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Wednesday, 21 August, 2002, 16:17 GMT 17:17 UK
Under the guns of the grouse shooters

All "country pursuits" are under the spotlight. Grouse shooting is no exception - to some it's a cruel amusement for the rich; to others it's an important tradition, helping keep rural economies alive.
Having walked just a few yards from a road cutting across Alasdair Laing's 9,000-acre grouse moor near Inverness, Edward Balfour raises his shotgun and pulls the trigger.

Open in new window : On the grouse moor
The first grouse shoot of the season

The first grouse of the year plummets out of the sky - destined for a dinner plate. When the season ends on 10 December, an estimated 350,000 of these wild birds will have met a similar fate across the UK.

While a golden retriever trots off to pick up the fallen bird, an English pointer - Judy - detects the scent of more grouse hiding in the heather. She creeps across the boggy ground, her body rigid from nose to tail tip.

Barry Wilcox raises his shotgun
A shoot can kill 150 grouse in a day
As Judy approaches, a grouse family (or covey) breaks cover, flapping furiously to escape. They are in luck, the guns stay silent - today's exercise is more to see how many grouse there are, than to deplete their numbers.

The real shooting is scheduled for nine days over the coming months, when paying "guns" will take aim at birds driven towards them by the hired "beaters" who noisily flush the grouse from the undergrowth.

The shooters today pour scorn on the rush to be the first to kill a bird on the opening day of the season - the "Glorious 12th" - "That's just a marketing ploy for the media."

Veteran gamekeeper David Taylor proudly admires the squawking birds as they gain speed and altitude. "Nice, eh?" he says.

Taking on nature

Mr Taylor tends this moor throughout the year, pitting his wits against the vegetation, disease-carrying ticks, intestinal worms and predators (or "vermin", as Mr Taylor calls them).

All of these must be managed if the wild birds are to flourish, and bad spring weather could still see the moor's grouse population fall to a point where there is no surplus to hunt.

Judy, the English pointer
Judy points the way to more grouse
Some people see grouse shooting as an anachronism - for them the tweed and tartan-clad rich blasting away at wildlife has a 19th Century air about it.

Other people are uneasy about a form of meat production where those involved in the harvest derive pleasure from despatching living animals.

Mr Taylor considers this as Judy points out another covey. "If I need 100 grouse culled from the population, why not have people willing to pay do it for me?"

Selective shoot

The League Against Cruel Sports says it doesn't oppose selective shooting for food, provided "a more humane alternative is not reasonably available".

Today's limited shoot is certainly selective. Mr Taylor says a seasoned eye can easily target out the oldest bird in a scattering covey and that he would never allow more than one person to aim at a fleeing family - "that would be a massacre".

Alasdair Laing
Alasdair Laing: "We have to be pragmatic"
The local laird, Alasdair Laing - great-grandson of the inventor of digestive biscuits - owns as far as the eye can see in all directions from the moor ("Oh, not that far hill."). He enjoys the hunt.

"I get pleasure from the skill it takes to put the grouse there, from the surroundings, from the co-ordination of hand and eye, but not the act of killing."

Grouse - which cannot be bred in captivity like other game birds - are so attractive to hunters from around the world because they are uniquely difficult to shoot, according to Commonwealth and Olympic clay pigeon champion Ian Marsden.

Clay grouse?

"It would be impossible to simulate the speed of grouse, the way in which they fly or how they can spring up from the heather anywhere, even behind you."

The League Against Cruel Sports objects to the snaring of grouse moor predators and hopes that grouse shooters will "realise the harm that they are doing to the rural environment" well before a clay grouse is invented.

Gamekeeper Kevin Begg calls Judy
A sport, but a serious rural business
Mr Laing says ending shooting and returning his moor to its "original" state is impractical, since the balance of nature was altered long ago.

"We have to accept that and manage the moor as best we can. To follow the pure environmentalist line and let the moor go back to tree scrub would be great. But because of the jobs and money the grouse bring in, we have to be pragmatic."

A day's shooting of 150 birds brings in 7,500, he says, "which gets paid straight back out to the gamekeepers and beaters. Nobody's going to get rich owning a grouse moor."

Rich pickings

While Mr Laing may not get richer, Scotland's economy would take a hit if it lost the 17m-industry and the 940 jobs shooting directly supports.

It's not just the hotels, shops and pubs surrounding the estate that have an interest. In Edinburgh, Mr Laing keeps a team of craftsmen at work producing shotguns, the best of which go for 30,000 or more.

On the grouse moor
Experts say you can't simulate a grouse shoot
Archie Nelson - a former shipyard worker, turned gun salesman - opens order books going back more than 130 years.

"This is the last cottage industry in a hi-tech world. These boys are still scratching and scraping away at wood and metal with primitive tools."

Back on the moor, Edward Balfour bags his second and final grouse of the day.

"I understand the anti-hunting argument. The first thing I shot was a wee pigeon and I couldn't bring myself to eat it. Now I don't like shooting anything I'm not going to end up eating."

Your comments so far:

It is important that the vital conservation role of gamekeepers (and hence game shooters) is recognised. Without shooting revenue, estates would not be able to afford the active upkeep of remote upland habitat which is required in order that the dwindling grouse population can survive. Many people would be surprised to find that field sports and conservation are very tightly intertwined. Field sports also provide revenue that to employ local people thus keeping rural communities alive.

I believe that grouse shooting, and other 'country pursuits' should be allowed to continue. It takes a lot of skill to bag a bird (I have tried and failed miserably) and I don't believe it is the 'kill' that attracts those willing to pay to go shooting. If it were they would round all the birds up in a pen and blast away merrily.
David, UK

Compared to the life of a battery hen, the life of a grouse appears to be positive bliss.
Patrick Stevens, UK

A total and utter disgrace, a needless slaughter of thousands of beautiful and defenceless birds. Do these people have nothing better to do with their time?
Steve P, York, UK

The Gory Twelfth. Thousands of these birds suffer, some are not killed outright and lie injured. The whole thing disgusts me.
Marvin, UK

There is an important distinction between grouse shooting and hunting with hounds: birds are bred for shooting, and when shot die quickly and are eaten. I believe this is perfectly acceptable, not much different from the life cycle of the average pig, although the "meat is murder" crowd would probably disagree. Fox hunting, on the other hand, is a such a hopelessly inefficient means of controlling fox populations that its inherent cruelty is inexcusable. Oscar Wilde was right.
Guy Chapman, UK

One of the reasons that we are blessed with the Red Grouse in this country is precisely because their numbers are managed and gamekeepers manage the moorland to provide this sport. Many moors that are no longer managed in this way in the UK have shown significant declines in Grouse numbers - in contrast with those that are managed for shooting.
Jock, UK

Unless you are a vegetarian then you can't really argue against shooting grouse. The lead a much better life than any commercially produced meat.
Daniel, UK

No matter how you try to justify it, there is a nagging doubt in back of my mind as to the morality of gaining enjoyment from killing an animal
Nick Field, UK

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See also:

11 Aug 02 | England
11 Aug 00 | Scotland
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