The advice, “get yourself down there soon, the pheasant shooting is amazing”, seemed pretty unequivocal to me – even more so because the oracle in question, Alex Hillman, has seen, organised and enjoyed shoots of all sizes.
A subsequent chat with Robert Jones, the driving force behind the triumvirate of Llechweddygarth, Three Valleys and Long Mountain, fuelled my anticipation. Set in the Welsh Marches, the area of lush valleys and wild, rugged uplands that lie astride the border between England and Wales, it has the topography to excel.
Robert, with shoot manager Nigel Evans, uses this to offer top quality pheasants.
“Some are at the limit but all are shootable,” insists Nigel.
With an order book filled with 85 per cent return bookings stretching from the opening days of the season, it seems a tall order to deliver all this, but their birds arrive in the woods from mid-May, a month or more before many other shoots in the area. Locally reared by Robert’s team from day-olds, they’re already hardened to the potentially tough conditions.
John Wainright pulls the trigger at The Oaks.
It’s just as well because some of the guns will be fitting Llechweddygarth in between visits to some of England’s best-known high bird shoots and, as Nigel puts it, “these people know good birds”. With each of the three shoots being shot twice a week, many of the guns will take two or more consecutive days – I joined a party shooting Three Valleys and Llechweddygarth.
Meeting Robert and Nigel the night before the first shoot I began to appreciate the pace at which they work all season. While I’d taken an easy drive down to the recommended billet in Welshpool, they were hosting their third shoot of the week. As I sat chatting in the kitchen of Moors Farm with owners Henia and Mick, it was clear how much they do to help Robert look after his guests – many of whom opt for the Moors Farm bed and breakfast or self-catering option rather than a hotel.
“We shoot and we know shooters,” explained unflappable Henia, “so we’re used to early breakfasts, damp dogs and late, busy nights!”
They are certainly surrounded by shooting of all kinds.
“Every square inch round here is shot over by syndicates and rough shoots,” said Nigel.
Originally a farmer until he began working with Robert over 12 years ago, he turned an interest into a profession and still maintains great enthusiasm for the sport.
“It’s a good partnership. Robert hosts every day – my job is behind the scenes making sure everything happens.”
Between them they certainly do make it happen, offering clients 400-450 bird days in early season through to 200-250 bird days in January. It’s pheasant shooting that Robert has offered since starting Long Mountain at his family home on the Leighton estate more than 30 years ago, adding the other shoots more recently – over 7,000 acres between them.
The next morning I followed Robert up through Llangynog, keeping close on the winding roads – this may be picture postcard territory but don’t expect any phone calls. Meeting the team he’d brought together for the day I found that most of them were return visitors eager for the off.
None of them were more eager than Richard Blair, a Dubai-based businessman who has shot with Robert for over 25 years and visits, often accompanied by his butler, for a few days every year. A significant character, he’s still talked about in the local pub after standing the whole evening’s drinks for all of the regulars one night.
Mark Lee and picker-up Mary Gittins relax between drives.
Nigel had told me that a perfect day was dull and overcast with little or no wind. When we decamped at The Oaks the wind was blowing – quite seriously, too – along the top of the wooded hillside facing us. Even though the guns were moved down two pegs, as the drive started another smart move was needed to get every gun under the birds as they appeared high on the hill face and slid down the valley, gathering speed all the while.
For the guns and loaders already into their stride it was what they’d come for, but fortunately it only took a few shots for most of the others to get swings adjusted. Moving down the line I saw that even Gerry, Richard Blair’s butler, was enjoying every minute as he and Andrew Hinkins took it in turns to load and shoot. After the drive finished, tactics to overcome the challenges of the wind were the talking points. In hindsight it was a great warm-up.
The shoot’s stunning landscape ensures the sport on offer at Llechweddygarth is both challenging and awe-inspiring.
I mentioned lush valleys earlier, come to that Henia had touched on damp dogs too. Both are clues to the fact that the rain here can be serious. As we moved from The Oaks up the steep hill track to Grai’s Mountain, one of Llechweddygarth’s signature drives, a downpour was flung across us. That, on some shoots, may make the guns decide that it’s not much fun anymore, but this team seemed oblivious.
“All the guns want to shoot Grai’s,” explained Robert.
The significant flushes of birds appearing didn’t disappoint. Looking back at the photographs snatched in between wiping dripping wet camera lenses, everyone had a smile that defied the weather. A rainbow appearing only emphasised the spectacular view that, on a good day, stretches out to Shropshire and beyond. In fact, the rain only slowed as the drive drew to a close, leaving those in vehicles the task of turning round on the boggy ground before heading back down the track for elevenses, past the pickers-up – some stationed hundreds of feet down the mountainside.
“It pays for us to have a regular team here particularly,” explained Nigel, “they’ve got to know where to be on a drive like this.”
A true pheasant shooting test for the guns
Robert can arrange a lunch break but prefers to shoot through at this time of the year, so we headed away quickly to line out across the wide, flat-bottomed valley facing Bracken Bank, with the promise of soup and sausages afterwards. Ranged in a semi-circle, this is a drive where all the guns can see each other – excellent for leg pulling when we broke for refreshments.
Lunch, taken as an after-shoot meal, in the converted Scout hut.
Suitably fortified, we moved on to Church, a drive named after the old church nearby at Pennant Melangell. The site was apparently gifted to Melangell by a prince of Powys in the 7th century, impressed by her courage in protecting a hare being pursued by his hounds. Our 21st century hunters didn’t stay to look around, though, as light was beginning to fade. Leaving our cars under the church’s ancient yew trees, we moved to our pegs. The birds launching off Church’s wooded bank seemed to climb into the sky and hang there forever – with no reference point to judge speed or distance as they crossed the valley. Only experience counts and I watched Llechweddygarth regular Rodney Whitwell pick his birds from the large flushes, often having to wait until they were almost overhead.
The final drive of the day was Ochr. Several of the guns were tucked into a field at the base of the wood but I joined Mark Lee and loader Anthony Gillam back-gunning over the road. Not only did he have a series of screamers as a reward, he sportingly tried to avoid dropping his birds on any of the 4x4s parked under the trees.
As the guns gathered at the end, the light was disappearing and the rain had started again, but no one minded. We set off back to what I’d been told was an old Scout hut in the grounds of Llechweddygarth Hall. Whatever its origins, the inviting wood-panelled dining room with its open fire blazing was a welcome sight.
Llechweddygarth headkeeper Daniel Hosking.
Given that we were there in late November, headkeeper Daniel Hosking and his underkeeper Matthew Kersley had coped admirably with what was their second shoot day that week.
Daniel has been at Llechweddygarth for seven seasons, helping to build his ground to offer the required numbers of top quality birds.
“It had seen better times when we took it on,” he admitted, “but we’ve got 10 drives now with two more to come next year. I guess it’s a team job that’s done it”.
That, if I’m pushed to judge, would be one of the key threads of the story, both here at Llechweddygarth and at Robert’s other shoots. All of the 10-strong keepering staff plus Robert and Nigel work closely together from rearing time until the end of the season and, as Daniel put it: “We’re now producing the goods year after year.”