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Dom takes on the ultimate fieldsports challenge in the world’s fastest and most exclusive four-wheel drive!
In 1925, John Buchan wrote a novel about three successful friends who had lost their passion for life. These middle-aged chaps – a lawyer, a banker and a cabinet minister – set up base on a friend’s Highland estate and challenged themselves to poach a salmon or a stag from three neighbouring estates and return the trophy to them undetected. The neighbours are to be forewarned in a letter signed by ‘John Macnab’.
For the modern fieldsports enthusiast, the ‘Macnab’ has evolved into perhaps the most difficult and famous sporting quest in the UK: to catch a salmon, shoot a brace of grouse and stalk a stag… all on the same day.
But here at Sporting Shooter we like to make things really tricky. So we’ve set ourselves the challenge of hunting our stag as far south as possible in the wilds of Cornwall, tackling our grouse on the famous moors of Yorkshire before heading up to the river Thurso, just a few miles from John O’Groats, to try and hook our salmon.
Oh, and as if that isn’t hard enough, I’ve never shot a grouse or used a salmon rod in my entire life.
We are going to give ourselves three days for these three very special species and a total journey of over 2,000 miles, taking in the very best of Great British fieldsports. If we are to stand any chance of keeping to schedule, we’re going to need something a bit quicker than your average 4x4…
Something, in fact, like the Ferrari FF. FF stands for Ferrari Four… four seats, four-wheel drive. A car described as the Ultimate Shooting Brake… well, we will have to see about that!
This incredible piece of automotive exotica has a 6.3-litre engine producing 650 horsepower. It is capable of hitting 60mph from rest in around 3.5 seconds and will carry on in its attempt to headbutt the horizon all the way to 208mph. Which makes it the fastest 4x4 by far… Oh, and at �272,000 with a few choice options, it costs about as much as your average four-bed family home!
But crucially, it offers 800 litres of luggage space with the rear seats folded: And that’s enough for a rifle, a shotgun, a fishing rod, several pairs of boots, camera gear, 24 cans of Red Bull and a cameraman called David. Did somebody say road trip?
Day 1: Cornwall
Target species: Red stag
Kit: Blaser R8 professional rifle (www.openseasonltd.co.uk)
Zeiss Duralyt 2-8x42 scope (www.zeiss.co.uk)
Geco softnosed ammunition (www.ruag.co.uk)
Lowa GTX Extreme boots (www.lowa.co.uk)
It’s just before 5am in the middle of nowhere. The rain has stopped and a magnificent full moon has emerged. V12 thunder threatens to wake everybody within a five mile radius, much to the amusement of our Cervus UK guide, Scott Milne.
Scott emerges from the shadows, takes one look at the car and tells us to park up and load our gear into his 4x4. I quickly assemble the Blaser R8 from its attach� case and we head off under the cover of darkness. Quite what this scene must have looked like to an uninformed observer is anybody’s guess!
Plan A is to sneak into a high tower on the edge of a nearby valley and intercept the deer as they head back into cover from a night’s grazing. It’s looking good, too, as Scott spies three beasts on the edge of the field, including what could be a decent stag, just visible thanks to the full moon.
We take up our position in the tower and the first fingers of dawn light reveal a breathtaking vista. The steep valley sides are heavily wooded and it is blissfully quiet. The fog swirls and drifts on the light breeze but the gully at the bottom of the valley never clears, and as light levels rise, Scott fears that the beasts have returned to the cover of the woods unseen.
He is keen to show us the damage that a large deer population can do to ancient woodland. This is apparent from the moment you enter the woods. The browse line is virtually at head height. Ground flora is severely depleted, with only the occasional stunted holly or bramble. “Nothing gets a chance to grow – it is eaten before it gets established. And look at these saplings,” says Scott as he shows us a couple of small trees completely stripped of bark and sticky with sap. “These were done last night, I’d say.” Similar damage is visible all through the block and the saplings just die away, unable to recover. As we whisper, a strong, musky scent reaches us: Eau de Stag. “He’s just walked by us, and not too far away,” explains Scott.
A mighty roar breaks to confirm this and Scott is keen for us to get close: “That sounds like a seriously good beast.” The former British record was shot not far from here – a 600lb beast. Just to get close to a stag like that would be a thrill and Scott is off in hot pursuit.
We are up to our knees in sucking bog, wading through a fast-flowing stream and then straight into a steep and treacherous ascent. David and I are breathing hard but Scott is not even breaking sweat. The occasional roar tells us we are closing in – maybe just 100 metres or so away.
We see movement through the trees ahead… it’s a hind, staring directly at us. And she and the other hinds in the harem act like security outriders and move their ‘man’ out of range.
We follow for a bit longer but the lack of roaring suggests that the stag knows something is amiss. We do find some fresh slots, though, and if they are anything to go by, the animal is a monster! They look more like moose prints than deer tracks…
We hose down, jump back in the FF and head back to our house to pack our gear and get some filming in the bag. We plan to meet Scott after a quick lunch – in our case a rather flaccid pasty – knowing that time is of the essence.
We decamp from Scott’s truck for a second time and he outlines the plan. This woodland block is surrounded by farmland and nearby is a stately home with a garden full of rare flowers. The potential for deer damage is huge so Scott is keen to account for one if possible. As he talks through his plan a lone red grazes out of the woodland and onto the ride in front, just 100 yards away. Is this the lucky break we need?
It’s a calf, but after several minutes of observation, Scott confirms it is a stag calf. “If I was here on my own I’d be grassing that as part of the cull plan, but the choice is yours. We might see a bigger beast in a few minutes. Or we might not.”
I’ve never been one for trophy collecting and although the talk of big stags had got my imagination churning, the fact that this animal would make good sense from a management perspective is reason enough for me. I get comfy on my Primos sticks, sneaking them a tad lower via the trigger adjuster to get a clean shot and miss some overhanging branches.
The R8 is fitted with a Trident moderator which muffles the crack of the report. The dear reacts to the shot, runs towards us and disappears into the undergrowth on our left to collapse and lie still.
After a quick gralloch we bomb back to base and say our farewells to Scott, and while he takes the deer to the larder we crack on with the journey. It is already 4.30pm and our overnight stop is a good 250 miles north. We stop to brim the FF with super unleaded and then get cracking. The A30 and M5 are blissfully quiet and the big Ferrari monsters the miles.
David calls ahead to ensure dinner will be waiting and by 8.30pm we are sipping cold beers and tucking into a hot meal. There is a sense of real relief that we have got part one in the bag, but even that can’t outmuscle the overwhelming fatigue. With another pre-dawn start ahead, we turn in.
Day 2: Yorkshire
Target species: Red grouse
Kit: Seeland Woodcock suit (www.seelanduk.co.uk)
Beretta Silver Pigeon (www.gmk.co.uk)
Eley VIP cartridges (www.eley.co.uk)
It’s just before 5am. Groundhog day. I have managed to wrestle contact lenses into the world’s driest eyes and donned my game shooting finery. I swing open the back door of the hotel to find an annoyingly chipper cameraman waiting, film rolling. I have no idea what nonsense I mumble into the lens; I just want to nestle down into the comfortable leathery embrace of the FF’s bucket seat. I thumb the red button, listen to the chirp of the starter and smile as the monster V12 detonates into life. And I thought I was angry when I woke up!
We have another 150 miles to cover, the first stint over dark, empty motorway before skirting greater Manchester and spearing across the Peak District. It shows off the Ferrari’s versatility: effortless mile-munching, the engine a subdued background purr, until, at the flex of an ankle, a thoroughbred racer giving it the full-on surround sound V12 opera. Marvellous!
We arrive on the Yorkshire grouse moor just as the sun pokes its head over the edge of the world and makes the hills glow. A distant rain shower births a rainbow that arcs above us. What. A. Dawn! Shutters click and tapes roll as we try to capture the magic moment. I’m reinvigorated and filled with a sudden certainty that today will be a doddle.
At the end of the track we are greeted by head keeper Jim Sutton who has granted us privileged access to this private Peak District moor. His driven season is already over and he is a bit worried about our prospects.
“Normally we would want to walk up at the start of the year when the grouse sit tighter. They are much more jumpy at this time of year after being pushed around through our season. The weather won’t help either – this wind is really picking up and that’ll make them skittish.” My earlier confidence that today will be a doddle is fading fast…
I break out my Beretta and suit up, stuffing my pockets with plenty of Eley VIPs. Jim has selected a piece of ground that has lots of hillocks and gullies. Hard going on foot, but he reckons it will give us a better chance to sneak up on some birds and get a closer shot. He has obviously seen me shoot before…
There are certainly plenty of grouse. Jim’s stewardship of the moors has increased the grouse population dramatically, with the five-year average going up from 250 brace per season to 1,000 brace. The predator control and heather burning has not only benefited the grouse, but also other ground-nesting birds such as the curlew. “They are great early warning systems, the curlews – they’ll noisily mob a fox – so I always keep an ear out!”
The light dawn drizzle hardens into spiteful horizontal rain that stings our faces and limits visibility. More worryingly, the grouse we see – and there are masses of them – are lifting way in front, sometimes several hundred metres away. A handful rip past us about 50 yards out. I don’t even lift my gun but Jim suggests that if we get another chance like that, I ought to have a try.
Four more rise on whirring wings, bank and soar with the gale behind them. I let drive with both barrels but know I am nowhere near them. As we trudge disconsolately back to the motor I turn to chat to Jim… just as a lone grouse lifts 20 yards in front and flies off in an obligingly straight line. I’m so shocked I don’t even shoulder the gun. Jim’s look of disbelief says it all: I won’t get an easier chance today.
We head to another part of the moor and the wind and rain are even stronger as we march out, teeth gritted, clothing soaked. A brace lift and bank right. I fire at the hindmost and see a puff of feathers: I’ve hit it! The bird towers, crumples and plummets earthwards. But such was the altitude it had gained and the strength of the wind that it clears the road and crashes down into a gap between two conifer plantations beyond.
A few yards left and it would have been stuck in the stand of firs. Even so, I look at Jim’s eager spaniel and send a little prayer skywards. It’s a tense wait, David and I leant against the stone wall as Jim and the dog cover the ground. As the minutes tick by and Jim gets further away, my heart sinks. There’s no way it is that far in. Maybe it got stuck in a tree? Maybe it wasn’t dead and ran on?
As Jim returns, the dog darts right and emerges proudly with the grouse in its mouth! Jim smiles broadly, I sigh mightily and David whoops with relief. Technically, we should be heading back out for the other half of the brace, but this is not your classic Macnab. The chances of bumping into the second most unlucky grouse in Yorkshire seem slim and I’m more than happy with my bird – although not as happy as Jim when I tell him we can go back for a nice cup of tea and a dry out!
Jim’s focus is already on next season. “As soon as we finish for the year, all we are thinking about is next August. We’ll be working our snares, out shooting vermin, putting out medicated grit for the birds… worrying!” The effort and time that goes into managing and preserving this habitat is immense. I’m just grateful for the opportunity to have hunted the fastest gamebird in the land – the Ferrari of the skies!
Our timeframe doesn’t allow for a culinary tour of England, but there is no way we are leaving the area without a visit to Hade Edge. In this small Peak District village is the wonderful J Brindon Addy. This award-winning butcher has a meat counter to make you drool. The quality of the produce – all locally sourced – is top notch. But it’s the other end of the shop that I’m interested in. Scotch eggs with sage and onion breadcrumbs, homemade sausage rolls that you could batter a T-Rex to death with and an assortment of amazing pies, from the traditional Hunter’s pie to house specials like the Nookie pie (made with local Nook ale) or the marvellous pork and black pudding pie.
With the Ferrari riding a little lower and Scooby Snacks for the rest of the day sorted, we point the long bonnet north and wind our way back to the M6. Two of the three beasties are in the bag but we have over 500 miles before we can rest this evening and the day is racing past. Next stop, Penrith.
Why Penrith? Because that is home of the famous John Norris fishing shop. And I am going there because I need all the help I can get. Boss James Norris is a fishing fanatic – as passionate as Jim is about his grouse and Scott is about his deer. His eyes light up as soon as he ‘talks fishing’… especially salmon fishing.
He selects me a 15ft Guideline fly rod and matches it to a Lamson Guru 4 reel and a John Norris ‘shooting head’ line kit. “The key is that all the components balance. The line, reel and rod have to be matched – but you should be able to cast this lot no bother.” I’m not sure I share James’s confidence.
He also gears me up with Simms chest waders and felt-soled boots for gripping on the slimy rocks and a lightweight fishing jacket. I know that technology has brought shooting gear on a long way but these lightweight breathables are a revelation. So comfy you hardly know you are wearing them.
Finally he selects a box of flies from small and light to big heavy tube flies. Some bright and gaudy, others dark with a hint of sparkle. Hopefully somewhere amongst them is the ‘magic’ fly to help me achieve my mission impossible.
“The river is fishing great, I hear, so you’ll have a chance,” says James. I cling to that thought as we charge into the gathering night and tick off the miles towards our final destination: the Ulbster Arms Hotel in Halkirk.
Day 3: Caithness
Target species: Altlantic salmon
Kit: Simms Freestone chest waders, boots and jacket
Guideline LPXe 15’ four piece rod
Lansom Guru 4 reel
John Norris Evolution shooting head line kit
All from John Norris (www.johnnorris.co.uk, 01768 864211)
Endurance athletes refer to ‘hitting the wall’. This, I fear, is my wall. I feel strangely calm and relaxed after days of tension. I slept like a log and tuck into a delicious ‘full Scottish’ with great relish. Two out of three, I tell myself, isn’t bad. After all, how can a novice salmon angler expect to get lucky first time out? On the fly? No chance.
But hope glows like an ember and all of the talk in the hotel bar when we arrived was of fish. No less than 27 were banked yesterday, conditions for today are ideal… the Thurso is, to use the vernacular, fishing its head off. As if to confirm, my phone beeps. It’s a text from a pal that reads: “Just checked the catch reports online. No excuses.” Thanks.
Of course, salmon don’t conform to the rulebook. While one lady fishing for the very first time had banked two fish, another gentleman had just left having completed his fifth blank year in a row. A full week, for five successive years, with no fish.
We wait until the rest of the anglers depart before my fishing guru, Chris Blackburn, helps me get set up for a dummy run. It turns out that he is not only a rifle builder but also a fanatic salmon angler who had studied gamekeeping up at Thurso college. He is our ‘plan B’. While I don’t expect to catch anything, I have great faith that Chris will – and just to get a salmon on film would be brilliant.
He shows me a few basic rules, how to load the rod and how to use my hands to drive the line forward. I have fly fished for years with single-handed rods and with a bit of practice get the line turning over. It’s not pretty but it’ll do: time to hit the river.
On the advice of river superintendant Eddie McCarthy, we drive a couple of miles down the road to Braal Castle on beat 4. We don our waders and edge out into the flow. Chris shows me how to fish the pool and I get more and more impatient to get cracking – especially when a large salmon boils close to Chris’s fly.
I start with a small black and orange fly and just get used to turning the line out. The sensation of being waist deep in a powerful river is disconcerting at first, but soon utterly soothing. Until, that is, my fourth cast, when I get a take.
Everybody told me the same thing the night before: If you feel a fish, wait. Don’t strike. Give him enough line to turn with the fly and then lift gently and tighten into him. So of course I strike. I can’t help it; 30 years of fishing reflex is too strong and I feel a sudden, surging thrill along the line… then nothing.
I could cry. I feel empty. My big chance and I’ve blown it. But there are fish leaping everywhere – one almost lands in my pocket – and that gives me the encouragement to fish on and keep believing. If one fish will take, maybe another will.
Fishing is, for me at least, wonderful therapy. I can literally feel the stress and strain of life ebb out of me and drift away with the current. The weak sun feels blissfully warm and the action of casting and concentrating on the fly pushes everything else out of my mind.
I find myself mulling over the fact that the Atlantic salmon doesn’t feed once it enters fresh water. So what makes it take a bunch of feathers on a hook is beyond me: Rage? Instinct? Whatever it is, it’s just put a bend in Chris’s rod further down the pool. A few minutes later he lands the salmon and it feels like a team victory. David is thrilled to have secured the footage of all three species but Chris is determined that I catch a fish as well.
He suggests I change to a heavier fly and I opt for a small orange tube fly which will hopefully fish a little deeper in the swift flow. I’m fishing tight under the shadow of the far bank when I get my second take of the day. I flinch but manage to pause, not strike, giving the fish that crucial second before raising the rod and feeling it buck and dip against the power of a fish.
I know I am ‘miked up’ and that David is expecting a running commentary but I literally can’t speak for a while. My heart is trip-hammering against my chest wall and my legs feel shaky with the sudden rush of adrenaline. Chris shouts advice from the bank but I can’t really hear. I’m locked in a duel with my first ever salmon and I have never wanted to bank a fish more in my life.
The fish surges, using the power of the river to strip line from the reel, making it sing. It’s not a big salmon but every time it jumps or I feel its broad tail slap against the leader my heart skips a beat. I sense Chris get into position beside me with the net and as soon as I can get the fish’s head up, I draw it in rather unceremoniously. Chris makes no mistake with the landing net and within seconds my salmon is on the bank.
It is a small cock fish of 5lbs, heavily coloured, but simply the most beautiful fish I’ve ever seen. While the Thurso doesn’t practice strict catch and release, I can’t imagine keeping this fish. I hold it in the current, rocking it gently to get oxygen through its gills until it regains its strength and powers off into the peaty depths to continue its journey upriver.
The rest of the day is blissful. We join up with head ghillie Dougie Reid, who takes us up to the private beat. Normally reserved for VIPs, this section was a favourite of the late Queen Mother and also of Prince Charles who fishes the river when at the Castle of Mey.
Dougie shows me the basics of Spey casting, making the rod dance in his hands before delivering the line with such timing, such effortless power it could make me weep. I guess that’s what 45 years of practice does for you.
He also tells us a little about the Thurso and its history. “It’s been a pretty good season for us. Around 2,000 fish caught, which is nae bad for a little river like ours. The salmon is an amazing fish. They can cover such distances. We have found them in the loch with the sea lice on them and the ‘tails’ still on the lice. That means they have covered over 25 miles of river in 24 hours. Before the loch was created in the early 1900s it was a pure spate river, but now we have greater consistency of fishing through the season.”
We return to beat 4 on Dougie’s advice for the last couple of hours, and although I catch a small trout, there are no more salmon. I ache all over from casting and am looking forward to a long soak in a hot bath but I couldn’t be happier.
Dinner at the hotel that night is a joyous affair. I’m not sure any steak has tasted better, or any wine smoother. Irish John, our team gopher, regales us with anecdotes while I nod off contentedly on the sofa in the lounge and dream of giant salmon.
Our final morning is for picking up the last few bits of film footage and saying our goodbyes. Chris and John decide to fish on for another day (Chris gets another salmon, John catches his first ever trout) while David and I complete our northern journey to John O’Groats.
While taking the final photos at the famous signpost, we ask the chap in the photo booth how far it is to home. “755 miles.” Looking at the Ferrari glinting in the sunshine I suddenly can’t wait!
It’s over a week since I returned from Scotland and I have barely stopped smiling since. The car, sadly, has been returned. Sleep patterns are slowly returning to normal. The office beckons on cold, dark mornings. But the memories burn bright and warm and I can’t foresee a time when I will tire of regaling friends and family – even complete strangers – with this tale.
I can’t believe that our unique Ferrari Macnab has been accomplished. To be fair, I was aided and abetted by some terrific experts along the way. The knowledge and passion of these people was uplifting and their willingness to share that knowledge a revelation. It’s mighty reassuring to know that our countryside and rural businesses are in such good hands. But, of course, we need to support these people.
From the very tip to the very top of the British Isles, we are blessed with incredible fieldsports opportunities: from those monster stags in the mist-wreathed Cornish valleys to those winged missiles on the sweeping Yorkshire moors and the savage beauty of the far north with the power and majesty of the king of fishes.
It is easy, sometimes, to stick with the familiar; to stay safe in our comfort zones. But whatever you do, don’t miss out on what could be the experience of a lifetime. Be brave. Explore! Try something different this season or plan an adventure for next year… discover your very own ultimate fieldsports adventure. You won’t regret it. Just don’t forget to cross your fingers tightly. As H T Sheringham so deftly put it: “Luck attends the undeserving now and then. One of them has the grace to be thankful.”
This feature would not have been possible without a great deal of help. And if this ends up like an Oscar’s speech, I apologise, but it would be wrong to overlook the time, effort and good will of all that helped this unique story come together. And of course, if you fancy trying any of this yourself, you couldn’t be in better hands than with these people.
- Ferrari North Europe (www.ferrari.com)
- Owen Beardsmore at Cervus UK and Scott Milne of Cornish Country Pursuits (www.cervus-uk.co.uk and www.cornishcountrypursuits.com)
- Open Season Ltd (www.openseasonltd.co.uk)
- Jim Sutton, grouse finder par excellence
- J Brindon Addy Butchers (www.jbrindonaddy.co.uk)
- James Norris at John Norris of Penrith (www.johnnorris.co.uk)
- Simon Laird, John Drummond, Eddie McCarthy, Dougie Reid and all at the Ulbster Arms Hotel (www.thursoriver.co.uk and www.ulbsterarmshotel.co.uk)
- John Yippee-Ki-Yay Maclean, super-gopher
- Last, but definitely not least, Chris Blackburn of UK Gunworks (www.ukgunworks.co.uk).
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