Ticking the boxes for a glorious Glorious Twelfth

<em>Picture: Alastair Rae</em>
Picture: Alastair Rae
Quite a few days in the year have specific and well-known names, but if the religious ones are discounted – Shrove Tuesday, Good Friday, Christmas Day etc – then the list is fairly short. May Day, Hogmanay, a handful of others – and the Glorious Twelfth.

To the hunting-and-shooting community 12 August – the start of the grouse-shooting season – is almost a religious festival. Certainly there is an element of feast day to it – not that the red grouse is something to be cooked and eaten in a hurry.

The traditional, folklore-ish view is that on 12 August each year the air resounds to the crack of gunshot-fire while the moors are strewn with high-class picnic hampers – but it isn’t always so. Much depends on whether the grouse population is deemed healthy enough to sustain a shoot. This in turn is largely governed by the extent to which that great scourge of the grouse, the tick, has made inroads over the previous year.

“Ticks feed off warm-blooded animals, eg sheep, dogs, birds, deer, humans, mice, foxes etc,” says Simon Blackett, factor on the Invercauld Estate on upper Deeside. “They sit on top of heather shoots and attach themselves to a passing meal.”

“It’s complicated,” he says when asked how ticks affect the grouse. “It is partly transmitted diseases, eg Lyme disease with humans and louping ill for grouse and sheep. There are lots more horrors, and on young birds the sheer numbers wear them down. You can use sheep as tick mops by treating them and then exposing them to ticks, which are killed.”

The red grouse population is counted every July. “We work out the surplus or harvest mainly by experience,” says Blackett. “The Game Conservancy will advise, but it is mostly done by experienced gamekeepers. No government body oversees this, thank God.”

The 2010 count showed what Blackett describes as “a very variable picture. Where we had a good stock last year, we are finding very encouraging numbers of well-grown broods. In some areas the counts are double the previous year. In other areas, where tick is known to be a problem, we are finding single birds and very small broods.

“Hares picked up by the dogs have been carrying unhealthy numbers of tick. It appears that the recent hard winter has not adversely affected our grouse at all. We hoped it might slow down the tick menace, but this appears not to have happened.” (There is an echo here of the recent report that, rather than reduce midge numbers as hoped, the severe winter proved to be toughest for midge predators.)

“The grouse are adept at surviving if they can burrow under the snow to find food and shelter,” says Blackett, “and red deer help by breaking up the snow with their feet to get at the heather themselves.”

Invercauld is a huge estate, but by no means all of it is grouse habitat. “It is mostly the heather areas,” says Blackett. “There is no rule of thumb, but the lower areas tend to be less good. Overgrazed areas are not so good, undergrazed areas are not so good – so a balance is needed.”

Today also sees the start of the ptarmigan season. “We might do one or two ptarmigan days,” says Blackett, “but it’s very weather-dependent.”

Grouse-shooting is expensive – should anyone find themselves needing to contact one of the much-maligned senior bankers today, a moor might be the place to look. “It costs around £100 to £130 per shot brace,” says Blackett, “so a 150-brace day is big money. But we have big costs to cover – the average moor employs two or three keepers and costs £200,000 per year to run.”

Not everyone sees the world this way, of course, and the Glorious Twelfth is also one of the traditional dates for disruption. Quite what form this might take this year is hard to quantify, however, given the reluctance of those involved to offer details. When asked if the Hunt Saboteurs Association organised any actions, its spokesman Lee Moon would only say: “Yes, we do campaign against grouse shooting, although it would be up to local groups what actions they wish to take.”

There is unlikely to be any disruption at Invercauld, and the first-day focus will surely be on the complex process of the shoot itself. It’s a long day, with shooters and staff meeting at 8am ahead of the 10am start. “It takes a while to travel out to some pretty remote spots,” says Blackett, “then walk to the horizon. The personnel tends to break down into eight shooters, six hangers-on, 25–30 beaters, eight loaders, eight flankers, four pickers-up, three gamekeepers, plus maybe drivers.”

With the weather showing signs of providing a settled late summer, Invercauld is hosting a “driven programme” in those parts of the estate where grouse numbers are reasonable. There have been a few good grouse years in recent memory – 1997–99, 2003, 2004 – but the rest have been “poor to very poor.” says Blackett, before adding: “We are due some more good years.”

Whatever happens, the Highland grouse season tends to be short. “August and September are the main months,” says Blackett. “October is getting a bit late. In England they do sometimes go on into December; the weather is different and birds more plentiful – but the scenery is rubbish.”