THE City can hardly be short of people who consider themselves pretty crack shots when it comes to hitting clay pigeons or scoring the odd pheasant on a hospitality jaunt to the countryside. But true game shooting aficionados will say that you really can’t claim expertise until you’ve mastered the art of downing the fastest and most difficult bird of them all – the red grouse.<br /><br />Today’s the day that moorlands across the north of England and the Scottish Highlands will be teaming with activity as the grouse shooting season – and with it the game season in general – opens for the summer. The Glorious 12th was actually decreed by parliament back in 1831 as the start of the hunting season, and, as its name suggests, it carries with it all the romance and sense of ceremony of a great British tradition. Not the least reason for its elevated status is the fact that the bird itself, a native of the British Isles, is so very tricky to hit. Downing one is rather more of an achievement than knocking a slow-gliding pheasant out of the sky.<br /><br />“They fly like rockets, coming at you low and fast,” says hunting enthusiast William Asprey, owner of Mayfair’s luxury goods shop William & Son. “They’re very wary, so there can be a lot of waiting, and if you’re not on your toes you can miss your opportunity. It’s incredibly exciting and exhilarating because the grouse are so fast and unpredictable.”<br /><br /><strong>BIG BUSINESS</strong><br />Asprey describes grouse shooting as the connoisseur’s game shoot, and he should know. So keen is he on the sport of shooting that he opened a sister shop next door to his Mount Street premises dedicated to selling all the clobber and kit needed for a day bagging game in the countryside, from tweed and wellies to bespoke guns worth tens of thousands of pounds. A peek inside the shop is evidence enough of just how seriously the sport is taken, and just how big business it can be.<br /><br />That’s the other reason for the blast of excitement that will echo round the dales and valleys like a shotgun volley today, as the rural community bursts into life – as much as anything, the Glorious 12th is a celebration of countryside life. There are around 135 grouse moors in England alone, and the economic health of the surrounding localities is in many places dependent upon the shooting season, when moneyed outsiders will stump up large amounts of cash for the chance to bag the elusive red grouse. Last year a report by the British Association for Shooting and Conservation estimated that grouse shooting was worth £240m a year to the Scottish economy alone.<br /><br />“It’s part of a way of life and when you go up there you’re suddenly part of a very close-knit community whose existence revolves around this,” says Ed Bromet, chairman of the Moorlands Association, the body that represents the moorland economy. “People from the villages help with beating, sheep farmers get involved, local hotels and shops do their best business, it’s what they’re there for.”<br /><br />A normal shooting party of nine guns can pay upwards of £20,000 for a day’s grouse shooting, and even if you have the readies, getting on a shoot isn’t that easy. Some moors are leased to agents who organise hunting parties, others operate on a completely private basis and getting on a shoot will simply depend on having the right connections. Sometimes you’ll find places on grouse shoots available through auctions, but if you want to get out on the grouse moors this summer and haven’t yet got it organised, forget about it – shoots generally get booked up a year in advance.<br /><br /><strong>WORTH EVERY PENNY</strong><br />In fact, it’s about as exclusive a sporting experience as you can come across, but enthusiasts will say that it’s worth every penny. After all, it’s rather different to clomping over a field waiting for a pheasant to hove into view. Grouse moors sit in the highest parts of some of the country’s most dramatic landscapes – the Pennines and Yorkshire Dales are particularly rich in heather-covered moorland. Guns position themselves in butts – stone-built dugouts – as teams of beaters drive the birds towards them from a mile away or more. Grouse are ground-nesting birds that live entirely wild – unlike pheasant and partridge, whose populations are often controlled – congregating in coveys of up to 30 or so birds. When they’re driven into the air by the beaters and hit the winds sweeping over the high ground, they can zip across the moorland at speeds of 80mph or more.<br /><br /><strong>SENSE OF ANTICIPATION</strong><br />“There’s a great sense of anticipation when everyone congregates at the lodge for breakfast,” says Bromet, who will be taking shooting parties up to his own moor today at Bingley in North Yorkshire. “When you get up to the very tops of the hills, surrounded in purple heather and with the dales spread out before you in the sunlight – and then with these birds coming at you like bullets – there’s absolutely nothing like it.”<br /><br />On a major shoot, participants may carry two guns, with an assistant standing by to reload them – speed is of the essence, and some people choose guns for grouse shooting with specially shortened barrels, which are easier for swinging across the sky at pace.<br /><br />In the busy month following the Glorious 12th some of the best moors will see as many as four or five days’ shooting a week, as parties pile in from around the world to take part in a hunt that is unique to Britain. It’s the most expensive time to shoot and, if they’re lucky, they’ll have glorious weather too. According to Bromet, however, the best shooting is to be had later in the season since the coveys form into much larger packs as the weeks of shooting progress, creating bigger clusters of targets. <br /><br /><strong>GROUSE SHOOTING’S WELLBEING</strong><br />Even with more to shoot at, standing atop a northern hill in mid-November amidst freezing winds and stinging rain might not be even the most enthusiastic gun’s cup of tea. Luckily the locals will still head up there, because it’s essential to the sport’s wellbeing – too many birds left behind at the end of the season can mean poor shooting the following year, as disease can set into populations over the winter. In past years, some moors have found themselves affected by poor weather during August bringing smaller bags for shoots, with serious consequences for the subsequent season.<br /><br />“It’s nature that almost entirely controls whether the season’s going to be good,” says Asprey. “Good grouse shooting is a moor that has large numbers of birds and that will vary.”<br /><br />For those who own and run moors, a poor season’s shooting and the ensuing loss of revenue can have critical implications – the moor must still be restored and maintained for the following year, with the local economy dependent upon it. Luckily, the sport is not yet being heavily affected by the recession – while some other game shoots are expected to suffer from a shortage of corporate bookings this year, grouse shooting’s devotees appear to be rich enough and passionate enough to stick with it, and booking volumes are strong. Pre-season counts suggest that, in most areas, numbers of birds are healthy too.<br /><br />“It should be a good year,” says Bromet. “It’s one of the most thrilling activities you can do, and you can’t do it anywhere else. So long as there are local communities to manage the moors and run the sport, people will keep coming.”<br /><br />Let the game shooting commence.<br /><strong><br />GAME SEASON </strong> WHEN TO HUNT WHAT<br />BIRD DATES<br />Grouse August 12 to December 10<br />Ptarmigan August 12 to December 10<br />Common Snipe August 12 to January 31<br />Black Grouse August 20 to December 10<br />Partridge September 1 to February 1<br />Coot/Moorhen September 1 to January 31<br />Golden Plover September 1 to January 31<br />Duck (inland) September 1 to January 31<br />Duck (below spring high water mark) September 1 to February 20<br />Goose (inland) September 1 to January 31<br />Goose (below spring high water mark) September 1 to February 20<br />Capercaillie October 1 to January 31<br />Woodcock October 1 to January 31<br />Pheasant October 1 to February 1<br /><br /><strong>GROUSE MOORS </strong> THE BEST PLACES TO SHOOT<br /><br /><strong>WEMMERGILL MOOR, COUNTY DURHAM</strong><br />Sold by the Earl of Strathmore to pub tycoon Michael Cannon in 2006, shooting records for the moor date back 134 years. Prince Charles and King Juan Carlos of Spain are among those who have shot grouse here.<br /><br /><strong>HOLWICK, COUNTY DURHAM</strong><br />The neighbouring moorland to Wemmergill moor, lying in an area of outstanding Natural Beauty, is also prime grouse shooting <br />territory.<br /><br /><strong>WEST ALLENHEADS, NORTHUMBERLAND</strong><br />The 8,000 acre West Allenheads Estate, owned by the 4th Viscount Allendale, produces some of the most prolific grouse shooting around, and also offers mixed-bag wild bird days on the edges of the moors.<br /><br /><strong>KNARSDALE, NORTHUMBERLAND</strong><br />Over 10,000 acres of prime grouse-shooting moorland near the Cumbria-Northumberland border.<br /><br /><strong>BRANSDALE, NORTH YORKSHIRE</strong><br />Bordering the North York Moors National Park, the remote Bransdale Moor was once part of the estate of the historic stately home, Duncombe Park.