It is a time for a “haze” of purple heather to burst into colour across the moorland where the birds live – but this year there is a shortage of grouse.
A bitter spring, late frosts, and sleeting rain has meant many chicks struggled to thrive, but there is hope that a later start for some birds may yet bring in a boon to rural economies.
Olly Foster, owner of the Egton Estate near Whitby, said: “There isn’t going to be a surplus to shoot this year.”
The estate will not host driven shoots this year but focus on its usual moorland ‘yomps’.
He said: “It’s an alchemy of why. Last year we had beetles, this year we’ve had a very drawn out cold spring. That affects the nutrition and the vital food needed for young chicks.”
Last week the heather bloomed, said Mr Foster, spreading across the estate’s near 5,000 acres of heather moorland in a glorious “purple haze”.
“It’s magical, even the smell is magical as you drive across the moors,” he added. “The beekeepers are very happy, they are the first to let you know. But the by-product is grouse.
“It’s a tragedy really. There’s a lot of work that goes into it. There are a lot of social, economic and environmental outcomes.”
Since the Game Act of 1831, August 12 has been enshrined in law as the start of the shooting season for red grouse, but the practice has long proved controversial.
Defenders say the 16-week season keeps thousands of people in work and ensures the management of moorland for wildlife, contributing more than £2bn to the nation’s economy.
But detractors believe it is damaging to the environment, particularly over heather burning and for birds of prey, with calls for moorlands to be rewilded and driven shoots to be scrapped.
Cold start to spring
It is estimated that about 20,000 people shoot grouse in Yorkshire and approximately 14,000 work-days are provided for local people, according to the Moorland Association (MA).
Grouse live on high moors where temperatures can dip far below that seen in lowland areas, and an “exceptionally” cold start to the year saw many early nests fail.
Chair of the MA Mark Cunliffe-Lister, who runs Yorkshire’s Swinton Estate, said across England most early shoots have been cancelled, but that late season shooting is looking more positive. The grouse are entirely wild, he explained, and only a surplus is ever harvested to ensure a good stock of birds breed again.
And regardless of the business of the season, he said, conservation work on sporting estates will continue year round, in peatland restoration and rewetting.
“Grouse moors are also key to the successful nesting of rare birds such as curlew, lapwing, golden plover and birds of prey including merlin, hen harrier, owls and peregrines," he said.
"Ground-nesting birds are three times more likely to fledge chicks successfully on grouse moors than on any other land.”
A 'mixed' prospect for season ahead
While yesterday, August 12, would normally have marked the busiest day of the year, fewer estates are hosting driven shoots, with some pushing back to mid-September.
Adrian Blackmore, director of shooting with the Countryside Alliance, said: "When the birds were laying in the early spring we had appalling weather, and when they were hatching we had snow,. A lot of that first brood were lost. That of course has a real impact on livelihoods. Every grouse moor is different, some have been less affected."
This could well be a "hard year" for many rural communities in the uplands, he said, but he is hopeful that later broods may have done better, enabling a later start to the season.
"Given that we are talking about a totally wild bird, such setbacks are not unknown," he said.
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