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
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