Traditional country pursuits reimagined for the modern world
Having retired from the corporate world of private banking, Sandy Swinton is now a jobbing pianist and our new roving reporter, unearthing sporting gems around the country. First stop is Powys.
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For shooting folk who like - or need - to travel in pursuit of their sport, any well-tended game book will have recorded all manner of surprises, some good and some less so. I refer specifically to the perplexing disconnect, if you will, between expectation and delivery, that so often forms one of the mysteries of the shooting experience. A day in windless drizzle, against an unpromising backdrop of flat and featureless terrain where the birds sat up and flew stupendously all day, another where you are lined out beneath far loftier, voluptuously-crafted contours when the quarry just sulked and flopped on a stage that promised so much more. Where topography and presentation ought to collide in perfect harmony: but strangely don’t.
No such enigma inhabits Plas Dinam, which has risen in five years since joining the Bettws Hall stable to become one of the most exciting and highly-ranked shoots in the country. Shoots such as this may be blessed with terrain that is genuinely God-given, but there is no sense here from headkeeper Will Diamond that “topography should do the hard yards” - to the contrary, Will and his talented team have shown already in the brief spell since he arrived soon after leaving college as an underkeeper at the mighty Brigands estate, that the secret to presenting challenging birds owes as much to dedication, imagination, passion and sheer hard work as it does to the breathtaking rise and fall that so characterises the shoot’s 4,000 acres.
Plas Dinam sits in the very heart of Wales, in Powys, close to the source of the River Severn and joins its five older siblings in the Bettws Hall family portfolio to complete the sextuple of estates offering something for everyone. Will Evans, son of Gwyn and Ann, and who hosts each shoot day, tells me there is strictly no pecking order when it comes to the shoots on offer. “They all to tend to present something different. In terms of challenging birds, Plas Dinam is probably up there with Brigands but what’s most exciting is its potential to evolve. We have already begun to invest significantly in improving the shoot’s infrastructure and there is scope to expand the number of drives over the next three years from its current 14.”
As the UK’s leading game farm (which is British Game Alliance (BGA) assured), the Evans hatch all their own eggs whilst providing chicks and poults to many other estates, both large and small, across the country. At Plas Dinam, whilst the emphasis is firmly on partridges early on in the season, when the curtain falls end January pheasants will have accounted for an equal share of the overall bag.
So to the shoot day itself: Guns - an assortment of locals, roving syndicate members, teams and individual Guns - arrive either under their own steam, from the Bettws Hall shoot lodge or the supremely comfortable Plas Dinam country house. Will again: “It’s so good for us to get to know a team of Guns the night before.” Bracken and gorse stretch up impossibly steep slopes in front and behind, with Guns positioned far below, often with a tumbling stream for company. It’s good to see proper ‘level standings’ are in place with maximum safety and sure-footing in mind, as this is game shooting of the most vertiginous kind. Signature drives are Quarry, Penrihlin and Big Willies (I did ask why, naturally, on your behalf dear reader: On the inaugural day a spectacularly high bird landed in the nether regions of regular Gun Willie Price, resulting in a trip to hospital to check that all was in order... mercifully it was). The team employ serious pickers-up and beaters, who understand the terrain and are fiercely loyal and love what they do. If the conditions are challenging enough for the beating line, for the dogs they pose a real test of strength, agility and above all, endurance. Guns are encouraged to work their own dogs but the presence of a full strength team behind the scenes, under the ever watchful eye of Chris Moulds, ensures that all shot birds are accounted for in terrain that pushes the limits for all involved.
Shooting at Plas Dinam is thirsty work and no picture of the shoot can be painted without reference to the legendary Bettws hospitality. Here chef Ian Whyte pairs up with Kate Jones to ensure elevenses and lunch are of the highest order. Typically served in a converted railway carriage in the field - at least earlier on in the season - local ingredients cooked from fresh, such as pheasant goujons, lobsters, fish and chips and beef brisket, are all staple favourites. The consumption of game is of paramount importance to the team at Plas Dinam as prominent members of the BGA: all Guns are offered dressed game after shooting, with the remaining game destined for local pubs, restaurants and game dealers.
As Will Evans confirms, as much goes on behind the scenes as it does ‘front of house’. “Building a shoot such as this, and maintaining the high standards already set is as challenging for the guys on the ground as it is for the Guns.” Thoughtful conservation, for example, should be close to the top of any successful shoot management team’s agenda - here at Plas Dinam, working hand in glove with the estate, an impressive conservation strategy has been established to encourage, nurture and protect the natural habitat that defines such a wondrous place.
I ask Will about the future: what excites him and what concerns him? Reasons to be cheerful include his observation of a new, and younger generation coming through in the shooting community, as well of course as the plans afoot for embellishing the shoot itself. On the flip side, he worries most that the faction hell-bent on obstructing the course of shooting currently has a far more robust platform than that available to those who wish to progress the agenda of educating and informing a far wider audience not just on the bald facts about shooting, but on the overall benefits of shooting for all. Hear hear, we say.
Covid has inevitably been unkind to all involved in the shooting industry, but Will is keen to point out the phenomenal level of support and understanding shown by all connected with the shoot, from the beaters, loaders, pickers up, dealers, hospitality venues, to the Guns themselves. Happily, though, bookings for the coming season are already well ahead on previous years, with an impressive number of repeat customers. As Will told me: “We are hugely proud that so many want to come back, but we always like to welcome new faces. We value our relationships with our guests and we work hard to earn the right to claim that you arrive at Bettws as a guest and leave as a friend.”
The final word, perhaps, should go to shooting stalwart and friend to all, Welshman Dylan Williams, founder of the Royal Berkshire Shooting School and now actively involved in championing the cause of a number of senior shooting organisations such as the British Game Alliance, who found himself in a line of Guns at Plas Dinam three years ago, at the invitation of his old school friend Gwyn Evans, the architect of the Bettws experience. “With its breathtaking views towards Snowdon, you feel you are shooting from the very rooftop of Wales. I don’t care where you have shot before, but this is up there with the very best, from the hospitality extended by Eldrydd and Tyson to the wonderful Bettws catering, and all in the presence of the Evans family giggling at my attempts to connect! It has the grandeur of Vaynor, and the extreme challenge of Brigands. To have the opportunity of shooting such stratospheric partridges that probably land in England, is a rareprivilege indeed.”
And, as doubtless you were all aware, the literal Welsh translation of dinam is ‘faultless.’ We rest our case.
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