Rhug – North Wales
The fact that you've probably never heard of Rhug Shoot in North Wales is remarkable, says Marcus Janssen, who reflects on one of the highlights of his season.
If I am lucky enough to be invited for a day's shooting on an estate I am unfamiliar with, I will do as much research as I can before the day; I like to know a little about the estate, what sort of shoot it is, and have a good idea of what to expect, particularly if I will be going with my Fieldsports hat on. Besides, the anticipation and build-up to a day's shooting or fishing is an important part of the experience – you need something to get excited about.
Well, when my friend Andy Pearson invited me to join him for a day's shooting at Rhug in Denbighshire last season, a shoot I had never heard of, I couldn't find anything about it online – it was as if it didn't exist. I could find pages and pages of information about the estate, their award-winning organic produce, farm shop, herd of bison and the surrounding area, but a search for “Rhug shoot” returned absolutely nothing. Which was surprising, because Andy had mentioned on a number of occasions that it was one of his all-time favourites. And that is saying something.
Intrigued, I phoned Simon Ward – he would surely know about such a highly regarded shoot. “You say it's pronounced Reeg,” he said pensively. “It rings a vague bell, but I can't say that I know it.”
My last port of call was to ring the chaps at GunsOnPegs to see if they had any information about it. “Hold on, let me ask the boys in the office,” said Chris Horne. “No, sorry mate, none of us have heard of it.” So, as I turned off the A5 near Corwen in North Wales in early December last year and pulled up outside the shoot room, a converted stone bothy at the heart of the estate, I still had no idea what sort of day lay ahead. But I was soon met by our host Wayne Tuffin – who, along with business partner Chris Lockwood has run the shooting at Rhug for the past seven seasons (they also have Glyn and Garthmeilio in Mid Wales) – so I was finally able to sate my curiosity.
The first thing I wanted to know was where they get their bookings from, considering the apparent absence of any information online. “Oh, we do actually have a very nice website,” said Wayne, taking me by complete surprise. “We just haven't turned it on yet.” But this isn't because of an IT glitch or a shortage of web designers in North Wales, no, it is because, according to Wayne, they simply don't need to!
“We are already almost fully booked for next season,” he continued, “and more than half of our days for the season after that are already booked. So we just think that the website will cause more hassle than it will be worth.” And this was in early December! Now I really was intrigued.
But by about 5pm that afternoon, it had become abundantly clear to me why Wayne and Chris don't need to advertise or market their shooting: almost all of their existing clients automatically rebook for the following season. And it's no wonder – a day at Rhug is nothing short of sensational. Although one of the four drives we shot was below par (it didn't go as planned, but that's shooting), the rest of the day was hard to fault and more than made up for it. Indeed, the third and fourth drives were two of the best I have ever shot and the former, known as Berthddu, one of Rhug's signature drives, was simply out of this world, the sort you talk about for months afterwards.
Rhug Estate and Shoot
Rhug is owned by Lord Newborough who took over the running of the 21,000-acre estate from his father in the late-90s. In that time, he has developed the agricultural operation substantially, to the extent that they now produce organic Aberdeen Angus beef, Welsh lamb, Welsh Salt Marsh lamb, chicken, geese and turkeys, produce that appears on the menus of some of the most prestigious hotels and restaurants in the world including the 7-star Burj Al Arab in Dubai, the Dorchester and Ritz in London and Raymond Blanc's Le Manoir Aux Quat' Saisons. And with new international markets in Hong Kong, Dubai and Croatia, the Rhug brand has become renowned worldwide and is now sold in more than 20 Michelin starred restaurants. Moreover, they have developed their own award-winning farm shop, takeaway and bistro.
With an ethos of self-sufficiency, organic arable crops, vetches, beets and herbs (specifically cultivated to replace any need for artificial supplements and medicines) are grown to ensure their livestock have a healthy and balanced diet. Hedgerows are allowed to flourish and the sheer scale of crop and livestock rotation to prevent the build-up of disease and toxins in the soil and animals is mind boggling. Provenance and traceability are key, no pesticides or chemicals can be present in anything on the farm, which obviously has far-reaching implications for the running of the shoot.
Indeed, because of the increasing demands of running a now multifaceted and thriving estate, and despite being a keen shooting man himself, Lord Newborough decided in 2007 to find someone else to look after the shoot. Enter Wayne and Chris who were running Brynkinalt at the time, where Lord Newborough was a regular guest.
When Lord Newborough approached Wayne and Chris, he made it clear that he didn't want a huge commercial operation but a shoot that would make the most of Rhug's topography and existing woodland. And although there were some very good drives in existence, it had never been run as a commercial shoot. “So we needed to expand things and establish a number of new drives,” says Chris. Of course, syndicates can shoot the same drives all season, but on a commercial shoot you need more options available to you. And if you ran a commercial shoot made up entirely of drives like Berthddu, you would go broke very quickly!”
Headkeeper David Pooler (50), who had already been at Rhug for over 20 years when Wayne and Chris took over, elaborates: “Since 2007 we have expanded things. We now have 24 established drives, 10 or 11 of which I would class as excellent. But because people have never heard of Rhug before, they assume that it must be a new shoot. In actual fact, there has been a very good shoot here for a very long time.”
Covering some 4,700 acres of the estate, Rhug now offers in the region of 40 let days per season (they also offer some smaller boundary days) with an average bag of 200. “We are now unquestionably one of the better North Wales shoots,” adds David. “Admittedly, we are not quite in the same league as the Devon shoots, but we can and do show quality birds. I take the mick out of Brian Mitchell because he has never heard of North Wales before! But to be fair, there are a lot of shoots in North Wales that have remained off the radar because we are a bit off the beaten track here.”
But both Chris and David are keen to point out that they don't class Rhug as an extreme shoot. “Anyone can shoot here (the average shot to bird ratio is between 4.5 and 6:1), but you know you are going to have a nice amount shooting, which justifies the journey,” says David. “We will show you good pheasants (and some partridges), but with the exception of the odd bird, everything will be in-range.” But even the Andy Pearsons of the shooting world, those few highly selective Shots who have the wherewithal to pull down the very tallest birds, will get through 20 to 30 shots a drive. “But of course you don't want to demoralise people, so you've got to make sure there are a good mix of birds on all drives,” adds David.
Most are parkland drives are from ancient woodland, although some cover crops are planted to hold birds later in the season and to prevent them from wondering onto other parts of the estate. But, of course, because of the estate's organic status getting non-perennials established on the high ground can be a huge challenge. “Our best cover crop is gorse!” laughs David. “Unfortunately our upland soil won't support maize or other traditional cover crops on its own and so we've planted quite a bit of Miscanthus and canary reed grass. But in terms of stand-alone game patches, we only have one – the rest of our drives are made up of a combination of woodland and game cover.”
Chris continues: “In order to create new drives, we have had to work with the available stewardship schemes in Wales to plant new woodland, which obviously takes a long time to come to fruition. Having said that, we do have one or two new drives which are about to come into their own this season which will be very interesting.”
But the one thing that struck me about Rhug was the diversity of habitat and scenery; each of the four drives we shot looked and felt completely different. “There's wonderful parkland near the house which is 350ft above sea-level,” adds Chris, “and, as you climb up to about 1,200ft, you emerge from the woodland and have the most wonderful rugged, wild, open landscape. It offers a very varied experience for Guns, both topographically and habitat-wise. In the main, on virtually every drive, you can see the line of Guns. So even if nothing is happening at your end of the line, it is nice to watch your neighbours miss.”
Although Wayne, Chris and David have unquestionably developed the shoot into what most would consider to be a moderate commercial operation, David asserts that they haven't changed the character and family ethos. “We have just developed it by using the existing woodland and topography to expand on what we have been doing for years, but without making it overly commercial. We certainly aren't a big bag shoot, and we place a lot of emphasis on the atmosphere – we want everyone to be relaxed and feel like guests, not clients.”
Chris agrees: “We certainly aren't up there with the big commercial shoots, but we are very happy with our niche in the market. We very rarely shoot bags of more than 300, only ever shoot single guns, and over the last few years, we have tended to do fixed-price days, with no overage. The only semi-guarantee we can give is that you will get plenty of shooting.” The fixed price is based on £37 per bird plus VAT, so a 150-bird day would be £7,000, a 200-bird day would be £9,000 and a 250-bird day would be £11,000, including all hospitality. That's the good news. The bad news is that it appears to be working; 90 per cent of their days are sold to return guests and by February this year they were fully booked for next season.
No wonder they've kept it secret.
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