Bettws Hall - Wales
Eight shoots, a hatchery, a hotel and over 100 employees... Bettws Hall is an operation like no other. Owners Gwyn and Ann Evans tell Mike Barnes how it all began with just 80 pheasant poults.
Standing near the towering waterfall on the Seven Twenty drive at Brigands, mesmerised by pheasants in apparent distant orbit, it is hard to think about anything other than the moment in which you are immersed. It is without doubt one of the great drives in contemporary driven game shooting.
Situated on the edge of Snowdonia, it has the lot - setting (the waterfall is 720 feet tall), presentation and brilliant organisation. Yet, this is not just one of several good drives on the shoot, it is one of several good shoots - eight to be precise - owned by Gwyn and Ann Evans, who run their operation under the Bettws Hall banner.
Typical shoot reports often run through a day drive by drive - in this instance it's shoot by shoot. But this is just part of the Bettws package, for they have a game hatchery which sets in excess of 3million eggs each year, and the operation also has extensive accommodation in the shape of purpose built lodges and a hotel (The Brigands Inn) - all construction work is undertaken by an in-house eight-strong team of builders, who this year have also completed a five bedroom cottage for drivers and extra guests at the Bettws Hall complex. And they are now building a house for one of the managers. All feature local materials, including oak from the farm.
As in the manner of the shoots, everything is done to perfection. Those who express concern at commercial shooting should see the Bettws Hall operation at first hand and speak with Gwyn Evans. But then a good many do, for this season he will be letting over 300 days of shooting, each to teams of eight Guns.
It's all a far cry from 20 years ago when Gwyn, then 22, reared his first few poults. Born into a typical Welsh hillside farming family in the small rural hamlet of Bettws Cedewain, in Montgomeryshire, as a teenager he enjoyed rough shooting. But the farm was to be his future. However an unlikely twist of events put him on the road to something entirely different. He explains: “My father had already taken on a farm nearby, when three years later he bought Bettws Hall on the open market. So my brother was at the first farm, and me at Bettws. I had beef and sheep but with interest rates going though the roof I needed to diversify.”
He wasn't quite sure how this would happen, but had begun rearing a few poults. “I started a shoot on the farm, just for myself and three pals. We released 80 in the first year - and shot 19! Undeterred we doubled it the following year and then 600 in the third year.” Gwyn did everything himself. “I was completely self-taught and learned a lot along the way.” But by now he was rearing for other people.
He then took on a small shoot selling shooting at £12 per bird, with 75-125 bird days. His mother did the lunches. “My first 100 bird day was to a team of dentists from South Wales, who were friends of the family. A lot of pressure! It was difficult to make sense financially with this size of bag and the breakthrough came courtesy of Bob Foskett of Magna Foods who so enjoyed his visits that he booked a 200 bird day every other week.”
Much of the shooting was at Bettws Hall, but suitably encouraged Gwyn took on a couple of other shoots in the area, and organised 300 bird days.
“We also had 1,000 ewes and 50 cows and I was still doing everything myself, though Cyril Jones, a true gentleman, who had just retired from the forestry, helped out part-time. Cyril is now 80 and still with us and helps with anything.”
It was a busy life - and remains so - but the experience proved invaluable when 10 years ago the late John Ransford introduced him to Kempton, a lovely 5,000 acre border shoot, which had been a private syndicate run by Roy Dumbell. John was a great character and first class shot who ran the Powys and Vaynor shoots, as well as organising grouse days at Allenheads.
“The shoot closed in the spring and we took over on August 1 - it's near Lydbury North, only 30 minutes away. But clearly we were too late to sow cover crops, so we grew kale plants at Bettws, and Ann and I's first real memories of Kempton are riding on a planter! But we got the crop in, it grew well and our first season was a great success. We had more or less filled all 30 shooting slots during the summer, and then Anthony Price, a local lad who joined us from school, took over as head keeper at 22. He did brilliantly and really developed the shoot over the next six years before coming back to Bettws where he is now the director in charge of the game farm.”
A couple of years later Gwyn was offered Delbury, near Craven Arms, another pretty shoot, which had been struggling to let days. But he had found a formula. He had recognised the natural advantages of the fabulous topography in the locality, and made a decision to concentrate purely on quality drives, and a high level of service. Absolutely no cutting of corners. At both shoots he converted buildings into smart new shooting lodges, so that meals could be taken in comfort. “Food is very important - I think a lot of our Guns only come for the food!” he laughs.
Encouraged by the success of the first two shoots, and the expansion of Bettws itself, the couple embarked on a hugely ambitious redevelopment of the hall farmyard, creating two fabulous lodges, the Willows and Beeches, each with eight en-suite bedrooms, and large sitting and dining rooms. They are beautifully designed and appointed. So there is accommodation for all shoots.
Then followed The Brigands Inn, a hotel, again only 30 minutes away, on the edge of the Snowdonia National Park. The place has been given a total refurb. “This one really excited me, as although they were only doing 15 days of 100-150 and a lot of walk-up I could see its potential. We have increased the land from 2,500 acres to 7,000 acres and put in some fabulous drives. There is also a private beat on the Dovey with good salmon and sea trout fishing.”
The big surprise to many however came when they took on the former Holland & Holland shoots, Molland and West Molland in North Devon. “A very good friend told me that both shoots were up for let, and did I know of anyone who might be interested. This was November three years ago. We went to look, and the potential was obvious. So we came back and the four of us sat round the table - Ann and myself, and our children Amy and Billy.” Aged 15 and 14 the brother and sister embrace the operation completely - they have their own rearing field with 24,000 pheasants and 9,000 duck. And this is no token effort, they are out there at 6am every morning - they do the lot. The work ethic is clearly in them and they are two super teenagers. Bettws is the real deal family affair.
“We all put a suggested offer price forward, and in the end it was Amy's which we took to the agents.” They signed on January 30, and took on the shoots on February 1. “In effect we joined the two shoots together putting West Molland head keeper Caleb Sutton in charge, and he has done an excellent job with a team of six keepers.
“Devon may not be very local to Wales, but it is working very well, primarily because like in all areas of the company we have some fantastic people in charge. From Will Criddle in sales and promotions to game sales director Tim Griffith - in fact all of the managers and all of the teams, from hatchery to keepering. If there is one major factor of our success it's the people. We have a fantastic team.”
So this took the total number of shoots to six - Bettws, Kempton, Delbury, Brigands, Molland and West Molland. And now another two have been added, Maesmawr, near Welshpool, and Vaynor Park, which actually marches alongside Bettws and completes something of a full circle for Gwyn. “I took a lot of inspiration from John Ransford, who ran Vaynor so well for many years, and he was very good to us in the early days. In fact I can clearly remember as an 18 year old beating in a wood on Vaynor and the head keeper Gwyn Williams stopping the line. “Everybody listen” he said “there's only Gwyn in line”. I'll never forget that and he sorted us out. Maes Mawr is a very pretty shoot with a Victorian hall and beautiful lake.”
This brings his total shooting to over 27,000 acres on which he employs 30 gamekeepers.
The Bettws Hall Game Hatchery business has also expanded considerably alongside the shoots. It is a very sophisticated operation, with its hub being the main hatchery and office suite set on a hill above Bettws. It is in full flight from April, from when each Monday some 250,000 eggs are hatched. “We set 3.3 million eggs. The chicks are counted automatically thus guaranteeing precise figures. Again there is a dedicated team with a lot of experience.” The chick counter has a staggering capacity of 60,000 per hour!
The day olds for their own shoots, and those for selling as poults, are taken to 13 different rearing sites, each of which again has highly sophisticated facilities with a low stress and fully controlled environment for the young birds. “By having this number of sites we keep the risk of disease to a minimum. There is a head man on each site, who reports daily to the main office so that we are in constant contact and can immediately identify any problem.”
With such a scale of operation, the 2002 foot and mouth epidemic must have been a real worry. “It was. It got to within three miles of here, and we stepped up bio-security ten-fold. But we didn't cut back and in the end had a very good season.”
The other worrying time for the game industry was the banning of emtryl. “We already had a minimal emtryl programme in place, so we were confident that it wouldn't be a problem. Space and hygiene are always important, and initially there were big fluctuations in prices, but we kept to our prices and it all worked out. We don't like to lose customers” he smiled. They supply throughout the UK, and have a lot of business in Scotland.
All birds are released onto their own shoots as from the end of May, the last going out during the final week of June. The pens are huge and they don't clip the poults. This means that not only are the pheasants fully mature by October 1, it also enables the game farms to then concentrate on supply to customers who will be taking poults throughout July.
Ann is the daughter of a local farmer and licensee and she and Gwyn are a personable couple who have clearly worked incredibly hard and invested heavily, no doubt taking some big risks along the way, to create what is the world's largest operation of its kind - indeed there is none that comes close. “I don't know about that” says Gwyn somewhat compromised. “Our aim has always been to be the best in whatever we do and take opportunities when they present themselves.”
With so many fabulous shoots, does he stand in the line? “Yes, but not on our shoots. Until two years ago I would only shoot about six times a season. But since turning 40 I have decided to accept a few more invitations! It is also good going to other places, as you never stop learning. I enjoy different shoots, and love grouse shooting. And as a family we have also had wonderful stalking holidays in Scotland. Plus we have an involvement with a couple of partridge shoots in Spain, which is another great experience.”
He shoots a trio of McKay Brown guns, previously owned by Wilbur Smith, who visits both the Devon and Wales shoots.
So what's next? “There is no plan, but if something came up that appeals then we would look at it. Having seen our Devon shoots work out so well, distance is not really an obstacle. And people tell me I am mad to even consider it, but a grouse moor would be an interesting challenge....
Typically on all shoots the bag is 400 per day. “We feel that this gives everyone some good sport. With eight Guns, it averages out at 50 per Gun, and with five drives per day, 10 birds per person per drive. This is certainly not excessive - you would shoot a far bigger number in a pigeon hide. But again it's enough to keep everyone happy.”
Of course this involves expending a lot more cartridges to achieve these totals! Shoot days at Bettws for instance average a shots to kills ratio of about 4:1, whilst Brigands is more likely to be 8:1. “We typically look for 5-6:1 for a great day of sporting shooting.Of course while we know a lot of our Guns, every year there are newcomers, and some of them might say that they want high birds but in fact struggle to hit them. In which case it is unfair to persist with a day of 10:1 shooting. We will sound the Guns out on the first couple of drives and adjust the day accordingly. It is the art of presenting birds which challenge but satisfy the Guns.”
Clearly to bring down the seriously high stuff big ammunition is called for. So what does Gwyn use? “I stick to 32gram fives - providing you put them in the right place they'll do what's needed. Though of course everyone has their own preference, and some go for very heavy loads, with impressive results.
“Though when presenting birds, we never resort to anything less than quality - even where we could have the option of low drives we never use them. Over a season I budget for a 33% return, but sometimes this might get up to 40%. We have enough drives so that shooting right through to the end of January is not a problem.”
The cost per bird varies from £30 to £34 (plus VAT) and bookings this year are strong. It is primarily pheasant shooting, though there is partridge shooting from mid-September at Molland, and end of September at Kempton.
The Guns come from far and wide, with 60% UK, 20% USA and 20% Europe. Some overseas parties spend part of their time in Devon then move mid-week to Wales. He has one team who come from New Zealand. “The client base is very loyal” he adds.
He is clearly very much looking forward to his first season of Vaynor, William Corbett-Winder's estate next door to Bettws. It is wonderful ground and brings back so many memories from Gwyn's teenage beating days, and many of the drives from those times will be used, but some with a different twist. It is sure to be another jewel in the Bettws crown.
So how does Gwyn Evans view the critics of commercial shooting? “I feel that if we are completely open and honest in what we do, there can be little room for criticism. People have their own views of course, but there is so much about game shooting which is positive. For a start the sport is of a huge benefit to rural communities, a lifeline in fact. We employ over 100 people, and we always look where possible to take on local people. And it's not just on the hatchery - Dawn Davies, our manager at The Brigands Inn, has 14 staff, all local girls, plus many students. While Ann Humphreys at the two lodges here at Bettws looks after another team. Not forgetting all the part-time help on shoot days.
“But that apart, the pheasants we release have a wonderful life. They are looked after in the best possible conditions as chicks, and are released into the wild - I would rather be born a pheasant than a chicken!
“Over and above that, we help support other wildlife, our cover crops (800 acres of kale, maize and some conservation mixes) providing invaluable food and cover for songbirds. We also lamp for foxes, and have Larsen traps for crows and magpies. Which all helps.
“When it comes to the actual shooting, everything we do is in a sporting manner. We are talking about a great sport, and a great way of life - which at the end of the day provides quality meat for the table.”
They have no problem in selling shot game. “We have refrigerated vans to collect the game from all shoots, which are taken direct to Willow Game at Bishops Castle on a daily basis, where the game is processed. It helps that at the beginning of the season Willow will be informed of precisely how many birds we will be delivering.
“Each Gun is given a complimentary ready-dressed brace to take home after a day's shooting. And we also offer a boned and rolled pheasant stuffed with wild boar and apricot. The package includes a brochure detailing how the birds are to be cooked and served. We also offer a delivery service, should more game be required.”