Game shooting: When the snow falls there are many already beautiful parts of the UK which are immediately transformed into a mind’s eye view of the Narnia of C.S. Lewis’s magical chronicles.
And this part of deepest Wales is one of them.
Already blessed with beautiful mountains, gurgling streams and rivers, sweeping valleys and pretty woodland, the addition of a foot of snow only adds to the charm.
Ean Branston is presented with some fantastic game shooting.
On the day of my visit the snow had started two days previously and increased the sense of remoteness as I ploughed through the smaller roads to a hotel in Builth Wells on the Friday night before.
This attractive little town sits on the junction of the Rivers Wye and Irfon and really feels like the gateway to the wilderness beyond.
After a good night’s sleep the faint morning light revealed a further inch or two of snow had fallen overnight, so I was intrigued to discover how the birds would fly and how the game shooting would be managed on what was a bitterly cold day.
But thoughts of the cold were far from the mind on the simply stunning approach to Llwyn Madoc manor house, lying a mile to the north west of Beulah, a remote rural community to the west of Builth Wells.
Spectacular scenery and heavy snow turned the Welsh countryside into the most beautiful setting for this day’s game shooting.
The house is the centrepiece of a 5,000-acre estate owned by Patrick Bourdillon, and its 18th century creators knew how to pick a spot.
It holds sway on a south-facing hillside with a mixture of woodland and meadow in the valley below.
As the guns gathered in the dining room for a cup of coffee, acting game shooting host for the day Chris Nicholas explained the four-drive shoot-through format, returning to the house for lunch at the end of proceedings.
A closed flock
The shoot manager/headkeeper is Brian Hardcastle, who is also the man in charge of the National Gamekeepers Organisation group in this part of Wales.
And to say he is passionate about the job is a bit of an understatement. We would see little of him on this day as he marshalled the beating line in order to ensure no wily pheasant got the better of him.
Llwyn Madoc headkeeper Brian Hardcastle.
And he should know the birds pretty well, because they are all reared from scratch on site from a closed breeding flock.
This is something Brian feels very strongly about:
“All birds released onto the shoot are reared on the estate from a closed flock. The highest point on the shoot is 1,500 feet and the rearing field is 1,000 feet above sea level. In order for the birds to thrive in these conditions, the genetic advantage gained from having a closed flock is seen as an essential part of the game shooting strategy.
“Pursuing a closed flock policy has proved very successful for us. With an annual rainfall of 69 inches, breeding from a resident flock has encouraged the development of a hardy bird with a genetic tolerance to our climate. Introducing fresh blood is achieved by changing our cock birds every four years. These birds are blood tested and are initially kept separate from the main flock in order to minimise disease risk. This system, coupled with a minimal use of medication both on the rearing field and when the poults go to the woods, has dramatically lowered the mortality rate. As a result each poult costs us less to produce and in the current financial climate that can only help.
The team on this day were mostly from the Cotswolds and Malcolm Berry was more than up to the challenge.
“I would say to others thinking of doing the same that this is a long term project and it doesn’t happen overnight. You have to be prepared to cull when disease strikes. But if you do take this long-term approach you will get to a position where you use less and less medication as I have found here. The flock has gradually built up its natural resistance to disease.
“In the long term it is definitely a cost saver and, apart from getting a good deal of job satisfaction out of rearing the birds, there is also a strong sense of having your future in your own hands.”
Before I had seen a bird flying others on the shoot had also attested to the boss’s devotion to the birds, so I was more than a little interested to see the results.
The first drive was Nant-Ty’r-Bach and saw the guns lining out down a slope with a dogleg at the bottom through a thin strip of woodland.
It was clear the beaters were coming from a long way back and there was plenty of time to take in the stunning scenery and clear the snow from the area around the pegs for unhindered footwork.
The first birds started to test the right hand end of the line as the beaters made gradual progress through the woodland ahead.
And as the action moved from pegs eight and seven down to six, five and four they got progressively higher, faster and more demanding.
Lunch is served in Llwyn Madoc Manor at the end of the day and guns also have the option of staying here for the full experience.
It is not uncommon for the first drive of the day with an unknown team of guns to be a gentle tester so the management team and the guns can both find their feet.
However, this wasn’t the way here. Karl Eriksson is a vastly experienced game shooter and has been involved in the gun trade for many a year and on this drive he was in the thick of it on peg number four.
He was nearly at the lowest point of the line and had the opportunity to stretch his neck muscles many times as screaming high pheasants appeared overhead at an expertly managed trickle.
Any doubts about whether the weather would have a detrimental impact on proceedings were swiftly dispelled and the expertise of the beating line and sheer quality of the birds was impressive.
The Cammarch was the second drive and saw guns line out along a stream at the bottom of a steep wooded bank.
Here the beaters would demonstrate extreme skill and fitness, traversing the steep wood in thick snow and generating a supply of strong flying birds which either headed straight over the line or provided tricky curling shots as they peeled over the left-hand edge of the line.
In these conditions the dogs really have their work cut out for them and cockers find it difficult just to stay above the snow.
In conditions like these it is very tough for the dogs but they are well served at Llwyn Madoc and the team on this day did a superb job.
But the dog work here was of the highest quality, and it came as no surprise to discover that the estate also hosts a number of field trials during the season.
I was also interested to know how the cover crops are managed here and Brian explained:
“Because of the altitude (900 feet and more) kale is the only crop which works consistently, though we are looking at experimenting with canary and pampas grass. A lot of the drives involve a lot of dogging in, so they take time to prepare, but we find the four drive format works well for us.”
The ultimate test
After a stop for a warming bite to eat and drink the guns moved on to Allt-y-Gest drive where the front rank of six guns would see some of the highest and best birds I have witnessed.
The majority of this team were from the Cotswolds and Malcolm Berry and Ean Branston found themselves in the hottest of spots here.
Malcolm’s son James was also in the action, which was fitting as he will be taking an active role in the management of the game shooting in the coming years.
Having worked here as a keeper for a few years in the past he shares Brian’s passion for the place and the methods. Here he experienced the very best the shoot has to offer.
The wind had moved round to be more of an easterly during the break prior to this drive and so the temperature plummeted.
Maybe it was minus five on the thermometer but it felt considerably colder than that, not that the birds seemed to notice as they continued to soar over the line on a diagonal flight path heading for the woods behind.
Luckily the guns in the front line were more than up to the task and, while some of the birds were out of range, many that took a slightly lower line did not make it.
I could not say I have seen a better drive than this.
The grand finale
In the grand tradition, the last drive took place within walking distance of the house but not in the gentle pasture and parkland you might expect from a Home Counties country house.
No not here at Llwyn Madoc, where the land climbs sharply behind the house and continues up to the wild tops.
Again the beaters start a long way back and here the guns are in three tiers, each line hidden from the others by the thick woodland.
Those in the top rank high in the woods have the excitement of some of the best snap game shooting while those lower down have longer to see the birds and contemplate how they are going to deal with more stratosphere-scrapers.
Mind you, by this point in the day they should have had enough practice.
The day concluded with a fine lunch and Brian informed the team that 235 of the best pheasants had been put in the bag for 1,017 shots.
At a ratio of 4.3:1 this was testament to the quality of the birds and the expertise of the team underneath them.
Brian said: “We aim to provide 25 days a season. I think this is a sensible number which will mean we can retain the quality in the flock. We have got up to 28 in the past but I think this is the most we would want to do. We aim for bags of 250 but we can also do 150 bird days. And the cost next season will be in the region of £30 per bird.”
The history of Llwyn Madoc shoot
Llwyn Madoc manor house was built in 1747 originally as a hunting/shooting lodge. Set in 5,000 acres, it has been in the same family for over 400 years. But with the outbreak of World War Two the large shoot which previously existed on the estate stopped operating.
Llwyn Madoc manor house.
Fourteen years ago the present owner, Patrick Bourdillon, and headkeeper/shoot manager Brian Hardcastle teamed up. The aim was, and still is, to provide shooting for the serious sportsman in the spectacular and dramatic landscape that is Llwyn Madoc.
Brian Hardcastle is the shoot manager and headkeeper at Llwyn Madoc and he also runs the National Gamekeeper’s Organisation group in south and mid-Wales. His parents were dairy farmers and he started his gamekeepering career some three decades ago at the Ffynonne Estate near Cardigan in West Wales, which belonged to Earl Lloyd George, where he worked for three years. Following that he moved on to the Cefnllysgwynne estate near Builth Wells, owned by Charles Woosnam CBE, where he remained for 10 years until he moved on to the Llwyn Madoc Estate 14 years ago. His youngest son Oliver also helps out on shoot days when he is not busy in his own career.
For more information about the shoot contact James Berry on 07528 955 074 or Brian Hardcastle on 07971 069167. Or email Brian at email@example.com