BEAT­ERS’ DAY: Cel­e­brat­ing this an­nual event on steep Welsh ter­rain

Alex Hat­ton joins a team on Llan­gollen Shoot in north Wales for that most revered of days in the shoot­ing cal­en­dar: Beat­ers’ Day

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My sea­son never nor­mally cul­mi­nates in a Beat­ers’ Day; it nor­mally con­sists of me host­ing one for the farm­ers whose land I lease for wood­cock and snipe. But this year, my shoot­ing part­ner Karen, who picks up on a shoot in Llan­gollen, was asked to bring some­one along to shoot for her, as she does not shoot. Al­though I was not im­me­di­ately sure I should be shoot­ing on a Beat­ers’ Day where I have never beaten, Karen as­sured me it was fine.

If you know any­thing about north Wales, you’ll be aware that we have some pretty steep ter­rain of­fer­ing some tremen­dous driven shoot­ing, and this shoot in Llan­gollen was no ex­cep­tion: steep wooded valleys, plenty of wood­land and the mag­nif­i­cent River Dee cut­ting through much of it, promis­ing to pro­vide some ducks on the last drive. It would cer­tainly be dif­fer­ent and was some­thing I had looked for­ward to for a while.

The day came and it saw us meet in one of the syn­di­cate’s pubs for ba­con sand­wiches and cof­fee. A typ­i­cally wet and damp day greeted us and the clouds hung low over the val­ley, some­how mak­ing the land­scape all the more dra­matic. For the beat­ers to­day, it was ta­bles turned and the syn­di­cate’s nor­mal Guns would be tak­ing to the wood­land along with the keeper to try and move over what re­mained of the birds.

I was soon made to feel very wel­come and was told about the var­i­ous drives we would be vis­it­ing, what they would of­fer and who would miss! I just hoped not too much miss­ing would be from me.

Be­fore long, we were creep­ing up to one of the steep­est drives of the day. I stood fairly close to the wood­land with Guns either side of me and Guns be­neath us try­ing for any­thing we missed. Be­yond that, the river was guarded by a picker-up and I could quite imag­ine los­ing a bird to it.

What can I say about this drive other than this was not a good start for me? The birds came over like dots in the up­per at­mos­phere and de­spite my best in­ten­tions I can­not say I even scared any birds! The Gun next to me picked up a nice hen pheas­ant and it came stream­ing down, even­tu­ally land­ing in the river: quite a feat! One other bird was taken on this drive and the en­su­ing dis­cus­sion was more an ap­pre­ci­a­tion of just how test­ing a drive it is.

The next drive was a long wood­land with a small ridge run­ning along its spine. I was right at the edge and my in­struc­tions were that the beat­ers would come over the ridge and along­side me, at which point I could keep in line with them on the fields and back-gun be­hind the main line of the Guns.

It started well with a high soli­tary pi­geon loft­ing over me that I shot with the se­cond bar­rel, and af­ter that it was a su­perb drive to watch. The sheer area that had been covered by the beat­ers meant the birds came in steadily for the rest of the drive with sev­eral be­ing picked up by Labradors and Large Mun­ster­lan­ders. This drive was cer­tainly one to put smiles on the Guns’ faces, and we went to lunch with bags of con­fi­dence.

Back in the shoot hut, a fan­tas­tic pheas­ant pie was pro­duced and what a treat it was. One of the beat­ers told me he al­ways takes away the ex­cess birds and will pro­duce pies when he has enough and bring them along. At a time when birds are a lit­tle abun­dant, it is fan­tas­tic to see game used like this and there was not a scrap of pie left.

The first drive af­ter lunch was a 10-minute jour­ney from the farm and yet again saw me up high near the wood­land edge and an­other line of

‘The birds came high and ex­tremely fast with a good tail wind be­hind them, but they’d sur­vived the sea­son and were fol­low­ing safe lines’

Guns be­low with pick­ing-up dogs in wait.

Beat­ers came from each end of the wood­land and soon the first hen pheas­ant came out and straight over me, which I brought down. I could see a black Labrador come along straight away to pick the bird up and straight back to his han­dler.

The Gun next to me took a su­perb cock pheas­ant and far­ther down the bank guns rang out as an ar­ray of pheas­ants came out the side of

the wood­land head­ing for their lower wooded home. A sin­gle wood­cock came out low from the woods in front of me and no shots fol­lowed it. The horn soon went and we headed back down to the road, loaded into cars and moved on­wards.

The next drive did not look, on the face of it, like it would hold much, par­tic­u­larly at this time of year. There had been a pen here which fed a few drives sur­round­ing it, but the wood­land looked bare. The Guns were fairly close to­gether with back Guns also in place. I was pleas­antly mis­taken – the birds flew thick and fast with me ac­count­ing for a cock and hen pheas­ant and some great shots from all those around me. It amazed me just how many birds came out of this block, in par­tic­u­lar the scrub around the edge and the rhododendron in the pen it­self.

The penul­ti­mate drive was un­der the main farm­house. The pens, long since de­parted by the pheas­ants, lay just un­der the wood­land edge with the wood­land ris­ing steeply be­hind, which by now was be­com­ing very fa­mil­iar! The beat­ers were draw­ing in a large area here and so it was a long time be­fore the first shots in the dis­tance were heard. There fol­lowed a group of 20 pi­geons, too high for any­one to touch. A sin­gle hen pheas­ant came over my neigh­bour’s peg which he hit with the se­cond shot, fol­lowed by a very high cock bird suc­cumb­ing to a shot fur­ther down the line. Af­ter that the birds came high and ex­tremely fast with a good tail wind be­hind them. It was a fan­tas­tic sight to see, but the birds com­ing off this had sur­vived the sea­son and I have no doubt were fol­low­ing sim­i­lar safe lines. It was great to try a few shots but I think I ap­pre­ci­ate where my weak­nesses are.

Right in front of me, a wood­cock, who had sat tight un­til now in a patch of bram­ble, flut­tered up and qui­etly flew back into the wood­lands, and who can blame it! The horn sounded and some pick­ing-up en­sued.

The fi­nal drive of the day was to be the ducks along the River Dee. They had been fed to a cer­tain point all sea­son, and that morn­ing the keeper had seen a good num­ber feed­ing. The in­struc­tions were sim­ple: no shoot­ing un­til ev­ery­one was in po­si­tion and leave the first group to fly past, the aim be­ing to get them all on the wing and among the Guns. The shoot­ing would then turn them once or twice en­sur­ing ev­ery­one gets a go.

The mist aided a stealthy walk to the river and soon I was sat in po­si­tion, but things didn’t quite go to plan and some early shots rang out, the ducks passed once (mixed in with a few off-lim­its man­darins) but they were too low. No ducks fell in the end for half a dozen shots and we were then on our way back to the farm.

With just over 30 birds in the bag, and not for a lack of try­ing, it had been a fan­tas­tic day. There were smiles all round and an of­fer of a few birds to go home with was wel­come. It is al­ways nice to spend time with like­minded folk and it is hard to beat Llan­gollen’s land­scape and high birds. For me, it had been a dif­fer­ent day to usual and cer­tainly eye-open­ing with re­gards to stretch­ing my gun from a more snap shoot­ing ex­is­tence. It sounded like they’d had a fan­tas­tic sea­son here and to still have some high-qual­ity birds left for the Beat­ers’ Day was ap­pre­ci­ated.

On the drive home, I could not help but spare a thought for the keeper. In some ways, a Beat­ers’ Day must be much more stress­ful for him than nor­mal. The beat­ers’ knowl­edge of the drives, how they work, and why they suc­ceed or fail are what makes a sea­son and a shoot and, al­though Beat­ers’ Day is not the sole rea­son beat­ers work on shoots, it is an im­por­tant day, so it must cer­tainly be a re­lief when it all goes well.

There will have been hun­dreds of Beat­ers’ Days on this the last day of the sea­son, and I am sure some well-earned shoot­ing was had. For many, this is the only for­mal day’s shoot­ing they will have had this sea­son, so long may this won­der­ful tra­di­tion con­tinue.

If you know a duck drive is on the cards on a shoot day, make sure you carry some non-toxic loads with you.

The beat­ers and Guns swap roles for this im­por­tant end-of-sea­son day

The birds were test­ing in places, but there was still plenty of work for the dogs

Steep slopes sur­round many of the drives

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