To the south, the sky was dark with grouse, which were pouring in by the thousand

The start of another season has emphasised once again the extraordinarily enigmatic nature of the red grouse. Some moors are alive with strong coveys; others, in spite of confident predictions, have practically none, and owners from the Duke of Westminster downwards, have had to cancel projected shooting days left and right. Even after years of scientific research and on-the-hill observation, our understanding of this elusive game bird is still far from perfect.

It is all too well known that grouse populations explode and collapse with bewildering rapidity, and that a bumper year is often followed by a crash. In one area monitored by the Game Conservancy Trust, for instance, the population fell from 650 one August to 19 the next. Equally, it is common knowledge that grouse are strongly territorial in spring, and that individual pairs take pains to stake out their nesting grounds; but then, in late autumn, and particularly in wild weather, the birds congregate into enormous packs many hundred strong.

Why do they do this? And who can explain stories like the one told by the veteran sporting artist, Raoul Millais?

In his youth his great-uncle used to rent Fealar, the high-lying deer forest in Perthshire. There were practically no grouse on the ground, and, as Millais remembers, "you could walk all day for a brace and a half". But as he was returning to the lodge one evening in the autumn of 1919 his companion suddenly exclaimed, "My God - look at that!" To the south, the sky was dark with grouse, pouring in by the thousand to settle on the flats.

Normally, at that time of year, the use of shotguns was banned at Fealar, in case the noise should disturb the deer. But at dinner that night the young men in the party persuaded their host to let them hold a special shoot in the morning. Out went four of them, and got 110 brace. Next day the whole vast swarm of grouse had vanished to the north.

In the 1950s Millais heard of another such mass-migration, this time from the the head keeper at Dunrobin, on the east coast of Sutherland. There, one bitter day in January, when snow was lying and a westerly gale was blowing, so many thousand grouse streamed in to settle in the shelter that they turned the lee flanks of the hills black. Then, to his horror, the keeper saw the whole mass suddenly lift off: the gale caught them and whirled them out over the North Sea, surely to their deaths. Whether the birds were driven by lack of food, or were responding like lemmings to some migratory instinct, he could not tell.

One fact which nobody disputes is that grouse are good for the environment. Because they live mainly on heather shoots, they promote active management of moorland: for grouse to thrive, heather must be burnt regularly, and bracken suppressed, with the result that moors remain in better shape than they would if owners had no special incentive to spend money on maintainance. The control of predators such as foxes and crows also benefits other ground- nesting species such as curlews, larks and pipits.

Another certain fact is that grouse are extremely valuable. This year the going rate for shooting driven birds is pounds 110 per brace, so that a 150-brace day earns more than pounds 15,000. The problem is that, unlike pheasants, partridges or duck, grouse cannot be artificially reared in large numbers, and moor-owners can only aid and abet nature in its annual production.

Gamekeepers do this in various ways. One is to suppress predators, another to keep the heather in good condition. A third is to dose the birds against parasitic threadworms, either by catching them at night and squirting medicine down their throats, or by dotting the moor with heaps of medicated grit, which the grouse eat so that it grinds up the heather shoots in their gizzard. Yet another beneficial move is to reduce infestation by ticks, which are carried by sheep and deer, and breed in bracken. All these measures help. Yet there are other factors which nobody can control, principally the weather. If spring and early summer are cold and wet, breeding success is drastically reduced. One key fact revealed by radio tracking is that, in their first weeks of life, the chicks need a high- protein diet of insects, which their mother furnishes by leading them to boggy patches on the moor. Unless they find plenty of insects, they die.

If global warming means that Scotland and the north of England are going to have better summers, the outlook for grouse will improve. But if, as some people predict, another ice-age is already setting in, Lagaopus scoticus faces a tough future.

Suggested Topics
News
peopleFrankie Boyle responds to referendum result in characteristically offensive style
Arts and Entertainment
Friends is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year
tvSeries celebrates 20th anniversary
Sport
Yaya Touré (left) and Bayern Munich’s Spanish defender Juan Bernat
football
Life and Style
Jack Cooksey goes for the grand unveiling - moments before dropping his new iPhone 6 on the floor
iphone launch
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Life and Style
Life and Style
Customers look at the new iPhones on display at the launch of the new Apple iPhone 6 and iphone 6 plus at the Apple IFC store in Hong Kong
Arts and Entertainment
Liam Neeson said he wouldn't
tv

Liam Neeson's Downton dreams

Sport
Wembley Stadium
footballNews follows deal with Germany
Arts and Entertainment
A spell in the sun: Emma Stone and Colin Firth star in ‘Magic in the Moonlight’
filmReview: Magic In The Moonlight
Voices
voicesApple continually kill off smaller app developers, and that's no good for anyone
Sport
A 'Sir Alex Feguson' tattoo
football

Arts and Entertainment
Ben Whishaw is replacing Colin Firth as the voice of Paddington Bear
tv

Thriller is set in the secret world of British espionage

Life and Style
life

News
ScienceGallery: Otherwise known as 'the best damn photos of space you'll see till 2015'
Life and Style
fashion

Bomber jacket worn by Mary Berry sells out within an hour

Sport
Andros Townsend is challenged by Vladimir Volkov
football
Arts and Entertainment
Rapper Jay Z performs on the Pyramid Stage at Glastonbury in 2008
musicSinger sued over use of the single-syllable sample in 'Run This Town'
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Nursery assistants required across Cambridgeshire

£21000 - £35000 per annum: Randstad Education Cambridge: Nursery assistants re...

SEN 1:1 Teacher

£120 - £130 per day: Randstad Education Chelmsford: Are you a qualified teache...

SEN Teachers and Support Staff

£50 - £130 per day: Randstad Education Chelmsford: Are you an SEN Teacher or L...

English and Media Teacher

£100 - £120 per day: Randstad Education Chelmsford: English & Media Teacher - ...

Day In a Page

Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

The Imitation Game, film review
England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week