for any rural business.”

Gamekeeper and Stalker Scott MacKenzie, Isle of Skye

Memories of Foot & Mouth

Scott said, “much of Skye has thrown its hat into the tourism ring over the last few years. The pandemic reminded me of keepering in North Yorkshire when the area was hit with Foot & Mouth. It was not only the death of masses of livestock, but also the death of many rural tourism-based businesses. Visitors could no longer access the landscape they wanted to visit.”

Lockdown Island Benefits

“I have also seen the benefits to having no tourism on this fragile island environment. The wildlife has breathed a sigh of relief and is much more vocal and relaxed. Local people are seeing more wildlife near their homes: a Roe deer spotted near the centre of our main town. The tourist hot spots are healing from heavy footfall and our crofters and farmers are enjoying uninterrupted working days.”

What about the future and the remainder of 2020? Scott said, “we are a robust business. We have a fantastic mix of a local and international workforce. They have continued to ensure there is a strong business for the future.”   I asked Scott, will there be a different approach? “As an island we now need to look at and re-evaluate our tourism industry. We have to ensure its sustainability within this fragile natural and cultural Skye environment.”

Adapt and move on

It’s early days for Scottish countryside business in the recovery from the 2020 pandemic. There is much learning to do as we go cautiously and positively into a different future.  I am sure I’m not alone in wondering how do we safeguard our businesses, our health, and will it happen again?

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