When I moved to Coastal Georgia, one of the first things I noticed was this region’s enthusiasm for hunting and fishing.
It strikes me that, as with many aspects of life in the USA, these outdoor activities are much more for everyone and less elitist than they traditionally are in the land of my birth. Back in the British Isles, there is an association between the “county set” — generally wealthy landowners who live in the countryside — and what they describe, with their clipped, upper-class British accents, as huntin’, shootin’ and fishin’ … all with a silent ‘g’ on the end.
As we are now into August, my mind has turned to a great British hunting tradition known as “The Glorious Twelfth.” I refer to the date of Aug. 12, which is the beginning of hunting season on the Scottish moors. This tradition dates all the way back to the Game Act of 1773, which established the hunting season for the red grouse as Aug. 12 through Dec. 10. This act of Parliament was brought in to protect game birds from excessive hunting by introducing a closed season and imposed a requirement for hunting licenses. The Game Act was brought in to replace the outdated idea of “Royal Forests” from the 11th century during the reign of William I, which made it illegal to hunt game unless you had permission from the king. As the centuries rolled on, the laws slackened more and more, until they were pretty much useless.
Another reason for the timing of the Game Act was the switch from black-powder guns to smokeless-powder cartridges in the late 18th century, which completely changed hunting red grouse. This new technology allowed aristocrats in England to “drive,” or flush out, birds to hunt on the Glorious Twelfth, and it still is very much seen as the sport of “posh” (elegantly upper class) people.
According to The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (www.rspb.co.uk), the red grouse is a medium-sized game bird with a plump body, a short tail and a lightly hook-tipped bill. It is reddish-brown, with its legs and feet covered in pale feathers. In the United Kingdom, birds breed in the uplands of the north and west of the country and are residents year-round, traveling very little. They are part of the grouse/ptarmigan family, but the population is declining, perhaps linked to diseases and the loss of the heather moorland in which they breed and live.
On a typical hunt for grouse and other game birds, “beaters” walk across the moors, beating the vegetation in order to scare the grouse, which then rocket up from the heather. That allows the hunters to kill and bag these delicious birds. They then are retrieved by a trained bird dog (what Americans usually call a gun dog), such as a springer spaniel or Labrador.
According to www.britishfoodhistory.com, grouse hunts are such huge events and require such a large amount of organization that a single hunt often costs up to the equivalent of about $80,000 per day. They are vital to the local economies of Scotland and Northern England. Scottish chefs, in particular, get very excited about the beginning of grouse-hunting season and compete for accolades for their grouse recipes.
I suppose duck hunting is the closest U.S. equivalent to British grouse hunting, so I leave you with a quote from the great American broadcaster Walter Cronkite: “The perils of duck hunting are great — especially for the duck.”
God bless America!
Francis can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or at www.lesleyfrancispr.com.