Game shooting at Mynachdy, Anglesey: Lucinda Holdsworth stands pensively on Inland Sea’s pebble beach.
Shifting her weight between brown shooting boots she trains her eyes along the top of the serrated wall of rock and grass that towers above her.
The small, dipping movements of her slight frame loosen the smooth pale grey stones is weary strings of black seaweed behind are sucked into the icy water by receding waves that explode into hissing foam.
The sky is an immaculate baby blue, save the fraying cotton clouds and yellow orb spilling light down onto the bottle green sea. She continues to spy the elevated horizon when her eyes are suddenly drawn towards an alien sound.
Something is cutting through the air beyond the cliff top.
Then a human voice calls out.
As Lucinda’s eyes narrow she begins to bring the stock to her cheek, there is a thunk as she draws back the safety catch…and then they come.
Lucinda Holdswoth on Inland Sea.
For most graduates, university days end with a solemn promise to keep in touch with housemates and the bookworm from the lecture hall.
Inevitably, as time draws on and priorities are directed towards respectability, reminisces of 4am horseplay and furious last-minute changes to dissertations begin to feature a cast of half forgotten names and faces.
John Jo Roberts and his friends, all former students of agriculture and rural enterprise and land management courses at Harper Adams, are not like most graduates.
Their special friendship, born at the university, now forms the backbone of an arrangement that sees them running and financing the shoot on John Jo’s family farm on the Isle of Anglesey, north west Wales.
What began as a casual suggestion over a pint at the Church Bay Inn has grown into a professionally managed syndicate.
The group had enjoyed some great adventures together at university, and doubtless had each flirted with the idea of suggesting they form a syndicate.
But it wasn’t until one gun, James Vaughan, posed the question that they began to take the idea seriously.
They certainly had all of the elements to hand.
John Jo’s father had run the shoot on his 1,100 acres for a number of years, and although it had been dormant for three, five pens were still standing and the land itself was in good condition.
John Jo had even co-managed the shoot with his father before heading off to Harper Adams, so he knew what to expect.
The 24-year-old shoot captain has been shooting ever since he could hold a gun.
By the age of 10 had shot every quarry the land had to offer, from duck and pheasant to woodcock and teal.
Although now employed by Fisher German, he has an air of an army captain in waiting.
No favour is too big for his friends to ask, but when has to marshal and bark orders at them, he’ll do it.
There wasn’t a single moment during this shoot day when he looked uneasy with his task, even when he was hissing for people to keep their voices down as we walked towards Snipe Bog in the late afternoon.
As far as his aspirations for the shoot are concerned, it’s not a question of whether it can be done, but how.
Like any shoot, John Jo needs a strong team to achieve his goals.
John Roberts Snr is his son’s go-to guy (though advice is sometimes offered rather than sought) and each syndicate members has an important, if undefined, role to play, be it with shovel, bucket or chainsaw in hand.
Everyone has their strengths and it’s something John Jo appreciates.
“Giles (Drew) is a signatory on the business account. Alex (Caraffi) is good with the numbers and James and I are involved with the actual day-today running of the shoot. I try to give people specific roles, because everyone wants to pitch in.”
With everyone spread around the country, the constant presence that the shoot needs in order to function comes in the form of part-time gamekeeper Malcolm Richardson.
A local man, Malcolm stood on the shoot’s beating line in its previous incarnation.
His modest nature, coupled with an assertive attitude matches John Jo’s ambition.
Despite not having any gamekeeping experience before taking the position, Malcolm jumped at the chance to work on the shoot.
“It’s a real pleasure to work for these guys,” says Malcolm in his distinctive nasal north Walian accent. “They give me a pretty free reign. My youngest daughter, Cerys, loves shoot day and is always with me when the poults come in. She comes feeding with me every morning and every evening. I don’t see my job as part-time because of the amount of hours I have to put in. I’d rather do a proper job than half a job. The way I look at it, the more effort you put in the better the day is.”
Despite the invaluable help he receives, ultimately it’s John Jo who thinks about the shoot most.
Although it’s hard for him to divide his time between the shoot and work with Fisher German in Cheshire, he seems to love balancing two full-time jobs.
“I enjoy it so it doesn’t feel like a chore. I try and get back on weekends and holidays as much as I can. I’m also involved with the running of the farm so it doesn’t look good if I come home every week to just work on the shoot. We have to keep the shoot affordable for what is basically a student budget, but at the same time making sure the farm gets a good return too.”
The syndicate takes 10 of the shoot’s 15 days. John hopes that another let day can be added to the current five, and it looks like he’ll get it now that some old visitors have started to reappear.
“When old shooting parties found out that the shoot was starting again they called us. James’s father took a day with some farming friends from Hereford. We get guns coming from all around the UK and even as far away as France. People have been faithful to the shoot, so it puts a bit of pressure on me to produce the same kind of sport my father did, but I like that challenge.”
The average day’s bag is between 130-150 and the syndicate has worked hard to achieve it.
Working parties get together over the summer to maintain pens, plant and clear trees and nurture wild areas.
They always end up back at the Church Bay Inn.
Everything is designed to emulate the commercial success the shoot once enjoyed:
“We’ve felled 70 of the 110 acres of conifer woodland so drives have been temporarily lost,” says John Jo. Once we’ve replanted the areas will be completely designed for shooting. We’re going to bring more partridges in next season because they worked really well on the drives we’ve redeveloped. Mynachdy will be more commercial and I want to drive things in that direction but I’ll never turn my back on this syndicate. They got the shoot up and going again through their hard work.”
Hard work is a modest description of the syndicate’s efforts. Even to the first-time visitor, it’s obvious they’ve been extraordinarily busy.
It must be a great feeling to shoot the birds they have reared on drives they have bought in themselves and they can only get better.
Stumps drive is an example of the shoot’s hard work in progress.
Stand on Stumps and you could begin to think you were the only person on the whole island.
It is a beautiful post-apocalyptic scene.
The wide-scale felling programme has left a mess of logs and branches piled four deep, fanned around smooth stumps.
They punctuate the uneven ground concealing deep sinks of brown syrup water.
Handfuls of partridge throw themselves out over the rocks and zigzag their way towards the open arms of the sea at speed.
Although one of the most fruitful drives of the day, it was still carefully orchestrated, as John Jo explains:
“We have to be quite careful about the number of birds we shoot and have to think about what drives we’ll do from week to week. We are fortunate to have a healthy number of snipe and woodcock. They offer guns a very different shooting experience and it means we can rest one or two of the ain drives. Inland Sea is probably the signature drive on the shoot and it’s the one that everyone remembers, especially when there is a good sou’westerly taking the birds off the top of the cliff.”
Inland Sea is one of the most geologically diverse areas on Anglesey.
Lucinda Holdsworth was pegged virtually in the surf on the far right above huge cliffs, cut off from the view of the rest of the line by a dry stonewall set 20 yards back from the sloping pebble shore.
The others stand either side of a natural lake sitting at the bottom of a u-shaped valley.
On one side a steep bank of grass climbs up into thick foliage while an imposing bank of firs and bracken look out to the sea on the other.
As the beaters approached the birds began to break off the cliff edge in twos and fours.
Watching them climb and curve sharply as shotguns sang and waves beat against rocks illustrated just how unique Mynachdy is.
The only thing to match the shoot’s scenery are the birds that are found within it.
The guns showed a composure that belied their age throughout the day.
Not least Lucinda, who enjoyed seeing the birds first.
Despite her gun jamming mid-way through the drive she remained in a good mood as the boys boasted over fat sausages and Bull Shot on the shore.
Being the only girl doesn’t faze Lucinda and her enthusiasm for the shoot and the sport is just as strong as that of her friends.
“Because of the average bag it’s worked out as quite cheap shooting. I love wiping the boy’s eyes. It’s great that everyone mucks in here, and although cutting down all those trees with a saw on Stumps was quite difficult, I don’t want to be given an easy ride just because I’m a girl.”
John Jo is also bullish about the latest round of changes on the shoot.
“We’ve planted a strip of woodland along The Lodge. We’re developing the permanent cover and planting shrubbery too, and want to encourage brambles to grow to create flushing points, especially for the new partridge drives.”
Pant Mawr is the highest drive on the shoot, looking down over the shoulder of Inland Sea.
It appears as a long fairway, a thin base of short grass at the base stretching out, down and then up towards the horizon.
The wind certainly plays its part in propelling the birds over the bordering rocks and scrub either side of the guns.
Pant Mawr sits at the highest point on the shoot and its birds are unpredicatable.
Ed Smith discovered just how agile he could be when aiming at the coveys that were separating just as a left and right was imminent.
John Jo knows that as time passes even the syndicate’s commitment to one another will be tested.
He loves the fact that most Fridays and Saturdays during the autumn and winter are spent with old friends, and that he can explore new possibilities on the shoot with them.
“I think that marriages and kids will be the next hurdle for us. In years to come the shoot might only have five members so then we might take it in a slightly different direction where guns can bring a friend. I hope we can stay together until we are old and grey.”
Game shooting at Mynachdy, Anglesey through a father’s eyes
John Roberts Snr and his wife Wenna watched every minute of the action quietly in the background. He resisted repeated offers to take to the peg himself despite looking ready to at any moment. It was obvious everyone wanted to repay the hospitality they had been shown from the moment they had set foot inside the farm house. John is not like the old pro who has hung up his boots and cannot stand on the touchline. As the original shoot captain he may have been tempted to suggest the odd thing here and there, even when the drives like Inland Sea and Pant Mawr had witnessed truly great sport, but he has confidence in John Jo’s ability and stays at arm’s length. He expressed delight at how his son and the syndicate have taken over the reins. “It’s really nice for me to be able to sit back and enjoy the day without any responsibility and watching John Jo and Malcolm go about their business. I don’t miss the days when I was in charge. I look back on them fondly of course, but there comes a time when you want the pressure off you. I’d like to get some of my older customers back here shooting. An old French friend of mine, who I first went shooting with in the early 1980s, wants to come back for old time’s sake. That’s what it’s all about for me now.”