Itâ€™s one of the great sporting challenges â€“ a grouse, a salmon and a stag. Dominic Holtam has to achieve the challenge at two ends of the UK, in three days, and he is doing it in a four-wheel drive Ferrari.
Let us start with the challenge. For the modern fieldsports enthusiast, the Macnab has evolved into the most challenging sporting quest in the world. You have to catch a salmon, shoot a grouse and stalk and bring down a stag all in one day.
It started with John Buchanâ€™s 1925 novel John Macnab, which describes how three bored members of Londonâ€™s clubland decide to thrill to the challenge of poaching two stags and a salmon from three different Scottish estates, within a certain timescale and with the challenge issued in letters to the estate owners by a character they call John Macnab. They achieve their ambition and beat the gamekeepers. The moral of the tail delivered by a minor character called Lady Claybody: â€œWealth is made for man, and not man for wealth,â€ she says. Man of the match goes to another proto-capitalist character called Fish Benjie, but that is by the by. What the book has done in the last 88 years is inspire generation after generation of shooters and fishers.
Dominic decides to adapt the story further. From the wilds of Cornwall to the far north of Scotland, the UK offers fantastic sport from tip to toe. So why limit the Macnab to a single day or even a single estate when you can have it all? Dominic edits the British hunting magazine Sporting Shooter. He decides to head as far south as possible to Cornwall bag his stag, north to the Yorkshire moors for red grouse and then on to the river Thurso, just a few miles from John O’ Groats on the north coast of Scotland, to try and hook a salmon. â€œTo make things even more difficult, I have never shot grouse and I have never used a salmon rod before in my life,â€ he says.
Dominic used to be editor of the British motoring magazine Performance Car, which brings us to the Ferrari. The FF is a newly-designed piece of automotive exotica. It has a 6.3 litre V12 engine, produces 650 horse power, it can do 0-60mph in 3.5 seconds and has a top speed of 208 miles an hour. It is a four-seater, it is four-wheel drive and, best of all, it has plenty of room in the back for guns and gear. The price of this perfection is Â£272,000. Ferrari lends Dominic an FF for his challenge.
The start is in Cornwall, one of the least cold and wet corners of the British isles, so popular with holiday makers. Dom has three days to cover 1,500 miles. As much fun as it is, showing off in front of the bucket-and-spade brigade he must leave the sand, sea and a seasonal tourist fest in Padstow and get some rest. The clock starts ticking on morning number one and he has an early start to give him the best chance of a Cornish stag.
The Ferrari might be four-wheel drive but Dom does not confuse it with a proper offroader. It stays at the hotel while he joins professional deerstalker Scott Milne in a roper 4×4 with good ground clearance.
Cornwall is where you go for Britainâ€™s biggest red stags. The current record is held by an animal from the eastern counties of England but the south-west is the usual holder. The â€˜Monarch of the Glenâ€™ in Landseerâ€™s painting is a scrappy little male by comparison.
That said, Dom is only after a cull stag â€“ a small or one-year-old male, called a â€˜pricketâ€™. â€œLet’s hope the gods are with us because blanking here will really ruin my three days,â€ he says.
With the full moon lending a helping hand Scott spots some reds deep in the valley. He leads Dom through fields and sets him up in a highseat with a block of woods to his left. What he is hoping is the animals will pass below Dom as they return from feeding. However, as the lights switch on in neighbouring hamlets, Dom can see that see thick fog has settled all through the valley. Scott now thinks that the animals have probably moved back from the open fields under cover of the fog.
Itâ€™s now too light to shoot. The stags will see them coming, so they change their plans for the morning from hunting to nature walk. They can hear a couple of stags roaring in the woods. â€œWhat we are going to do is drop the rifle back to the truck and we are going to go and have a sneak through the woods and see if we can come across a few deer,â€ says Dom â€“ â€œSee them in action. We are not allowed to shoot in that particular block of wood. So we thought we would have a sneak and see if we can find a stag or two.â€
Dom is keen to learn more about the red deer. He has only ever stalked hinds in Cumbria. â€œI’ve never experienced the rut with its sights, sounds and smell,â€ he says. â€œWe can smell a stag which has just walked by. Itâ€™s a really strong musky smell.
â€œYou can see there is just nothing that hasn’t been eaten by the deer. There is a real heavy population of red deer in here. The holly bushes are moulded like somebody comes in and prunes them by night.â€
Scott says: â€œEvery time any young shoots grow they nibble them off and the browse line you can tell it is red deer in here.
â€œWe can physically look through the trees. If you had to get down onto your knees to look you know you have roe deer or fallow deer. But when you can physically look stood up you know it has to be a deer four foot to the shoulders.â€
As Dom and Scott reach the bottom of the valley they hear another roar and, like sailors drawn to the Sirensâ€™ calls, they head in his direction. Rising up the other side, they think they are getting closer. They glimpse some hinds but that’s all.
It is time to head back and consider their options. Domâ€™s fantasy scenario is that he would be on the road heading to Yorkshire by lunchtime but that isn’t going to happen. An evening stalk would really muck up his plans â€“ or at least any chance of getting his head down tonight.
They hit on a compromise. It is still early, about 2pm, but Scott controls deer on a plantation near a stately home and he reckons Domâ€™s best bet is to head over there.
Within ten minutes of arriving, Scott spots a young red deer browsing on the ride in front of them. It hasn’t clocked them and it is a good job because at this angle neither Scott nor Dom can make out if it’s male or female.
It is 96 metres away. Dom keeps his Blaser R8 rifle and Zeiss Duralyt scope combo trained on it. â€œDefinitely got a black belly,â€ says Scott, looking at it through binoculars, â€œand, yes, there is a pizzle.
â€œIn your own time, whenever you are happy. It is a safe shot.â€
Scott is sure it’s a stag calf and so is Dom. They just need to let him get into a safe shooting position. When he does, Dom shoots him in the heart. The deer jumps into the cover. It doesn’t take long for Scottâ€™s German shorthaired pointer Apollo to find the young animal.
One of the biggest stags that Scott has ever shot is a 19-pointer that had broken its leg. â€œThat is the sort of calibre we can get and may be that one we heard roaring this morning was of this sort of stature.â€
Of the little beast that Dom shoots, â€œit is not quite the roaring beast we were pursuing earlier,â€ he says. â€œTo be honest with time pressure we are on, when Scott said he had spotted a stag calf, it didn’t take very long to make an executive decision that it might be a suitable choice today. Especially in this area, Scott was explaining the deer do a lot of damage to a nearby stately home garden and they have quite a strong cull policy. Yes â€“ Iâ€™m quite pleased.â€
Thatâ€™s quite pleased mixed with a hint of relief. Scott asks if Dom wants to take some venison with him. It’s tempting, but the Ferrari is a bit short of space. The rifle is easier to fit in the car. The Blaser rifle breaks down neatly to a Ferrari-friendly size. The saddle mounts for the Zeiss scope allow Dom to zero the rifle at home, break it down and then rebuild it for his two outings without having to re-zero. â€œIt’s quite a feat of engineering,â€ says Dom, â€œespecially as it did the job.â€
Job jobbed. Dom hits the road. â€œOn leaving Cornwall we’re still on course for the Ferrari Macnab and hopefully a decent nightâ€™s sleep,â€ he says. â€œI have to say I am really relieved that we managed to get something today. If we had failed today it throws the whole story into turmoil, trying to sort out plan B.
â€œScott was absolutely brilliant: a pleasure to talk to; so knowledgeable about his deer; so passionate about his stalking; a real education just to walk in the woods with him. I am pleased for him as well as for us because he tried so hard to make sure he got us our deer. I think both he and I would have liked a slightly larger one, but I am no trophy hunter and we have helped him with his cull plan.â€
Dom has a couple hundred miles to go until his stop-over for the night. â€œNormally that would be a bit of a chore, but in this thing I think it is going to be a bit of a pleasure,â€ he says.
His resting place is a hotel outside Birmingham. He needs to be at the grouse moor in Yorkshire for 7.30am so it’s another early start ahead. Even if the guests at the hotel didn’t request a wake-up call they certainly get one as the Ferrari roars out at 4.30am.
Making his way north and leaving the busy motorway system, eventually the traffic thins and Dom has his first chance to burn some fossil fuel on the high moorland roads.
Back to the job in hand and Dom needs a grouse. He has ever shot one before, so he calls in help from an expert. Yorkshire gamekeeper Jim Sutton starts by finding Dom the right topography. Hillocky ground is the best for walking up grouse. There are plenty of blinds and there is plenty of skyline. Hillocks give good opportunities to come over a ridge and drop on to birds, which sit out in the heather.
Jimâ€™s job is to increase grouse numbers on this piece of Yorkshire moorland. As a result, numbers of local rare bird species increase too. â€œIt is just down to the main principles of grouse moor management which start with predator control: foxes, crows, stoats and weasels throughout the year, but concentrating more at spring time, the most crucial time of the year,â€ he says. â€œThen there is habitat management. We have reduced the grazing on the moor, we have improved the heather burning and it is looking good at the moment.
Grouse are prone to disease and the best way to prevent it is to give them medicated grit. Because birds donâ€™t have teeth, they eat grit to help grind up the food they eat. Jim adds medication to the grit to stop them from catching diseases such as strongylosis.
The weather, temperature and terrain are in complete contrast to Domâ€™s stalking which was only 24 hours ago. It is hard going and the birds are lifting well before they are in range. Dom gets a chance. A covey of birds is up. He fires his gun â€“ and the birds continue on their flight path. It’s a big blow. â€The grouse are really flighty,â€ he comments â€“ and asks Jim how to shoot grouse: â€œAny advice on shot placement and what I should be looking at? Or just get on to them as quick as possible.â€
Jim recommends shooting these birds as quick as you can. â€œReady at all times,â€ he says. â€œAny time the grouse can get up and you need to be on to them. As you saw really fast wing beat. They are out of range in no time.â€
They head for another part of the moor. The weather is even worse over here. Dom is glad he forced in contact lenses at 4.30am.This isn’t the weather for glasses.
Dom gets his second chance at a grouse. It flies on. The wind has picked up and the rain is coming in sideways. They watch the grouse skimming over the moorland, they watch, they keep watching. And it drops.
â€œIt’s down,â€ says Jim. Now they have to find it.
After 10 nail-biting minutes Jimâ€™s spaniel picks up the dead grouse. â€œEven though some puritans might say I need a brace, I don’t care,â€ says Dom. â€œI never specified bags â€“ just species and this one counts â€“ a lot.
â€I was getting a bit worried. I am going to give Jimâ€™s dog a kiss in a minute. I love that dog.â€
Heading from the grouse moor in Yorkshire towards Scotland is an ideal opportunity for Dom to visit a shop thatâ€™s an oasis for any fisherman or woman on their way north to the rivers of Scotland. The famous John Norris fishing superstore is based in Penrith, Cumbria.
â€œIt’s really more than just a shop,â€ says Dom. â€œI am hoping that some fishing expertise, knowhow, magic or even luck might rub off on me. I’m no stranger to fishing but I’m really apprehensive that I could make a real cock salmon of this last part of the challenge.â€
Fishing up on the river Thurso? James Norris of John Norris recommends a 15-foot double-handed salmon fly rod, a reel to match that, balance it up with a fly line, a selection of flies, leading material. Dom will need to get kitted out in the right gear: waders, wading boots and wading jacket, so he is protected from the elements.
â€œSo it is not as simple as a tackle box and pair of wellies then?â€ says Dom.
Dom is worried that a double-handed rod is going to be complicated for someone (like him) who has not fished that way before. â€œIt sounds complicated, but it’s a lot easier than it sounds,â€ says James. â€œIt is easier to cast a double handed than it is a single.â€
Dom is a coarse fisherman at heart. He understands about throwing bait in front of fish. He wants to know what the salmon are feeding on if they are going to take the big, gaudy flies that James offers him.
â€œThey aren’t in the river feeding,â€ says James. â€œYou are just trying to trigger aggression.
â€œSalmon are probably the hardest fighting fresh water fish you will find. Once you get that take from the fish, you will know exactly what I mean. Your heart stops, the fish takes, then the fight starts and it is absolutely phenomenal â€“ the best feeling in the world. But, again, they are the hardest fish to catch, because they are not feeding.â€
Leaving Penrith, Dom does a quick mileage update. He has still got another 350 miles to go and the Ferrari tells him that it will take about seven-and-a-half hours, which means he will probably be rocking into his accommodation tonight at about midnight. That is a long day â€“ but the car has made it worthwhile. â€œIt is just eating the miles, really comfortable, cruises beautifully as you would expect and there are worse places to spend seven-and-a-half hours,â€ says Dom.
Wednesday morning is the last day of the Ferrari Macnab. Dom is staying at the world famous Ulbster Arms on the banks of the River Thurso. Before breakfast, Domâ€™s friend Chris Blackburn of UK Gunworks who arranged the grouseshooting and the salmon fishing for him takes him down to the bridge for bit of a pep talk and to enjoy the views of this famous stretch of water so often enjoyed by royalty. The Queen Mother used to fish there regularly and Prince Charles still does.There is also some advice from Dougie Reid who has been fishing this water for 40 years. Dom then gets a crash course in casting.
Salmon are the least easy of the three in a traditional Macnab. However, Chris and Dougie are optimistic this morning. The weather is lovely the water is in great condition and more than 20 fish were banked yesterday. There was somebody who was fishing this week who had never fished before and caught their first salmon, so Dom is pleased to hear that it can be done. â€œWhether the gods are smiling on us today we will have to wait and see, but we are going to give it a good go,â€ he says.
Like a boxer about to enter the ring â€“ Domâ€™s trainer and manager prepare him for the first round. Tentatively, he creeps out into the river. Fish are jumping all around him and within 15 minutes he gets a take. What a moment.
â€œWow,â€ he calls out. â€œI just had a take. I could actually cry now. What if that is it? What if that is the only fish that comes anywhere near all day? I am actually shaking.â€
Despite all the advice to wait when you get a take, Domâ€™s years of trout fishing meant he snatched at the rod â€“ and his salmon has gone.
Half an hour later, Chris shouts to us that he’s in. It is a 4lb 8oz cock fish. It has a long hook-shaped nose or â€˜kypeâ€™, showing that it has been in the river for a long time. Chris puts it back in the water, works it backwards and forwards to get water through its gills, and the fish lets Chris know when it is ready to go.
Dom heads back into the water and changes fly. Then â€“ incredibly â€“ he is in. This time he makes no mistake. Dom says afterwards that he has never been so focused in his life. After 10 minutes of terror, Chris nets Domâ€™s fish, and what a fish. â€œI’ve done it,â€ he says with relief. â€œThree species in three days, from one end of the country to the other â€“ and in a supercar. I can’t believe it.â€
He holds up his fish. â€œMy first ever salmon,â€ he says proudly, â€œhere on the river Thurso, beat four. The Ferrari Macnab â€“ we have done it.â€
Dom and Chris see the salmon safely back into the water. Torrential rain now pours down on Dom but it is relief that is pouring out of him. â€œI hooked a salmon and now salmon fishing has hooked me â€“ I’m straight back in the river,â€ he says.
Dougie is another one who still gets the salmon shakes after all these years. Â â€œIt just makes your knees tremble and I still get that feeling,â€ he says. â€œEven after all the fish I have caught. I don’t know how many fish I have caught over the years. I never kept count, but I enjoy it, I love it.â€
Dom may have completed the Ferrari Macnab challenge but there’s somewhere he needs to be in order to complete the journey: John O’Groats, half an hour north of here, the most northerly spot on the UK mainland. There’s a fuel stop to keep the V12 singing along (petrol for this trip has cost around Â£1,000). The weather has turned back to dry and bright. The Ferrari looks fabulous next to the famous signpost.Â â€œI feel exhausted but so chuffed,â€ says Dom. â€œSo many people have helped me with this mad event and I still can’t believe it has actually worked out.
â€œItâ€™s the end of the line for us after three amazing days. We have done 1,500 miles, we got our three species. We have done the Ferrari Mcnab and the best news of all. I have just been told it is 755 miles to drive home and I can’t wait.
â€œThis journey began as a celebration of British fieldsports, but it has been much more than that. It has been an opportunity to meet some remarkable people â€“ people who have dedicated their lives to the preservation, improvement and management of our most fragile habitats, from ancient woodland to heather moorland to the pristine rivers of Scotland. These people are the true guardians of our wild spaces. That they share their knowledge with such enthusiasm is a gift to all of us. They deserve our respect, our admiration and our support â€“ if nothing else to offset the carbon footprint of this amazing machine.
If you would like to see the film version of this article, go to YouTube and search for â€˜Ferrari Macnabâ€™