In keeping with tradition, Michael Stone should be preparing to celebrate the Glorious Twelfth next Saturday, the opening day of the grouse-shooting season, at his 18,000-acre Weardale and Eggleston estate in the north Pennines.
Instead, he is making alternative arrangements. The 30-odd days of shooting scheduled to shatter the peace and quiet of Mr Stone's rolling hillsides have been cancelled. The heather, it seems, holds insufficient numbers of birds.
"We have decided to pull the whole of 2006, on both moors, on the advice of our keepers," Sebastian Green, Mr Stone's land agent, said. "We simply haven't found enough grouse on the ground for it to be possible.
"As far as I know, this is the first time two consecutive years have been cancelled here. It's disappointing, and the financial implications are substantial, but we really have no option."
The gloomy picture is being mirrored in aristocratic circles across Britain. In 2005, grouse numbers suffered their biggest crash in living memory. This year was meant to herald a recovery - but it hasn't worked out like that. In Scotland, one of the country's biggest landowners, the Duke of Buccleuch will shoot as normal on just two of his five moors. Many estates in the Highlands have cancelled the season all together. In Cumbria, most moors have decided to delay the start of the season until mid-September.
The Moorland Association, which represents owners of the 150 grouse-moors in England and Wales, sent members a set of bleak "prospects" yesterday for the 2006 season.
"The most optimistic reports suggest that estates will operate only one out of every four days' shooting," it read. "For many grouse moors, despite the 365-days-a-year help of gamekeepers undertaking predator control and habitat management, there may be little or no shooting."
Among the Barbour brigade, there is talk of crisis. Grouse, one of the few truly wild game birds, have always been volatile. Their population is prone to devastating annual crashes, and equally spectacular highs. But this year, sportsmen are looking skywards with particular concern. Scientists are starting to wonder if global warming may one day drive Lagopus lagopus scoticus from our green and pleasant hillsides. As an Arctic species, it dislikes the warm, wet winters, and volatile rainfall of recent years.
Two years ago, it was amber-listed by the British Trust for Ornithology as an endangered species. "Grouse are now extinct on Exmoor, and very nearly gone from Dartmoor and most of Wales," said Simon Bostock, of the Moorland Association.
"There are many reasons for this, but they do include a scientific opinion saying that it will be threatened by global warming. Could they eventually become extinct? We just don't know. For moorland owners, there are many great unknowns, but obviously this is a major long-term concern."
Since Victorian times, British grouse have provided the most exciting (and exclusive) game shooting in the world, concentrated on 459 moors, covering 3.5 million acres. Maintaining its habitat is an expensive business, and a day's sport can cost up to £4,000 per head.
One reason game-shots are prepared to pay such exorbitant sums is that grouse provide the ultimate sporting challenge. With a following wind, a covey (or family group) will skim hilltops towards a line of guns at speeds of 90mph. But day-to-day threats to their survival don't just include a well-mounted 12 bore. In mild, damp weather, a parasite called the strongyle worm will quickly reach epidemic levels.
The resulting population crash leads to a five-yearly cycle of boom and bust. In some parts of Britain, average bags have held up in recent decades (and 2004 was a record year). In others, there has been long-term decline.
Last month's Field magazine carried a sobering article carrying the headline: "Can Scottish grouse recover?" It predicted that some moors would soon reach a tipping-point, beyond which it becomes unviable for gamekeepers to carry out predator control and habitat conservation.
Any such result would be an ecological disaster for grouse, and other birds - particularly rare waders - that rely on keepered moors for survival. It would also bring hardship to the rural communities that benefit from income and jobs generated by shooting.
The forgotten victims, however, will be claret-sipping stalwarts of London's finest restaurants. "Grouse are like truffles: if they aren't around, there's nothing you can do about it," said Chris Galvin, the chef-patron of the Michelin-starred Galvin at Windows.
"At the moment it's difficult to be sure how bleak the picture really is, but grouse is off my menu for first fortnight of the season at least. After that, we'll have to wait and see."Reuse content