A snowstorm at Old Long Mountain shoot near Welshpool challenged the guns – though the birds were made of sterner stuff
Snow challenged guns at Old Long Mountain, as Janet Menzies reports
Whatever climate change deniers may say, the climate has most definitely been extremely changeable lately. Last summer’s heatwave followed a winter that was as white as a Dickensian Christmas card. However, some pheasants are very much at home in snowscapes, so while I was trapped in a drift on the M6, the birds at Old Long Mountain shoot near Welshpool, in the Marches, flew very happily.
Gerwyn Jones’s roving syndicate, with members coming from all over the country, had wisely decided to stay up the night before. Jones says: “It was lucky that everybody had come up before the snow hit. The snow started to come down just as we were beginning the first drive and it wasn’t really enough at that stage to make it difficult. Then, by the second drive, it was heavy. Most of us were equipped with 4x4s with off-road tyres but everyone kept a good distance from Left: Daryl Ewer on Paradise drive, where snow fell hard Above: picking a high bird through the snow shower the vehicle in front and all went ok. Usually birds don’t fly well when it first snows, as they can’t see where they are flying to. They will often hover aimlessly as they do in fog but after they have had a day to get used to it they’ll fly as per normal with snow on the ground.”
With the British transport system seemingly incapable of dealing with extreme weather conditions, many shoot managers have to think twice when a storm sets in. But the pheasants reared by shoot manager Anthony Pryce are made of sterner stuff. “The snow did present a challenge in the morning, but everything went very smoothly and it was quite exciting,” he explains. “We have got our own game farms and we rear Manchurian-cross pheasant, which work well on that shoot. They are a strong-flying bird and rearing them ourselves is a big advantage. We make sure they are old enough and get them out plenty early to be mature from the start of the season. It means that if harder weather does come in December and January they are easily able to cope.”
Pryce set up Cambrian Birds with business partner Gerry Jackson in February 2015 and they now have
three shoots: Old Long Mountain, Sweet Lamb and The Ridgeway. According to Pryce, all three offer different characteristics, with Old Long Mountain offering some tall birds. “The terrain is very steep with tight valleys. Old Long Mountain had been going for about 30 years and we took it on just over a year ago and developed it from the existing base.”
The shoot is famed for some particularly challenging drives, including Trinity Wells, The Beaches and Paradise – and it was on Paradise drive that the snow really began to fall on the Jones team of guns. Jones says: “Paradise is one of the original high-bird drives in Mid Wales and has been talked about for years. It is a deep valley with a wood on the top. The birds are flushed out of the wood and over a road and they head straight over the guns, who are pegged in grass fields at a height of around 50yd and much higher. I managed to connect with half-a-dozen huge birds on the Paradise drive. I was using Eley Alphamax cartridges and these really are game changers. On that second drive, Paradise, they were 60yd or 70yd up and it didn’t seem to make any difference to the birds but, of course, for us it was hard to see them through the blizzard.
“The majority of the birds did favour the far left of the line and came over Gerry Jackson, who is an investor in the shoot. Most of the team shoot together regularly on grouse and pheasants. I organise a few days, and so do one or two others in the team. We have a nucleus of about 30 people who we shoot with throughout the season.”
The weather cleared when we shot the third drive, offering stunning blue skies, with a backdrop looking over Powis Castle in the distance and farther into Wales. The birds actually disappeared into the snow when they hit the ground and it was great to see the dogs shoving their heads beneath the white stuff to retrieve. My cocker and a lot of others were covered in snow balls, which stuck to their long fur. This drive was from a cover plot and a wood on top of a hill. You would think that birds would simply follow the contours and dive, but they got on their tales and soared into the blue sky shining like diamonds. It snowed again as we left this drive and the sky turned black as a large storm approached. So we did the last drive in a wood underneath some clear fell where again we had plenty of archangels over us.
“Overall we were actually surprised by how well the birds flew. They just seemed to power through it. By the third drive it had cleared a bit and was beautiful. When we got into the woods it started to snow again, but we got some shelter with the trees. If anything the snow just added to our enjoyment of the day. The scenery was so beautiful and the birds flew really well. And then, of course, we were all driving home after the snow thinking how lucky we had been to have a great day.”
From Pryce’s point of view, this is more the product of long experience and planning than just luck. Pryce has been involved with game from the age of 15. He started off as an underkeeper, working his way up to head keeper at Kempton in south Shropshire. He then oversaw and continued to grow the UK’S largest game farm as well as developing and maintaining several renowned sporting estates in Mid Wales and the Westcountry. Running his own shoots was the obvious development for Pryce.
“When we started Cambrian Birds in 2015 I had been working for a big company and wanted to do this project. We started small and have grown over the three years. The first shoot we took on was Sweet Lamb, and it wasn’t really a fully driven shoot. It was a farmers’ syndicate and we turned it into a full-scale shoot. Old Long Mountain had been going for about 30 years when we took it on just over a year ago and developed it from the existing base.
“Sweet Lamb is a different type of shoot – it is very mountainous with wide-open hillsides, and the estate is about five-and-ahalf thousand acres in a single private block with no roads or footpaths. This makes it an unusual shoot, even by Welsh standards. It really works to our advantage as a shoot. Our third shoot in the portfolio that we have created is The Ridgeway, which is different again. It has wider valleys flanked with big bracken banks.”
Creating a shoot more or less from grassroots is the pipe dream of many a committed driven shot. Planning the ideal drive is a guaranteed ice-breaker to get the conversation started at the post-shoot dinner,
We were surprised how well the birds flew. They just seemed to power through it
as guns select a mash-up of Exmoor flushing points, Midlands cover crops with Welsh scenery – and Scottish hospitality. Meanwhile, those lucky enough to be running a family or local syndicate shoot are constantly tinkering with the drives in the fond hope of getting the Oak Wood to go better than it did in grandfather’s day. Not many have the opportunity Pryce has created of building three shoots almost from scratch.
However, it is The Ridgeway that is really Pryce’s baby. He started to piece together the shoot the summer after founding Cambrian Birds. The Ridgeway sits on the border of England and Wales, near Bishop’s Castle, and now has all the makings of a good pheasant and partridge shoot. Pryce describes the steep-sided deep valleys, narrow gullies and acres of woodland that inspired him to create the shoot. “This terrain makes us all very excited about the potential this shoot has moving forwards,” says Pryce. “The feel you get from The Ridgeway is nothing short of magic, and when stood in the valley bottoms looking up at the drives it’s hard to imagine anywhere better.”
Pryce makes it sound idyllic but creating a commercial driven shoot like those offered by Cambrian is a very different story from getting a few friends together and hedge bashing a couple of local farms – satisfying though that can be on Boxing Day. A commercial shoot relies on good infrastructure and support from the wider local community so that on snowy days like that encountered by the Jones team, everything goes just as smoothly as ever. It’s important to be able to get hold of plenty of willing beaters and pickers-up who won’t let you down. Pryce hasn’t found this to be a problem so far. “Even though the area is comparatively remote we are quite close to Welshpool so we are able to attract plenty of beaters and pickers-up to come on our shoots. We shoot two or three let days a week on each shoot, so the season is a busy time. It is a lot to manage, but very rewarding.”
Perfect planning still isn’t quite enough, however. There is an imaginative element in building a shoot that can’t be pinned down, no matter how many BASC or Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust manuals you read. Pryce thinks it is a combination of instinct and experience. He explains: “Developing new shoots is certainly a challenge but I have about 25 years’ experience in shoots and it gives you a knowledge of what is possible and how to achieve it. When you are creating or developing a drive, of course you look at it from a technical point of view but really, when it comes down to it, you just have an instinctive idea of what is going to work. And in the end nothing beats just giving it a try and finding out.
“Sometimes it can surprise you, when a drive doesn’t behave the way you thought it would. Sometimes it doesn’t work despite all your plans but at other times it totally exceeds your expectations. We have some drives at Sweet Lamb like that where the birds fly amazingly well. And you develop every season, refining it and building on the previous season. Our aim is to get these shoots right to the top of the league of Welsh driven shoots.”
If the snowy experience of Jones and his fellow guns is anything to go by, Pryce’s Cambrian Birds shoots are well on their way to achieving his ambitions.
For more information about Old Long Mountain, Sweet Lamb and The Ridgeway, call Anthony Pryce on 07807 553059 or visit www.cambrianbirds.co.uk
When creating a drive, you just have an instinctive idea of what is going to work
Far left: Charlie Bellm aims through snow-clad branches on Clearfell drive. Left: Gerwyn Jones, whose roving syndicate took the day. Left, below: the sky brightened for guns on Gethley Dingle drive
Far left: Gerwyn Jones surveys a wintery Paradise Above: retrieving one of the Manchurian-cross pheasants on Gethley Dingle driveLeft: Gerry Jackson looks skywards onApple Trees drive