The Glorious Twelfth: Background Reading

They may call the twelfth of August the "Glorious Twelfth" but it's not so glorious for everyone, and certainly not for the Red Grouse! The date marks the start of the Grouse-Shooting season in Britain, when the huntin'-shootin'-fishin' brigade dust off their green wellies, Barbour jackets and double-barrelled shotguns and set off in their Range Rovers for the moors of northern England and Scotland to commence their annual slaughter.

The Red Grouse (Lagopus lagopus) is a medium-sized game bird found only in the British Isles, being a subspecies of the Willow Grouse of Europe, Asia and North America. It breeds on the heather moors of northern Britain and its numbers are carefully maintained, despite the annual slaughter, by managed breeding and the controlled burning of the heather to provide the variety of stages of growth in the heather which suits the birds best - young shoots for food, mature growth for shelter, and clearings for the chicks and young birds to sun themselves in. The grouse are allowed to breed unmolested and the season's chicks will be fully mature by the beginning of August, when the close season comes to an end on the twelfth of the month.

Many of the grouse moors are in private ownership and bring in a great deal of profit during the shooting season by charging amateurs and enthusiasts alike large sums to sit in pouring rain on bleak hillsides, waiting for the chance to shoot at the birds as they whizz by!

On a typical August Twelfth the shooting party, having stayed overnight in a country house or hotel, will breakfast extremely well on a "full English" before setting out at a respectably late hour of the morning for the day's shooting. The "guns" (as the hunters are called) will make their way up the hillside to butts set well apart in a line across the moor. Butts are open-topped circular stone enclosures, built both to shelter the guns and to hide them from view. Beaters will also form a line across the moor (but without the benefit of any shelter at all!) and, on a given signal, make their way slowly across the heather towards the butts, waving flags, sticks etc., and disturbing the heather to make the grouse fly towards the guns. Grouse fly fast and low and will often not rise high enough to get a good shot until they actually reach the line of butts: the birds are shot (or missed) and those brought down will be retrieved by enthusiastic gundogs.

A day's shoot is as much a social event as a sporting one and the more traditional shoots will picnic in style at lunchtime, before resuming in the afternoon. The birds "bagged" are always counted in "brace" (twos) and in a good day's shooting an amazing number of birds can be killed: the Duke of Westmister's Littledale and Abbeystead estates in the Forest of Bowland still hold the British record for the largest numbers of grouse shot on a single day. On the twelfth August 1915, no less than 2929 grouse were shot by eight guns (that's 1464-and-a-half brace if you want to use the jargon).

The birds will be rushed back south to exclusive restaurants all over England to be sold for inflated prices for the privilege of eating grouse on the twelfth, only a few birds being kept for the shooting party to eat themselves (after all, there'll be another shoot tomorrow, and you can only eat so much grouse...).

An essential element of any kind of rough shooting is the gundog: a well-trained dog is an asset to any sportsman and a pleasure to watch at work. There are a number of gundog breeds seen, some more common than others, and all have their role to play although there is a growing trend towards the general-purpose gundog.

Pointers, as their name suggests, are bred to do just that : point out where the game is hiding. On finding game, they will not charge in and flush it out but will adopt the characteristic "point" for which they are named and will freeze with their head, back and tail forming a line, one front paw raised, indicating with their nose where the game is hidden.

Setters were originally meant to "set" the birds up for the guns, ie. flush them out once the pointers had found them and put them on the wing, a task which these lively dogs relish. Nowadays, however, most setters retrieve too.

Spaniels are very popular as gundogs, particularly the Springer Spaniel. Springers are lively little dogs whose sole aim in life seems to be to rush about, tail wagging furiously, hunting for game which they will then "spring" for the marksmen to shoot. A good Springer will then retrieve the fallen bird and bring it straight back to its handler, across moorland, through scrub, over fences, through water - whatever is in its way will be overcome.

Retrievers are essential to the grouse shooter. The birds will come down in all probability some distance away, across rough country and possible in an inaccessible position, and it is then that a good retriever comes into his own.

From 'Traditions UK' at