LONDON (Reuters) - Hunters grab their guns and tweeds, and fancy restaurant fare turns to fowl as the "Glorious Twelfth" of August marks the start of the red grouse shooting season in Britain.
The red grouse, a sub-Arctic bird unique to the British Isles, is notoriously difficult to shoot due to its speed, earning it the nickname "King of Gamebirds".
Grouse shooting, denounced as cruel by animal rights campaigners, attracts visitors to Britain from around the globe and is generally considered a preserve for the wealthy -- a shooting expedition on a moorland estate can cost up to several thousand pounds (dollars) at the start of the season.
"Managing a moor is the best way to lose money - the cost of looking after moorland year round to maintain a healthy population of the birds means hunting grouse really is at the premium end of shooting," Simon Clarke, spokesman for British Association for Shooting and Conservation, told Reuters.
"Grouse can fly at speeds of up to 70 to 80 miles per hour so it really is king of the gamebirds. The birds are truly wild and it's not a shoot for a beginner," he said.
The terminology of grouse shooting is similarly alienating to the uninitiated - "beaters", "butts" and "bag" are terms bandied about by shooters, which in common usage refer to the people who flush out the birds, the designated areas where shooters stand and the total number of birds shot in one day.
Strict hunting regulations limit the time of year during which grouse can be shot in order to conserve the population and ensure the viability of future hunts.
In England, Wales and Scotland, this period lasts from Aug 12 to Dec 10.
But campaigners against grouse shooting say it is a year round issue of cruelty, and is not confined solely to the birds.
Methods of predator control, such as snares, used to protect the population of the wild grouse in areas such as Scotland can harm other kinds of wildlife.
"The snares are horrific. The worst thing is they are not target specific so we often receive reports of dogs and cats or protected species like badgers getting caught in them - it's a really outdated method of predator control," said Louise Robertson, spokeswoman for the League Against Cruel Sports, a British charity which campaigns against bloodsports.
A poll of over 2,000 adults conducted by YouGov on behalf of the charity in May 2011 showed that more that 60 percent of Britons think shooting animals for sport is unacceptable.
Nevertheless, demand for grouse from restaurants can be large. Shooters have started their hunt on the moors and the traditional race to get the grouse down to London in time for dinner service on the evening of Aug 12 has already begun.
"Grouse is a very wild, pure tasting sort of meat. Heather forms the majority of the bird's diet so the meat has a heathery taste - it tastes of the hill," said Ben Weatherall, who runs The Blackface Meat Company and Yorkshire Game, and supplies grouse to restaurants in London.
"I like to put young grouse into the oven for about 25 minutes. You need to serve the meat pink as game is so lean - there's no fat on these birds so it's important not to overcook it."
Game forms a substantial part of the menu at Rules, one of London's oldest restaurants, with dishes available according to the shooting season and where a traditionally cooked grouse can set you back 32 pounds ($52).
"We're expecting the grouse to come in at 7 p.m. this evening. We serve it in a very traditional way - plain roasted on cabbage with lardons and game chips. We have already had people calling up to see if it will be on the menu," Rules Managing Director Ricky McMenemy told Reuters.
"Grouse is a more of a red meat in comparison to other gamebirds. Whereas pheasant is like a gamey chicken, grouse has a very distinct flavor due to the diet and at the beginning of the season this is a very delicate flavor."
And with the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust reporting record numbers of grouse in northern England this year, Clarke said the season looks set to satisfy shooters.
"Despite the fact we've had two very hard winters in a row, the season is looking good this year in northern England and most parts of Scotland." ($1 = 0.614 British Pounds)
Edited by Paul Casciato