One of the great beauties of the British Isles, as any traveller will know, is the sheer diversity of landscape, which can change so radically in a short distance — and provide such varied shooting. Having spent much of the season in the largely rolling, flinty, chalky south of England, an invitation from Steven Barnard to visit the Aberbran Fawr Shoot took me out west to Sennybridge, not far from Brecon, to sample the hillier sport that Wales has to offer.
The evening before the shoot I met Steven and his son, Stephen, for a drink and a chat about what the day would bring. As well as running shoots in the past and keepering, Steven is also a keen fisherman, with his best salmon a tremendous 32-pounder fished from the river Wye.
“The shoot is run by three of us: Andy Matthews, who farms some of the ground and whose father Geoffrey started the shoot, Brian Hibbard and myself,” explained Stephen. “Andy and I are on the ground in the mornings, Brian takes over during the day, then we come back to check on the birds in the evening.
There is always work to be done and from August to the end of the season we are hectic. “There are no surrounding shoots, which can be beneficial, but at the same time if we lose birds we won’t pick up any others from neighbours. As with all shoots, fox control is vital and with little vermin control around us, we do create a vacuum for foxes to fill.”
Much of the shoot comprises small spinneys, long hedges and “dingles” (wooded valleys), which can provide great cover and habitat for woodcock and also ideal runways for pheasants to follow, so endless dogging-in is necessary
to keep the birds on the shoot. With so much natural food around this year, the dogwork is important to ensure a good return of around 50 per cent.
“We use various seed mixes from David Bright Seeds, such as triticale, wheat, quinoa, sorghum, as well as kale mixes,” said Steven. “We are also part of the Welsh environmental scheme, Tir Gofal Glastir, which promotes habitat to encourage wildlife. We have used a mix of kale which is excellent — the stalks are bare for about a foot above the ground, giving the birds room to walk around, and the leafy canopy keeps them warm.
“One thing to remember is that if your birds are gathering in the evenings in thick covercrops it can pay to dog them out so that they will roost. If a fox gets into the cover it can kill a good number of them.”
The morning dawned dull and drizzly, dimly revealing hilltops with fertile valleys between them. The Guns and rest of the crew gathered in a field where a chalet fitted out with a coffee machine provided shelter. Most of the morning’s shooting would take place on the surrounding slopes and fields.
Among the throng were two familiar faces that I had met at another shoot in Wales last season: John Elfed-Jones and his “mentor and tormentor” John Lloyd. It was good to see them again.
The shoot covers around 500 acres, a third of it on Andy’s farm and the rest on a neighbour’s land. Geoffrey Matthews set up the shoot about 17 years ago, in an area without much shooting. It started as a shoot for friends and neighbours and it has remained the same with Andy now at the helm.
One of the original shooters, John Lloyd reflected on how the shoot was born: “I first met Geoffrey when he was picking-up on a shoot and he invited me for a day. In turn, my good friend John Elfed-Jones came along and we have been involved in the shooting here ever since. Geoffrey was a great guy; it is thanks to all the fencing and planting that he carried out that we can now enjoy good sport.”
“We shoot about every fortnight,” added Andy. “Aiming for around 100 birds and, as we have 11 drives, we try to rest the drives alternately between the shooting days. We get our birds from Joe Moore of Dragon Game — the birds are generally French green-neck crosses and English ringnecks, as we found that the
Michigan bluebacks scatter too easily for our liking.”
The perfect drive
By the end of the first drive, Lane Drive, which involved a bit of a slog up a hill, the thin, overcast sky had cleared to sunny weather. The bright sun caused birds to veer right and left of the Guns on the second drive, The Oaks, but the third drive, Glan’s Hedge, more than made up for it. The beaters had pushed some cover and birds up into this drive, where they joined existing ones and erupted through russet-leaved trees to float higher and higher over the Guns. I was with Dave Radbourne, who brought down some beauties, and the beaters trickled out the birds in fine style. It was one of those drives that you wanted to last forever.
The drive before lunch, River Pond, was situated in a flat valley adjacent to the river Usk, whose sapphire-blue waters flowed like molten glass between the stones and on into eddies and pools. A mallard crashed down in the calm waters and former keeper Ritchie Morris sent his Labrador Poppy for the bird. Poppy fought the deceptively strong current to retrieve the bird and in time-honoured gundog fashion shook a cloud of diamond water drops all over Ritchie.
Duck in the mix
After lunch there was one more drive, Over the Top, on some different ground and the tractor towing the gun bus roared into life. The birds were hung on the outside of the bus, thus not only providing a means of transporting them but also quickly cooling them down.
The work that Geoffrey had put in years ago has certainly borne fruit. Some drives on the shoot featured ponds which he had built and which function as their own little oases of wildlife. As well as holding released mallard, they are a haven for teal.
The surrounding vegetation provides shelter for pheasants and this was seen on the last drive when pheasant after pheasant cascaded from an area of felled and rotten branches adjacent to the pond. Water attracts life, so such an environment is good for more than just gamebirds. When planning a flightpond on your shoot, it might pay to plant cover of varying descriptions around it. These ponds can also attract woodcock, which seek out boggy areas in freezing conditions.
Andy’s sheepdogs had worked tirelessly for him all day and, as to be expected, they were under control at all times. While they are not suited for picking-up, they work closely and thoroughly through the cover. Interestingly, Andy said that most sheepdogs seem to despise the sound of gunfire but his two, Jess and Pip, didn’t seem to mind it, except when Andy uses a gun himself. Sheepdogs are a valuable possession to hill farmers and Andy said that a good one can cost up to £3,000.
The day was over and the light fading. A couple of teal were added to the bag and looked tiny when hung next to some big mallard.
The shoot, like so many in rural and remote areas, provided a focal point where local people can gather and socialise, which is vital in the countryside. It also showed how hard work and planning provide an environment in which game and wildlife flourishes. Thanks to the foundations laid by Geoffrey, and the excellent work that the team has continued, the shoot has gone from strength to strength and is one of which to be proud.