Julia McLean provides an historical and cultural context for grouse hunting in Great Britain while also ruminating on the decline of local markets and our disconnect from nature and our food sources.
Last Friday,the 12th of August, was the opening of the grouse hunting season in Great Britain, traditionally known as The Glorious Twelfth. Ptarmigan, a bird vaguely related to grouse, is hunted a bit later. Red Grouse is native to Great Britain and Ireland but is not found on the continent and for the moment is entirely wild.
Although the winter was long and hard and the Red Grouse had to move down from its moorland habitat to find food and many older birds died, the keepers are predicting a glorious season. When we had a hard winter a few years back, the gamekeepers found that the moorlands had been repopulated by the returning hardy grouse as soon as summer came. The breeding pairs did not always return to the same feeding grounds but there was plenty of game on the big hunting estates. Grouse is hardly ever raised as it is quite a difficult task. So, for the most part, numbers fluctuate wildly from year to year. It is one of the most exciting birds to hunt because it is very fast.
Good hunting is forecast, and a hunting party of eight can expect to pay around £50,000 per day! The price of a brace of birds has been estimated at £150-£200! “To be on a grouse moor with a loaded shotgun at dawn on the 12th of August is to know the true meaning of exclusivity” as The Daily Telegraph said in a recent article.
I felt so excluded that I took the French way out and bought my birds at the Foire aux Picots. This is a traditional market in Lisieux that has been held since time immemorial on the first Sunday in August. The stallholders used to sell only small birds for raising and most often people would buy their Christmas Turkeys here and take them home to fatten up for Christmas. They also sell all sorts of hunting birds for people to raise for their local hunts. These birds are sold with clipped wings so that they don’t fly away! You can just sit in your hide on the duck pond and blast them to bits.
There were quite a few rabbits (some huge ones), one goat and some sheep on offer (photos only). There were parakeets, parrots, pigeons and pintails, ducks, mallards, teal, white geese and grey from Toulouse and all sorts of wildfowl and a few guinea pigs. I think these and the parakeets and canaries were for keeping not eating, although the French regularly eat tiny game birds like ortolan, which is a kind of bunting!
The market was heaving with buyers and sightseers. I saw lots of young country couples balancing boxes of birds on the top of the baby buggy, making their way back to their cars. They will have bought a pair of chickens, bantams or biggies, Faverolles, Rhode Island Reds, Bresse or maybe a Goose from Toulouse to fatten up for paté. They might have bought a couple of ducks for their pond or pigeons for their pigeon house. The market seemed smaller than in previous years and there were a lot more stalls selling cheap dreck from China.
The normal Lisieux Farmers’ Market has nearly disappeared under a welter of Health and Safety rules from Brussels and I think this Foire aux Picots will soon be considered a relic from the past. Too many people are becoming disconnected from nature and only see meat in frozen plastic packs. It is cheaper and easier to buy meat that way. I can live without game birds but I would like my duck, goose, turkey or chicken to taste of something other than fish meal and have firm flesh and not that watery wet stuff they mostly seem to have.
Fortunately, I have a few hunting friends so I can occasionally get snipe or woodcock and more often pigeon or pheasant. I have a really good butcher where I buy turkey or goose but always farm raised. There are many ex-pats in France who buy frozen turkey in the UK for Christmas. That’s the power of marketing rather than markets. Shame! We’ll all be eating genetically modified foods soon enough so buy and eat fresh while you can folks.
“Glorious Twelfth” courtesy of www.seriousbirdhunting.com