18th November 2016
Words by Ian Valentine
Images by Anya Campbell / Alamy
One thing in life is certain: we shall all be called up into that great hunting ground in the sky one day. Our game book only has so many pages. But before we shoot our bolt, what are the 10 field sport destinations in the British Isles that demand inclusion on a “bucket list”?
It’s no simple task. After all, our rivers, woods, moors and valleys play host to the finest field sports found anywhere in the world. Narrowing the list down demands sound process. Specifically, the variety of quarry is a must; our ability should be tested at every turn, in scenery that leaves no room for improvement. Exceptional hospitality and fine company are taken as read.
I hope you find inspiration in this 10. Inevitably, it turned into something of a personal journey and one I found profoundly uplifting. In contemplating my own mortality, I was reminded that life is most certainly for living. The list is now tacked above my desk, waiting to be ticked off.
Chalk stream trout in Hampshire
Chalk streams are arguably the most beautiful waterways in the world, and it just so happens that nearly all of them are in England. Their gin-clear water and gravel beds promote rich insect life and lush vegetation: food and cover for a fishy paradise. The angler will often spy the brown trout resting in a pool or gliding in an eddy. He must stalk in like a heron, attempting to cast a well-chosen fly above the nose of these voracious predators. If successful, pan-fried trout with brown butter and parsley takes the achievement to a new level of satisfaction.
When the mayfly hatch on the River Test at Broadlands in Hampshire, once the home of Earl Mountbatten of Burma, you’ll find chalk stream fishing at its finest. Alongside the Capability Brown gardens, Broadlands is famous for its Nissen Hut, adorned with trophies and photos of famous visitors and their catches. This shrine to fishing is a great spot to refuel and change strategy if necessary. Or simply lie back in the long grass with a glass of Côte de Beaune and watch the kingfishers at work. They make it look so easy.
Red deer on Islay
Red deer stalking is pure escapism. Up on the hill, your mind will empty. Any cares you have down there, in the real world, will melt away. When the ghillie spies a suitable beast and leads you into position — which usually involves a crawl through icy burns, peat bogs and knee-high heather — your senses reach full alert. All that matters is the task at hand. You can return from the hill dog tired, wet through and cold to the bone, but your mind will be refreshed and your soul revived.
If you’re going to escape, then head for an enchanted island. With its views of Jura and the ocean, more whisky distilleries than there are days in the week and some of the biggest stags in the country, Islay will stay with you forever.
High birds on Exmoor
Exmoor was made for driven game. The sheer Devon valleys mean the shooters are far below crossing pheasants and partridges. Many a squire has ended up flat on his back in his enthusiasm to swing through the line of an archangel of high-flying pheasants above. There’s no dishonour in missing here, while every success will puff the chest of even the finest shot.
Estates such as North Molton and Chargot are jewels in the crown, but the diadem at the top is Castle Hill with its unfailing consistency and spellbinding beauty. On a sunny December morning, with snow on the ground, old friends down the line and the promise of a hearty lunch to follow, you’d be forgiven for pinching yourself. Truly, a sporting ecstasy.
Wild birds in North Norfolk
Compared with Devon, Norfolk is flat as a pancake. But to shoot at Holkham Hall, or the royal retreat at Sandringham, is to embark on a sporting journey back through time. This is where the Edwardian gentry’s obsession with shooting took hold and it hasn’t let go.
Keepering is an art form on these ancient lands, which are some of the few remaining estates where wild birds take precedence. At Holkham Hall, the keepers still wear the hard bowler hats, originally designed by Lock of Piccadilly in 1849, to protect against low-hanging branches and stick-wielding poachers. Here, there’s no need for valleys. A “starburst” of wild grey partridges rising from a hedgerow will test the shooter every bit as much.
Macnab on Royal Deeside
The Macnab appears on many a sportsman’s bucket list. Adapted from the adventure story John Macnab by John Buchan, the goal is to catch a salmon, shoot a brace of grouse and stalk a stag all on the same day. Traditionally, it is the salmon that’s hardest, so you need to snaffle that first, before taking to the hill with shotgun, rifle, dog and ghillie.
Add a touch of blue-blood to the challenge by attempting to complete the trio on Royal Deeside in Aberdeenshire. Beloved of Queen Victoria, the area is blessed with ancient Caledonian forest, stately salmon beats and brooding Cairngorm peaks. Invercauld Estate by Braemar has it all and more.
Grouse in the North Yorkshire Dales
Grouse shooting is a privilege, in the best possible sense. Standing in the moorland butts, as the coveys of plucky grouse skim and jink forward, brings on the feeling that you’re on top of the world. The excitement is second to none, while rare moments of inactivity are spent enjoying the view or chatting to a local loader, who knows the ground like the back of his Labrador’s paws. I’ve plumped for the majesty of Castle Bolton in North Yorkshire, where Wensleydale and Swaledale stretch out on either side and the welcome is second to none. It’s early September, when the heather is blooming purple and the grouse are fast. If you are yet to experience the thrill, then please put grouse shooting to top of your list.
Woodcock and snipe on Anglesey
Game birds are for eating and the most delicious in my opinion are dainty snipe and woodcock. But these quirky wading birds take some harvesting. The silvery snipe are happiest in boggy marshland, where the shooter can easily lose a wellie or sink down to the waist. Your reactions are put to the test as the snipe spring upwards at warp speed. Point the barrels instinctively when you see the flash of white. Aim, and the moment has passed. The handsome woodcock is equally reclusive, swinging and dodging around trees and over thickets like a bat across the rooftops. They present such a challenge that there’s an exclusive club for those who have shot a left-and-a-right of woodcock (www.shootinguk.co.uk/shooting/woodcock-club).
The Isle of Anglesey — that knobbly bit off North Wales — is renowned for its wild cover and wetlands, which offer the ideal destination for migratory woodcock during the colder winter months. Likewise, Presaddfed Hall, overlooking the Irish Sea, offers a warm destination for those who have succumbed to the charms of wild bird shooting.
Monster pike in Wales
Some of the activities on this list will cost many thousands of pounds, but a day’s pike fishing can be much easier on the pocket. And the satisfaction of learning a new skill and the excitement of knowing that somewhere, down there in the deeps is a giant that might, just might, grab your hook and pull your arm off is priceless.
Llangorse Lake in the Brecon Beacons has mythical status in pike circles, laying claim to the world record at 68 pounds, caught by O Owen in 1846, although this is unsubstantiated and would make it the largest pike in the world. Perhaps its descendant now prowls the depths?
Once cast as the villain of the lake because of its voracious appetite for trout and even ducklings, this ugly-mouthed slugger is now very much in fashion. Lake owners have realised that big is beautiful and the power with which a pike strikes, which is more akin to sea than freshwater fish, appeals to the trophy hunters. Just don’t expect them to come quietly.
Wildfowling on Lindisfarne
If you’re prepared to rise early, picking through the treacherous gutters and streams of the foreshore at low tide in near darkness, you will be treated to a ringside view of the world waking up. With the pale rising sun comes the chatter and whistles of a myriad plover, shanks, curlew, peewits and oystercatchers, and the chance of ducks and geese over your decoys. The sense of freedom is unparalleled in British fieldsports. You’re a speck in the wilderness with just your dog for company, a silent observer amid the mud and unforgiving currents. It’s you against nature, with the odds heavily weighted in her favour.
The National Nature Reserve at Lindisfarne on the Northumberland coast is a magical spot. In the half-light, you can feel the ghosts of the monks tracing their route across the causeway to Holy Island, where a church has welcomed visitors for nearly 1,400 years. Bagging a wigeon or pink-footed goose is merely a bonus on mornings like that.
Fox hunting in Galway
When it comes to country sports, there’s one pursuit in which Ireland is head and shoulders above her neighbours: fox hunting. To experience the full thrill of the chase, go to Galway. That so many of the world’s finest race jockeys and horses come from Ireland is no coincidence. The dramatic landscape is made for hunting, with natural obstacles that present a test of courage as much as technique. Sometimes you just have to grip the neck strap and trust the horse to see you safely over.
The County Galway Hunt, better known as the Galway Blazers, will show off the wild beauty of the Province of Connaught from the perfect vantage point. While some of the grand English hunts had their airs and graces, you’ll find no such stuffiness in Ireland.