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The “Glorious” Twelfth

a.k.a the “not-so-glorious” 12th - if you’re a grouse!

The 12th day of August is a key date in the sporting calendar of Scotland as it marks the start of open season for grouse shooting. In Britain, “shooting” refers to the pursuit of game, birds or animals, with a shotgun. Grouse shooting is considered the ultimate experience for both those with a passion for shooting, and for those with a passion for collecting ultimate experiences.

The red grouse is uniquely native to Britain and is particularly associated with Scotland (might be something to do with the famous whisky!). Unlike other game birds, notable pheasant and partridge, grouse can’t be artificially reared but are born and remain completely wild in their natural habitat- heather moorland. Since Victorian times, gamekeepers have painstakingly managed this habitat in pursuit of the perfect environment for the breeding and survival of the bird known to many as the “King” of all game birds.

Grouse are incredibly fast flying at speeds in excess of 70mph, often flying low, hugging the contours of the land. Extremely agile in the air, they can duck and dive and change direction, offerIng their pursuant the ultimate game shooting challenge.

In the Victorian era the sport involved “walking up” - hunters, or “guns” as they’re called, would walk across the moor with their dogs flushing the birds out of the heather to take a shot at. Fair game you might say, with hunter and hunted pitting their skills one against the other.

But trudging miles across a heather moor over the course of a day’s shooting is hard work. Worse still you might go home at the end of the day with no grouse in your knapsack to show for your efforts! So, much to the horror of Victorian traditionalists who blamed it on the nouveau riche, a new form of the sport was invented that remains the norm today - the “driven” shoot, with driven grouse the most exclusive form.

Beaters are people employed to walk in a line using dogs and whistles to flush or “drive” the birds out of the heather, over a line of “guns” waiting patiently for their quarry in a row of hidden “butts”. It does kind of shift the balance!

People from across Scotland and the rest of the UK, Europe and increasingly the wider world, are prepared to pay thousands of pounds per day for the experience of participating in a grouse shoot on a Highland estate. For some it’s the thrill of the chase, the opportunity to test their skills and to enjoy the camaraderie of like-minded friends in an iconic setting. For others, it’s the opportunity to join in a ritual which for so long has been the preserve of the elite, the landed gentry.

So what can they expect for their money? First of all you’ll be expected to look the part, with appropriate clothing in muted colours - think tweed, corduroy, plus-fours and “bonnets”. The season kicks off promptly at 9.00am on the 12th with due ceremony - kilts and bagpipes - before you get down to business. Participants tend to shoot grouse in groups of eight to ten, often a “syndicate” of friends or associates. Safety is taken very seriously with a strict code of conduct governing behaviour for both safety and etiquette - no poaching your neighbour’s bird! Anyone deemed guilty of breaking the code will be asked to leave. Oh the ignominy!

Safety speech delivered, a draw will be taken to establish each gun’s shooting position for the day. Off to the line of butts where a loader/minder tasked with looking after you will provide the necessary equipment including guns and cartridges for the first “drive” of the day.

Now this is where I confess my bewilderment. As you may have heard me recount, the UK likes to pride itself on its gun licensing laws. These dictate that no individual is able to own a gun - shotgun or firearm(rifle) - without a certificate issued by the police subject to stringent background checks. However, there is no limit to the number of guns that an individual can own and anyone may borrow a shotgun without certificate for use on private land with the permission of the owner and in their presence. I’m no expert, and I don’t know what level of expertise is required to access a shoot other than the ability to pay, but I tell you one thing - I wouldn’t take that minder’s job for all the tea in China!

It gets worse. Food and drink are very much a part of the ritual and ceremony of the day. Fleets of 4x4s transport wicker hampers carrying snacks and drinks for the traditional mid-morning “elevenses” after the first drive of the morning and lunch will be laid out in a favoured picnic spot, or mountain hut or bothy if the weather’s bad. Stew, venison, pate, smoked salmon, lobster - the best of Scottish produce - will be washed down with fine wines and champagne or bullshot, a consommé spiced up with vodka or sherry.

In the afternoon you have your hip flask to fortify you - if not whisky then I understand sloe gin or a rusty nail (whisky and Drambuie) are popular choices. My guess would be that grouse survival rates increase markedly in the afternoon!

Joking aside, you can understand why grouse shooting is yet another of the contentious issues of the Highlands. Advocates of the sport argue that it‘s part of traditional country life and brings much needed employment and income to rural areas. The birds are sold to butchers and game merchants and will be on the tables of exclusive restaurants the same day that they’re shot - helicopters wait to carry the first “brace“ of the day down to London! Highly nutritious and sought after for their flavour, is it really so different from any other meat that ends up on our plate? Crucially, without the investment of private money to manage the shooting estates, the iconic heather moorland of Scotland would likely disappear for ever as re-wilding is left to run its course.

Conservationists and animal rights activists would disagree. “Driven” shooting requires unnaturally high populations of grouse, a bird that is already prone to boom-and-bust population cycles dependent on weather and disease. To maintain stocks at the level required to keep the paying customer happy, critics claim that the moors have become little short of “regulated farms”. Grouse are caught in nets or lured to gravel mounds (grouse eat gravel to aid the digestion of the heather shoots they feed on) where they are dosed with medications to treat ticks and internal parasites. I’m not sure but my guess would be that the yellow and white flash in the photo of the grouse above is some sort of tag to indicate that it’s had it’s medication?

Critics also claim that protection of the grouse population results in the killing, often illegal, of other animals such as the mountain hare which it’s claimed transmits the tick, and predators such as foxes and stoats. Most controversially, game keepers and estate managers are accused of killing golden eagles and hen harriers, two of Scotland’s most iconic species.

The debate rages on with reports urging greater regulation, but successive governments recognising the importance of this activity to rural life, employment and most importantly the economy. 12th August 2020 saw the sun splitting the sky and the heather coming into magnificent bloom, turning the Cairngorms and surrounding areas purple for a few short weeks. Whether it was the sport or the experience, I’m sure that the paying customers got what they came for.

Apologies that this blog didn’t appear closer to the 12th as intended but the local areas is so full of “stay-cationers“ at the moment that broadband is almost non-existent in my cottage at the end of the line. Hope is at hand as we move to a local provider next week. Watch this space!

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