A lovely morning (but not for everyone)

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Speed and taste rather than looks are the downfall of the grouse and the reason that 400,000 are shot each year.

The tubby birds have small heads, short necks and feathered toes and have been likened to under-cooked Christmas puddings. But they are perfect competition for shotgun-toting sportsmen and women, for they soar through the air at 60mph and once on the plate are a superb accompaniment to a fine bottle of Claret.

Grouse-shooting begins today, on ``the Glorious Twelfth'' of August, the most high-profile date in the British shooting calendar. The season lasts until 10 December.

The origin of the name grouse is an old French word, griesche, which means "grey" or "speckled". It became modified to grows by Henry VIII in 1531.

The first recorded instance of grouse driving was not until 1805 at Cannon Hall, Barnsley. Thirty years later, drives had become a regular feature of shooting, and by 1843 a bag of 50 brace a day was not uncommon.

The term "Glorious Twelfth" was coined in the 1880s, after the Government made a law banning grouse shooting until that date. Young birds born in May were not considered good sport before then.

The last good season for grouse was 1975. In 1977, stocks crashed and it was not until 1981 that there was a small recovery.

The average annual bag in Scotland is 200,000, and 400,000 for Britain as a whole, although the number of grouse shot on managed moors has fallen by an average of 40 per cent over the past 40 years.

The best years for red grouse were 1912, 1934, 1963, 1965 and 1974 and the worst was 1917, after the parasitic gutworm Trichostrongylus tenuis, poor weather and other diseases took their toll.

There are 459 grouse moors in Britain, covering 4.1 million acres. Last year, many landowners did not allow shooting in order to conserve stocks and continue to allow them to regenerate.

Although blood sports enthusiasts have been flinching recently at a wave of popular and political disapproval of their hobby, the atmosphere among grouse shooters is one of cheery optimism this year.

Janet George, spokeswoman for the British Field Sports Society, said: "It looks as if it's going to be the best season for five years."

But the shooters' relief is tinged with concern for the future: "The Government has no understanding of field sports and are threatening to review shotgun certificates. Soon it could be only the police and criminals who have guns."

Dick Playfair, spokesman for the Scottish Landowners' Federation, said: "We are optimistic for a good season this year. It's still an expensive sport but it's not the elitist sport it once was. The image of tweeds and privilege is dated."

But at pounds 500 a day, some may beg to differ. At the bottom end of the scale, an informal day out costs pounds 45 a brace and typically one is likely to net 10 to 15 brace a day. A driven shoot, however, demands more than pounds 100 a brace and between 60 to 100 brace can be expected. Some prefer to pay a flat fee of pounds 6,000 a day.

Game shooting is worth pounds 80m a year to Scotland, pounds 30m more than the Edinburgh Festival. Many of those who grouse shoot are foreigners and as little as 10 per cent are Scottish.

Although it is predominantly a male sport, women can be spotted on the moors shooting and helping with the loading. As one woman put it: "If you do badly men despise you. If you shoot well they hate you."