In the second part of a series exploring the meat at Borough Market, Louise Gray talks about the charismatic red grouse, which heralds the beginning of the game season
Image (above): John Holdship
The heat shimmers over the heather. I can hear a bumble bee drowsily collecting pollen and the contented cackling of a grouse. In the distance is a mosaic of purple, green and brown stretching all the way to the sea. Then the chaos starts.
The ‘beaters’, stretched out in a line across the moor, start walking slowly towards the guns. The grouse explode out of the heather calling an alarm that sounds like “get back, get back!”. Shots ring out and birds fall in a puff of russet brown feathers and a flash of their smart white spats. This is the start of the grouse shooting season, 12th August, known as ‘the glorious twelfth’.
I witnessed grouse shooting on the Lammermuirs in Scotland as part of the research for my book, The Ethical Carnivore. It is an extraordinary spectacle that only the Victorians could invent. The shooters, all dressed in tweed, stand in a butt dug into the peat and shoot the grouse as they fly over. The birds are known for their fast, ‘jinking’ flight and only a good shot will have a chance of success.
Dandy white feet
At the end of the day the grouse are loaded up and taken to hotels, restaurants and stalls such as Furness Fish Markets at Borough Market. I examined one ready to be transported from the Lammermuirs to the plates of a nearby hotel. The feathers were rich chestnut, mottled dun, except for the dandy white feet and the coral eyebrow that gives the ‘red grouse’ its name. I could feel the fresh shoots of heather in the bird’s crop (the pouch near birds’ throats), that allegedly give the meat its rich flavour.
Grouse are not only famous for their beauty and taste: unlike pheasant or partridge, they are entirely wild. It is impossible for gamekeepers to raise the chicks in captivity—believe me, many have tried.
The only way to create a surplus for shooting is to manage the landscape so that the species thrives. This means creating that lovely purple mosaic you see on British moorland by burning the heather in a cycle. The fresh shoots of young heather created every year provide food for the grouse. It also means controlling predators like crows and foxes so that grouse and other ground-nesting birds such as lapwings and golden plovers can breed.
Rare heather moorland
In the UK, around 1.7 million hectares of land are devoted to grouse shooting, much of it within Sites of Special Scientific Interest. Supporters claim that the shooting industry generates around £150 million per year by maintaining this rare heather moorland, which supports remote rural economies. However, some conservationists argue ‘muirburn’ or ‘burning of the heather’ is out of control, and have raised concerns about the persecution of protected birds of prey.
Up on the Lammermuirs of Scotland the care of the gamekeepers was evident in the blooming heather, the mountain hares and the distant calling of the curlews. I met retirees, students and mums all enjoying a day on the moor. Grouse will always be a controversial meat, intertwined as it is with the politics of managing the British landscape. You have to decide for yourself what your opinion is, but you can be sure that when you do buy grouse, you are not just buying meat—you are supporting a way of life on the heather moorlands of upland Britain.