A small pond inland in Ceredigion in Wales
Country Notes

Ducking for cover

Tweed breeks, secret shoots and searching for lapwings

This article is taken from the October 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

Pussyfooting around, hoping that nobody gets a chance to have a good look at your trousers, is an unsettling way to start the morning.

Last week, in Ceredigion, South Wales, I was staying at a chic little B&B run by a former BBC executive with a passion for jazz. “And where are you off to today?” he asked, as he poured me a hot chocolate. “Half a bar of Green & Blacks,” he assured me with a smile. “I’m off to see a man about lapwings,” I replied cautiously, “last breeding population in Wales.”

The weather, on the first of September, when ducks and partridges can be shot, frequently calls for sun cream

My host seemingly hadn’t heard of the lapwing, an endangered iridescent wading bird, but he proudly told me there were owls in the grounds of the B&B and rabbits too among the rhododendrons. I drank my hot chocolate and looked out of the window at the warm grey sky, cast in a shimmering haze through the leaded Georgian glass.

The opening day of the shooting season often feels slightly strange. In Britain we tend to associate shooting with frost, bare trees, and beef consommé but the weather, on the first of September, when ducks and partridges can be shot, frequently calls for sun cream.

After the table had been cleared, I stood up in my tweed breeks and made a dash to the car. I’d no way of knowing whether my host had any objection to shooting but his lifelong vegetarianism sort of made me feel that he probably wasn’t a regular in the field.

It wasn’t a total lie that I was off to see a man about lapwings. Charles Grisedale has almost certainly done more for lapwings than anybody else in Wales today. It’s just that a lot of his conservation efforts are funded by the shoot he runs. Last year, when I was writing my book, In Search of One Last Song, I spent a fair bit of time with Charles, trying to understand why lapwings matter to him so much, and he’d kindly invited me to his annual birthday duck shoot.

We stood, on the first drive, spread out in a ditch, just a couple of fields inland from the sea. After a short while, strings of teal appeared, threaded across the sky and further up the ditch, signalling that we were on, the mournful note of Charles blowing his old hunting horn sounded — a horn for a pack of hounds since disbanded.

Over the time that Charles has been running the shoot he’s built some 43 ponds. Duck shooting can be contentious but there’s something wonderfully prelapsarian about the landscape at Cefngwyn. The combination of bog, natural forestry, and pools is exactly what we’ve lost in so many intensively farmed places.

After the drive finished, I tagged along with Charles and one of the dogmen, as they hunted for a bird that had tumbled a long way back after catching the wind.

The combination of bog, natural forestry, and pools is exactly what we’ve lost in so many intensively farmed places

The shooting world is divided over a looming ban on lead shot. There are plenty of people who’ll tell you that the alternatives, often steel, don’t work. But it hasn’t been permitted to shoot ducks with lead (because of the impact that the toxic metal has on wildfowl and wading birds) since 1999, which means Charles has seen countless ducks shot with steel over the years.

If everyone gave it a go, Charles told me, as we hacked back into the thick willows, they’d soon completely forget they weren’t using lead. As far as he’s concerned, it works absolutely fine.

That evening, my host at the B&B collared me in the corridor just as I’d come back through the door. “Are you the editor of Shooting Times?” he asked, standing there in his white linen shorts, “I Googled you.” I nodded and he told me he wanted to show me something.

In a little room beneath the stairs, he unpacked old photo albums that had belonged to the family who had lived in the house for three hundred years until their sons died at war. “Look,” he said with a smile, pointing at pictures of hounds, hunt staff and terriers.

Not long after renovations started on the house, just before the pandemic, an old boy turned up at the door to ask if he could still flight the mallard off the pond in the grounds. “As I mentioned yesterday, I am a vegetarian,” the BBC man shrugged, “but I said yes and it was amazing to see. They shot the ducks at dusk.”

As we walked back, he told me that local farmers have been coming to shoot ducks for as long as anybody can remember. He shrugged as though to say that, in some vague way, that counts for something.

Patrick Galbraith’s first book, In Search of One Last Song, is out now in hardback with William Collins

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