Shooters grouse about dearth of targets on Twelfth

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The Independent Online

The start of the grouse season, the "Glorious Twelfth", came and went yesterday with not a shot being fired on many northern and Scottish moors. Sportsmen were deterred by the possibility of confrontation with anti-hunt protesters and a shortage of grouse, which in some areas may prevent any shooting this year.

The start of the grouse season, the "Glorious Twelfth", came and went yesterday with not a shot being fired on many northern and Scottish moors. Sportsmen were deterred by the possibility of confrontation with anti-hunt protesters and a shortage of grouse, which in some areas may prevent any shooting this year.

"We have seen spotters for the hunt saboteurs around here during the week, looking for any sign of preparations for a shoot," said a hotelkeeper in Nidderdale, north Yorkshire, who gets much of his business from shooting parties.

"We're watching them and they're watching us. But there are fewer now than when Linda McCartney was paying them to protest - they got more than the beaters - and this year there won't be much to see in the southern Dales in any case. Grouse stocks look pretty poor."

Many enthusiasts avoid the first day of the season, when protesters are more likely to be out. "The fact that the Twelfth falls on a Saturday compounds the problem," said an organiser of shoots. "We take care that any shoots are out of sight of public roads." Mark Merrison of Strutt and Parker, one of the sporting agencies which bring together wealthy clients and moor owners, said he knew of shoots on the opening day, "though obviously I can't discuss who or where".

But of far more concern is the depletion of grouse by parasites, predators and bad weather at the wrong time. Gamekeepers hope for hard frosts in midwinter to thin out old and weak birds as well as killing the insects and worms which infest grouse. Instead, the succession of warm, wet winters has led to an explosion of parasites, and fewer chicks.

Nor have recent springs been any better. Mild weather is needed to nurture the chicks and the heather shoots on which they depend, but last year snow fell in April, killing many newly-hatched grouse. This year, heavy rain early in June washed broods away or left chicks soaked and vulnerable to disease.

Although gamekeepers shoot foxes and crows on managed estates to prevent them preying on grouse, they complain that they can do nothing about the latest threat to stocks: the sharp rise in the number of protected birds of prey, many introduced into the wild by conservationists.

The talk of the game world is a study carried out on the Duke of Buccleuch's Langholm estate in Scotland, in which it emerged that raptors, principally hen harriers, were killing grouse by the thousand. The seasonal "bag" fell from 4,000 to 100 in five years.

The cost of maintaining grouse moors is high, and so are the prices charged. Many ordinary people go shooting, but rich Americans, Arabs and East Asians can pay up to £100 a brace, or £1,500 for a day's shooting, on the best estates. This end of the business has been plagued in recent years by lack of birds.

"People think twice before parting with their money in February, only to have their sport cancelled two weeks before the season begins, when the broods are counted," said Nick Mason of the sporting agency Davis and Bowring, based in Kirkby Lonsdale, Cumbria. "And if there is no shooting, the estates get nothing, the hotels get nothing, all the other businesses - such as garages, shops and restaurants - get nothing."

All the sporting agencies contacted said the picture was mixed, with reasonable stocks in some areas and cancellations in others. "It's not going to be a vintage year," said John Duncan of Roxton, Bailey and Robinson in Berkshire. "Running an estate is a balancing act. If numbers are low, you could be shooting your breeding stock for next year, but if you leave them alone they could all die over the winter anyway."

Last night Rules, the top game restaurant in London's Covent Garden, was awaiting the first delivery of grouse from Lartington estate in Teesdale, which belongs to the restaurant's owner, John Mayhew. "We're hoping to get them on the menu about 9pm," said a staff member. How long the restaurant will be able to continue serving the bird is another matter.

Richard McMenemy, the general manager, said: "It seems we will have the same problem as in the past few years, when the grouse has run out by the end of October, well before the season officially ends on 10 December."

Figures are hard to come by, but grouse shooting is believed to provide 5,000 to 10,000 full-time jobs and much part-time work for beaters, loaders and other staff. Britain's 459 grouse moors are claimed to generate £600m for the economy.

"The last four years have been pretty thin, and it looks like we are in for a fifth," said Mr Mason.

"But the grouse is such a special bird. As a wild quarry it's the ultimate, which is why I persist year after year."

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