After a few disappointing years due to bad weather, the grouse shooting fraternity are having a better season. Sheena Hastings follows the red grouse from moorland to plate.
THOSE who are passionate about the sport say grouse shooting offers a unique challenge, and the anticipation and excitement around shooting on the first day of the season is like nothing else. They come to the UK from all points of the globe to indulge their hobby during a four-month red grouse season that begins with the so-called ‘Glorious Twelfth’ of August.
Men have trodden thousands of acres of heather moorland for many centuries in pursuit of this clever and unpredictable bird that is only found in Britain.
And as they pack up their tweeds and flannel shirts at the end of this year’s stay, many will also sign away thousands of pounds to assure their place to do it all again for a day or (in the case of the very wealthy) a few days next year. While opponents of the sport say grouse shooting does nothing but annihilate wildlife, its fans and many who live in rural upland areas say it’s a vital part of their precarious economy and the income for the country estates that host grouse shooting means they are able to conserve moorland habitat properly and responsibly.
The business provides direct employment and increased business for hotels, restaurants, B&Bs and shops in these areas where otherwise little would be going on except sheep farming.
In England the Moorland Association has calculated that shooting creates 42,500 days of work a year. With the prospects of a better season ahead, essential earnings will be up on the last couple of wash-out years.
The industry around grouse shooting is said to be worth an annual total of £67m to the UK. In one study, 55 per cent of local people were involved in some way with grouse shooting.
It’s mid-morning on the Twelfth and, to get a distant view of the shoot, we sidle quietly up to a distant edge of Hawnby Moor near Thirsk. We can just about see the group – there are usually no more than eight to ten in a team – moving across the heather beneath a cloudy sky. The light is not too bright and temperature lower than of late, so good for shooting.
Quickly retreating downhill once more, we bump into Jason Moore, group chef for Provenance Inns, a small chain of North Yorkshire village dining pubs that includes The Carpenters Arms at Felixkirk, a few minutes from here.
He has precious cargo on board: the first grouse of the season.
Many of them will be taken to Yorkshire Game at Richmond to be quickly plucked and dressed then couriered to London where they will be on a plate by dinner time, selling in top Mayfair restaurants for as much as £70 a portion.
Others will be supplied to top food halls such as Harrods and Fortum and Mason, as well as game butchers and restaurants around this region. Some will find their way to Scandinavia – where game lovers eagerly await early season grouse from Yorkshire. But a few are being whisked away to The Carpenters Arms, where the race is on for the team to have the first birds from the moor on the table for customers by midday.
I’m with Jason’s boss, Michael Ibbotson, managing director of Provenance Inns, which also include The Durham Ox at Crayke, The Oak Tree in Helperby, The Punch Bowl at Marton-cum-Grafton and (opening tomorrow) the Crown and Cushion at Welburn.
En route back to Felixkirk, we stop off at the small but well-appointed hunting lodge below the moor where the shooters will gather for a sumptuous lunch catered by Ibbotson’s company.
On the menu are gravadlax, lobster salad and fillet of beef, and fine wines are on offer for those who can keep a steady hand later. Each shooter may pay up to £8,000 for the privilege of shooting on premier moorland, and they’re obviously treated like kings for the day.
Back at the Carpenters Arms the blackboard out front advertises tonight’s £55, seven-course gourmet game evening.
So far there have been 42 bookings.
Michael’s pacing himself in anticipation of the evening’s extravaganza, but still we have to try the first grouse that have been expertly prepared by Jason, who has created special menus in collaboration with Stephanie Moon, game enthusiast and Yorkshire contestant on the BBC’s Great British Menu.
Grouse and other game are on the menu at the inns throughout the season, says Michael.
The company also prides itself on being able to work with the freshest local vegetables and herbs supplied by the nearby Mount St John Estate, owned by his business partner and Provenance Inns chairman Chris Blundell.
I’ve never eaten grouse and don’t know what to expect, but after starters that include a sensational rabbit and black pudding spring roll, the star of the show arrives at the table – raspberry-dusted Hawnby Moor grouse.
We also sample traditionally roasted grouse with the full works of bread sauce, game chips, game crouton, game croquette (which would make a great stand alone starter or bar snack), crispy breadcrumbs, watercress and redcurrant and game reduction.
After the lunchtime rush, Stephanie Moon appears. “It would be great to see more people choosing and enjoying grouse and other game, as they are a really exciting and healthy low-fat choice,” she said. “We’ve really enjoyed working together to create dishes that make the most of them.”
King of the Moorland Sky
Many of the millions of grouse being hunted this year are in Yorkshire, being found in the Dales and North York Moors – the largest expanse of heather moorland in England.
Red grouse are unique to Britain and can fly up to 80mph. This makes them notoriously difficult to shoot, and has led to the nickname “the king of game birds”.
Predators such as the fox, stoat and crow combined with loss of habitat have contributed to dwindling grouse numbers in the last half century.
But, paradoxically, shooting the red grouse has helped to keep it off the endangered species list.
Where moorland is kept well, there is a surplus for shooting without reducing the breeding population, says The Moorland Association.
When buying grouse to cook at home the experts advise you to look for birds that are plump, with unblemished, fresh-looking deep red skin, and avoid any that seem dry or smell ‘off’.