It will come as no surprise to discover the game shooting experience at Bettws Hall’s Gregynog Hall shoot is superb.
From the standard of accommodation to the quality of birds on offer throughout the day, Bettws Hall shoots have a reputation as some of the finest in the land.
What will come as something of a surprise is the fresh-faced visage of estate headkeeper Will Evans.
We are used to seeing deep frown lines on the faces on our gamekeepers, set with eyes which speak of seasons of endless toil, not the flush of youth, complete with sharp styled hair.
But for all his 17 tender years, there is no escaping Will is able to put on a day which would put many a veteran keeper to shame.
The 2010/11 season was his first as headkeeper on the estate, though growing up in and around one of the UK’s largest game shooting organisations has given him experience beyond his years.
Aged 12 he had his own pen and was rearing his own birds.
The drives at Gregynog Hall show some fine game shooting.
During school holidays he would commit himself to helping out with keepering, and surrounded by good mentors, and with a confidence and attitude inherited from his father Gwyn Evans, owner of Bettws Hall, he has taken on the challenge of being headkeeper of a 2,500 acre estate without missing a beat.
And this is fortunate indeed, for the gentlemen game shooting on this late November day were very serious sportsmen.
Included on the guest list was a knight, one of Pakistan’s leading legal advocates, a Canadian sportsman who had returned to the UK for two more days of sport after 10 solid days of game shooting earlier in the month, and an American-English pair on the home stretch of a 30-day game shooting marathon.
There was also a team of four discerning Yorkshiremen, enjoying one of their annual day’s game shooting together.
All had strong views, sporting or otherwise, and all proved to be discerning shots.
It is of huge credit to the team at Gregynog Hall that they were able to relax in each other’s company and enjoy some genuine camaraderie.
A warm welcome
The tone for a visit to Gregynog is set the evening before shoot day at the lodge which forms the epicentre of the Bettws Hall organisation.
The modern brick and wood-clad buildings hide warm and intimate interiors, characterised by great lengths of exposed timbers and roaring open fires.
An impressive dining table plays host to delicious meals, and comfortable armchairs ensure discussion carries on long into the night.
Gregynog Hall itself is currently used by the University of Wales as an arts and crafts centre.
The rolling mid Wales landscape of Gregynog Hall and surrounding estates is beautiful enough on its own to provide the perfect backdrop to a day’s game shooting.
A patchwork of green fields and imposing woods divided by thick threads of brown hedges are punctuated by distant stains of livestock, heavy with winter coats.
The only thing which could possibly improve such idyll was the heavy frost which greeted us in the morning, fluffy tendrils of pure white framing every blade of grass and providing a most satisfying crunch underfoot as the many pairs of boots marched out over silver-green fields.
Low winter sun and bright, clear skies would make early conditions tricky for the guns on the day’s first drive of four, Glanbeckan.
The birds made no effort to ease the guns into the day, providing a challenging start which set the tone, as the drives moved into increasingly steep territory.
The bag for the day was set at 400, but anyone put off by talk of big bags and tall birds should not be, as one of the most striking aspects of this shoot day was how warm and welcoming all were.
Though the surroundings and the trappings are grand Gwyn has striven to make each of his shoots both “personal and local”.
Starting from scratch
Clearly a very focused and driven man, Gwyn started in game shooting with no experience and no qualifications.
His company is now one of the most significant and recognisable in British game shooting, providing millions of birds to shoots all over the country each season and running some of the UK’s best-known shoots, such as Brigands, Molland and Chargot.
“Whatever I do, I like to do it to the best of my abilities,” he explained.
“However well I do it, I always think it can be done better. That’s the philosophy I have, and that’s the philosophy that’s put me in good stead for the last 20 years of my career.
“I started at a similar age to Will – I didn’t have the knowledge he has managed to gain, because I am self-taught. I never keepered for anybody; I started with some chicks in an old wardrobe turned on its back with an infrared light over it.
“I like to have a challenge, I like to keep busy, and I like to see and meet different people from all walks of life and all parts of the world. Game shooting is perfect for that: it brings together people who can share a wealth of knowledge and experience.”
Gwyn’s first shoot was the Bettws Hall shoot itself, and the Gregynog Hall and Vaynor shoots adjoin it.
Gregynog is run as one beat, with 12 drives in total.
Though not among the largest shoots, it gives good sport for between 20-30 days each season, normally for eight guns.
There are no cover crops anywhere on the estate, the birds being allowed to take full advantage of the extensive woodland.
Unlike many other land owners and managers, Gwyn does not partake of the various government-backed conservation schemes.
He explained: “We set aside areas each year for conservation, planting trees and managing habitat to encourage a range of wildlife. But we don’t go down the grant-aided route, as I believe it is my duty to look after the countryside I live and work in. We rear our own birds and keep a sensible level of stock on the ground. A pub is no good unless it’s got beer; a shoot is no good unless it’s got pheasants. I believe we put down the correct levels of birds to fulfil the needs of our guests.”
The early morning frost added a beautiful finish to an already stunning landscape.
Like all the best events, a day at Gregynog is carefully choreographed, with a steady pace throughout the day.
Will explains: “Obviously a day can change as it goes on; you just have to see how the guns get on with what’s presented to them. We do have a rough plan laid out the day before, however you have to be prepared to be flexible. I have always been taught you should never allow yourself to get into a backward situation.”
Gwyn continued: “We like to have our guests stay at our lodge so we have control of the environment they’re in and the standards they have come to expect are always kept up to a high level. For our overseas guests we organise everything right the way from gun permits to flights, airport pickups, accommodation, cartridges, loaders to laundry. So all the person has to do is pick up the phone and tell us which days they would like to shoot. In this way, if any problem looks to be coming out of the woodwork we can eliminate it before anyone is ever aware of it.
“We have a worldwide audience. I would say 99 per cent of our guests are repeat bookings, and any new clients have usually been to shoot with us as part of another party and decided to bring their own team. We are trying to perfect perfection.”
Jeremy Beaumont lines up a curling bird on The Vicarage drive.
Having sampled just a hint of the thoughtful and high quality customer care on my visit, it can be safely said that a trip to a Bettws Hall shoot will be a comfortable one.
But what really brings guns back time and time again is the quality of the sport, and this really was the highlight of the day.
The guns shot 389 pheasants and three partridges on the day for 1,911 shots, a testament to the quality of the challenge that was placed before them.
Will and his team ensured all the guns had plenty to nourish them as they made their way home in the dwindling light.