There cant be many shoots in the UK where you might see a turkey flush with the pheasants, but Pen-y-Lan, in North Wales, is one of them. However, turkeys arent an official quarry on shoot days, its just that keeper Richard Maces mixed flock of free-range turkeys and guineafowl sometimes present themselves irresistibly to the Guns. This is despite the penalty of a £50 fine, payable on the spot to Richard.
However, Guns shouldnt be distracted from the fact that Pen-y-Lan is a very fine pheasant shoot, offering some of the most challenging birds you will find anywhere. As ever, the shoots terrain explains why the birds are so good, for its 1,500 acres straddle the Dee, the land falling away sharply to the broad, fast-flowing river that marks the boundary between England and Wales.
There has been a shoot at Pen-y-Lan for as long as anyone can remember, but the current syndicate is now in its twelfth season under the captaincy of Giles Dodd. Almost all the members of the syndicate have been friends since school days, and the majority are involved professionally with agriculture. Giles is a dairy farmer, and many of the syndicate played rugby with varying degrees of seriousness in their younger days. Rugby has a similarity to shooting, as it demands quick reflexes and good hand-to-eye co-ordination. Thus I wasnt surprised to witness some cracking good shooting.
An impressive standard of shooting may be one of the syndicates strengths, but punctuality isnt, as Richard Mace the keeper had warned me: We aim to meet here at 9am, but its not usually until 10am that weve got everyone on their pegs. During the day the Guns are ferried around in the Gun bus, towed by their own vintage Fordson tractor.
I had arrived at the keepers cottage early, as I wanted to have time to be shown around the Purbarn Kennels. Richard and his wife Jen are breeders of golden retrievers and their own strain of chocolate-drop cockers (a mix of mainly cocker, but with a touch of Sussex spaniel, too). Richard has won the trophy for the best gamekeepers dog at Crufts on three occasions, each time with his golden retriever Hail, now aged eight years. Richard told me that he had nearly lost Hail earlier in the year, as he had suffered a sudden attack of bloat, and would have died if there had been any delay in getting him to the vet. Hes now back on top form and hopefully off to Crufts again in March as I reported in my Gundogs column last month (23 December 2009).
Like many keepers with an enthusiasm for dogs, Richard is supported by a strong picking-up team. Chris Eels isnt a regular, but had come up for the day from Wiltshire with his two goldens, Skye and Tweed, plus Shiner, a springer/cocker cross. All had been bred by Richard and Jen. Pam Gibbons, with four black Labradors, travels regularly from Bewdley, in Worcestershire, a 90-minute drive. The Jones brothers were both working springers, Jack with black-and-whites, Terry with liver-and whites. Completing the team was Jen with a team of golden retrievers and cocker/Sussex spaniel crosses. With a kennel of 19 dogs to choose from, Jen had a couple of different dogs out in the afternoon.
Rising to the challenge
The first drive, Boat House, gave the dogs plenty of work. I never saw the boat house, nor the lake, but there must have been water somewhere, as the first birds over the line were mallard. The very respectable birds gained their height early in the drive and the Guns placed down in the valley had some challenging shooting. One turkey came over in this drive, but it was rather low. The guineafowl flushed at the start made a noise, but decided that sitting in an oak tree was more sensible than flying over the Guns. It was a wise decision.
Having stood with the pickers-up for Boat House, I joined the Guns for the next drive, Quarry. This took us down to the Dee, fast-flowing rather than threatening, but still a formidable river for a dog to cross. I heard stories of heroic retrieves across it on previous occasions, but once the Dee is in spate it becomes a dangerous proposition for even the most powerful dog,
as it has nasty undercurrents. Fortunately no birds fell on the far side, so no dogs were tempted by a swim to England.
Quarry requires the beaters to drive a long wood that starts close to the river, but curls away. I was warned that the birds tend to fly over the Guns farthest from the river, so I positioned myself near shoot secretary Mike Heler and his Labrador, Lilly. Mike enjoyed some fast and furious sport, but he was far from alone, as most of the Guns had plenty of shooting.
After the drive I rejoined the picking up team who put a great deal of work into trying to find a reportedly dead bird. Whatever happened to it remains a mystery, but by the time we had given up, the third drive, Hall Wood, was well under way. A pause for drinks overlooking the Dee made a welcome break and a chance to meet the landowner, Barbara Ormrod. Her Labrador, Dipper, was until recently an active picking-up dog on the shoot, but at the age of 13 years is now retired. I was intrigued to learn from Barbara that her sister was the late Amelia Jessel, doyenne of the flatcoated retriever world, and whose name is celebrated in the Amelia Jessel Victor Ludorum at The CLA Game Fair.
I had already been warned that the next drive, Flannog, was likely to be the most testing of the day, and so it proved. I was also asked if I disliked heights, for everyone has to cross the Dee by a fearsomely high and narrow bridge. I was told that members of Sir Watkin Williams-Wynns (Wynnstay) Hunt regularly cross the bridge with their horses, but the latter are invariably led, not ridden. This is sensible; I can think of few prospects more frightening than riding across a bridge like that.
Flannog sees the birds pushed from England back to Wales and the prospect of crossing the Dee ensures that they fly strongly without losing the height they have gained from the English hill they are driven from. The birds here provided small and difficult targets, but some spectacular ones tumbled down.
Lunch is a Pen-y-Lan highlight, cooked by Margaret and Lyn. Its eaten in the shoot lodge, complete with a log fire. The roast lamb was excellent, but it was the cheese board that was particularly memorable. This was provided by Mike Heler and came from his family business, Joseph Heler Cheese, one of Britains leading cheese makers.
Replete from an excellent lunch and red-faced from the fire, I joined walking Gun Mark Pinnington for the next drive, New Plantings. Here Mark shot six consecutive birds, all with his first barrel and all dead in the air. They werent easy targets either, as they were curling back over the wood. It was the best shooting Ive watched for a long time.
The last drive, Bridge Lodge, saw the Guns on both sides of the Dee, so it has to be one of the few drives anywhere where the Guns stand in different countries. One Gun was on the bridge,so was neither in England nor Wales. He had a cracking couple of birds, but Im fairly sure he was pulling my leg with his claim of having had a shot at a salmon.
Then it was back to the lodge to discuss the day, have another drink and discover the final bag. It was 173 for 559 shots, but the ratio of shots to kills would have been much better if there hadnt been so much optimistic pigeon shooting: only one woodie ended up in the bag. Ive been on a lot of shoots, but seldom have I come across a syndicate that has as much fun as the Pen-y-Lan boys.