The bell heather and tormentil is in full bloom on the Highland hillside. But the carpets of ling heather which usually coat the moors are only just coming into flower, and the grouse are late this year too.
'The Glorious Twelfth' – 12 August – sees the start of grouse shooting season, as decided by the 1831 Game Act. The parliament act was put in place to ensure that the game birds were left alone over the summer breeding months, allowing the chicks to hatch and learn to fend for themselves before shooting season starts.
Usually, the hens nest in late spring. If everything goes to plan, the eggs take 3-4 weeks to hatch meaning that the chicks are a couple of months old by the time The Twelfth comes round. Only nature doesn't always stick to calendar dates.
Speak to anybody north of the border, and they'll tell you that this year's spring frosts carried on well into 'summer,' and the past few months have been riddled with heavy gales and torrential rain. It's not good news for the grouse. "If a hen's nest is washed away, then she will relay," explains Annette Cole, Taste of Game development manager. "It can delay the season for anything up to 21 days or a month."
Once the eggs have hatched, it's still not plain sailing. "Grouse respond well to warm, humid springs because it brings on the ground insects which they feed on," says Cole. Not only was there a low insect yield this year, but heavy rain or badly-timed hail storms easily wipe-out tiny, downy grouse chicks.
Throughout the year, game keepers will do what they can to make the moor as accommodating as possible for the grouse: controlling predators, burning swathes of heather to encourage young shoots for the birds to eat, and even herding sheep across the moor so they pick up the tick in their fleeces (they are later dipped), rather than sucking the life out of grouse chicks.