The warm weather has helped boost grouse numbers ahead of the Glorious Twelfth - the start of the hunting season. All "country pursuits" are under the spotlight and 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.
By Ryan Dilley
BBC News Online
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.
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.
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 usually scheduled for later in the year, 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 Twelfth". "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.
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.
Judy picks up the scent of more grouse
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?"
The League Against Cruel Sports is against killing animals purely in the name of sport, but 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".
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.
"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 and so change to the humane alternative of clay grouse shooting."
Mr Laing says ending shooting and returning his moor to its "original" state is impractical, since the balance of nature was altered long ago.
There is said to be no shooting test as hard as hitting a grouse
"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."
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.
Archie Nelson - a former shipyard worker, turned gun salesman - opens order books going a back more than 130 years.
The best guns can go for £30,000 a shot
"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."