It has apparently been a good grouse year, particularly in the Lammermuirs and the Angus glens.
Put another way, it has been a bad year to be a grouse in those parts as thousands more have been shot than any year since the 1930s. But a good year for shoot-owners as an estimated £30 million was brought in to the rural economy between the so-called Glorious Twelfth of August start of the shooting and the end of the season on December 10.
As good financial news is rare at present, that £30million will be welcome, even if most of it goes to the estates charging £16,000 to £20,000 a day to parties of guns hoping to shoot at least 200 brace (400 birds). The owners will argue that sort of return is needed because of the investment they have made in grouse moor management, wages paid to gamekeepers and other staff, and back-up services such as hospitality.
They can also claim, as farmers do, about public support payments for agriculture, that there is a trickle-down effect for the local economy as the grouse-shooting income is used to pay local tradesmen for work done. Quite often local hotels and restaurants and shops also benefit from shooters, many from abroad including France, Germany and America, spending during their stay.
So all in all, shooting thousands of small, fast birds as they speed across open moorland in a blur of wings – a skill not everyone has – is a good thing. It is also a pastime only available in the UK, practiced since royalty made it fashionable in the mid 1800s when competitive wealthy Victorians reached astonishing one-day totals for a single gun of up to 500 brace.
There were obviously more grouse about, coming more thickly, as claims have been recorded of three birds with one shot. Moving on a century or so, grouse numbers have declined and been harder to maintain because of disease and infection, and the interminable argument about whether sheep grazing should be allowed to share a moor with grouse.
But two hard winters in succession seem to have helped grouse health, probably by killing off large numbers of the parasitic worms that are a major problem, with 2010 a good year and 2011 now officially the best for almost 80 years on some of Scotland’s 450 moors.
Reports of the record bags provoked some interesting exchanges on the email comment sections that are now part of almost every newspaper. These were mainly between those who see grouse shooting as something for bloodthirsty tweedy toffs on land that was acquired by questionable means in the first place, and those who insist that they are not toffs or landed gentry, but are prepared to pay to test their shooting skills against one of the hardest targets to hit.
As usual, exchanges like that generate more heat than light and I was disappointed by the general standard of grammar and spelling. But I suspect that if birds or animals are being killed then the management and conduct of the average grouse shoot probably compares well with, say, a French wild boar hunt – which I’ve watched close up – or American moose or duck shooting which I’ve seen on TV. There is also less chance of one of the participants being shot accidentally on a grouse moor than in a French wood or American forest.
It depends on your point of view whether that is a good thing or not.
Changes to the farm subsidy system eight years ago meant that payments were no longer made per head on the number of cattle or sheep on a farm. Instead, a farmer started to receive a single annual payment based on previous total subsidy as long as the farm was maintained in good agricultural and environmental order.
There were several results of this. One was the unforeseen and unwelcome glitch in the rules that retired or non-active farmers – the so-called slipper brigade – could continue to receive subsidies while new entrants couldn’t qualify for a payment. Another was a lively trade in subsidies attached to non-productive land; some farmers, behaving like bond or share traders, amassed subsidies worth more than £1million a year by shrewd investment.
As with so many things to do with the European Union’s common agricultural policy, the changes weren’t meant to have that effect. But they did.
However, some experts also forecast that the move away from headage payments would mean a rapid decline in sheep and cattle numbers, especially in the hills and uplands and remote areas that make up much of Scotland and the north of England. If cattle or sheep weren’t needed to qualify for subsidy, why make the effort to look after them?
According to the latest report by the SAC, eight years on, that hasn’t happened. Sheep numbers in the north and west of Scotland have gone down, but that has been balanced by more being kept in the east and south of the country. Cattle numbers stabilised, and in the first six months of this year have increased.
No mystery about why – market prices for sheep and cattle have generally been good throughout this year. Long may that continue, say livestock farmers, whatever happens to discussions on the future of the common agricultural policy in the next year or so.