There have been many column inches devoted to red grouse over the last week - or rather where to shoot them, how to cook them, who's selling them and why some think it's all quite inglorious - but precious little has been said about the birds themselves. And that's a travesty, because our native red grouse is truly glorious.
Let's start with their stunning plumage. The male is a brilliant bronze reminiscent of a late autumn sunset, the female more golden bronze, yet the intricate markings adorning each feather render both invisible among the heather. The only chink in this otherwise perfect camouflage is the male's crimson eyebrows, an essential part of his breeding display and rather fetching to the human eye too.
Having spent many hours on the North Yorkshire moors trying to catch a glimpse of these elusive beauties - a much more difficult and skillful task without a line of beaters driving them towards you - I am astounded by how few Brits give them even a second thought, including birders.
Mention grouse and the conversation quickly turns to 'sexier' birds killed on grouse moors such as hen harriers or golden eagles, yet the red grouse is uniquely British. Unlike pheasants and partridges, foreign species farmed in Britain specifically to be shot for sport, the red grouse is not only native to these lands but a unique subspecies of Europe's willow grouse that occurs only in Britain.
If good looks and national pride don't inspire respect for the red grouse, their admirable family values should win anyone over. The male grouse diligently guards the female for three weeks in spring while she incubates their eggs. When their six to 12 chicks hatch, the male helps the female feed and protect their young for several weeks, an uncommon level of dedication for a father in the animal kingdom. And what does he get for his efforts?
Hundreds of thousands of grouse will be blasted out of the sky over the coming weeks; most frightened from their heather shelter by a line of beaters who shout and stomp across the moor to scare the birds towards waiting guns.
Many grouse will be wounded, not killed, and suffer a slow death. Some may end up on a dinner plate, but many will simply be dumped. The thrill for most shooters is in the killing, not the eating, so far more birds are shot than can practicably be eaten. A massive loss of life, and enormous suffering, all for a 'good day's sport'.
We wouldn't treat our garden birds this way, why is it acceptable for birds we call game? Especially one so glorious.Suggest a correction