As the Glorious Twelfth—the August day that marks the start of the shooting season in Britain—passes for another year, we need to talk about grouse.
There's no denying red grouse, the first game bird in the crosshairs of the shooting season, is a showstopper. The fastest game bird in the world, only a deadeye dick can take them out mid-flight and, plucked and plonked on the plate, the sight of the mauve meat always sets eyes and knives glinting. August in any respectable British heritage restaurant and they're top bill.
That, of course, is the meat eater's rhetoric. Away from the menu, these curious little creatures carry a controversy few birds incite.
"Reducing sensitive birds to living targets for the perverse pleasure of gunning them down is as sick as drowning puppies in a lake," Gordon Miller of PETA told me. "The vast majority of the British public objects to gratuitous violence and it's time to call out the small minority of callous individuals who get their kicks from hurting and killing animals for what they are—serial killers."
Expect more of the same in the coming months—and beyond. Earlier this year, we reported on the growing popularity of venison and a 9 percent sales growth in the "game sector" overall between 2013 and 2014. Shaun Searley, head chef at The Quality Chop House has seen this rise in demand for grouse firsthand.
"In the past ten years, people have become way more aware of all things food," he says. "More people are eating out and are being more adventurous with cooking at home. And with the help of the vast array of food related TV programs and social media, people are just way more clued up. So it's no surprise game is on most peoples list."
Reducing sensitive birds to living targets for the perverse pleasure of gunning them down is as sick as drowning puppies in a lake.
But as demand increases, is grouse shooting ethical in terms of sustainability?
"Yes it is, provided we shoot responsibly," Searley says, suggesting we put in place quotas for each species of game, as we do with fish. "If we consume in moderation, we can both enjoy the product and preserve the heritage. I would advise anyone wanting to retail, buy, or cook game to understand the provenience first."
Interestingly, it's not the plight of the grouse that worries conservationists but rather the potential demise of other birds, particularly birds of prey such as the red kite and the hen harrier. The issue was highlighted in a 2014 report by the Ethical Consumer Research Association (ECRA) and, as a result of subsequent protest pressure, an open letter from Mark Avery, the former conservation director of the RSPB, to Marks & Spencers chief executive Marc Bolland. The house wife's favourite supermarket chain took grouse off its shelves soon after.
This year, it's a similar story, with the League Against Cruel Sports calling on top restaurants across England and Wales to stop serving grouse. It's similarly concerned with the "massive bycatch," which comes with intensive grouse estate management.
According to the charity, 1.7m animals are caught in snares set out to "protect" game birds from predators each year, yet these animals include what they call "non-target species" such as badgers, hares, cats, and dogs. Alongside birds of prey, the League also says Mountain Hares are at risk of extinction in the Scottish Highlands and that claims that the hares pass disease to the grouse are unfounded. What's more, the ingestion of lead ammunition from used shotgun cartridges kills "millions of swans and other waterfowl" and causes "massive contamination problems in the environment."
In a statement, Tom Quinn, director of campaigns for the League, told MUNCHIES: "Millions of other animals and birds are deliberately killed to protect the grouse shooting industry. The burning of grouse moors is devastating the environment, and millions of tons of lead shot are left to poison the countryside. Add to that the fact that taxpayers are subsidising the shooting industry [as revealed in this Guardian report last year] to the tune of several million pounds per year, and it all adds up to the Glorious Twelfth being nothing more than a shallow PR attempt to hide what is an atrociously outdated and unsustainable practice."
But it's not all about the birds.
Andy Waugh, founder of the Wild Game Company, his family's 30-year game-butchering business which has just opened its first permanent restaurant Mac & Wild in London, says he's aware of the moral dilemmas surrounding game shooting but that we also need to think about the local communities relying on the shooting industry to survive.
"Where I'm from in Inverness, if some people come up and spend a few thousand pounds shooting, they're going to rent a house, they'll go to the pub, they'll buy food," he says. "It's a much needed revenue stream. People don't see the real life behind it. There are people's jobs at stake, little villages with great communities that are dying."
He does however admit that there are "many moral and ethical" views on hunting and shooting and that he doesn't "have time for people that want to go out and shoot hundreds of birds" just for the sport.
"At the end of the day there is an animal that gets killed—you have to have respect and understanding [but] the Glorious Twelfth is the start of Autumn for me and my family, the start of making money again," Waugh says. "For me, it probably means a bit more than most."