FOR those whose livelihoods depend on the red grouse, today could either make or break their entire working year.
• Gamekeeper Alex Hogg and his dog Hamish make final preparations for the start of the grouse season on an estate near Peebles Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images
The Glorious Twelfth, the start of the red grouse season, comes amid "cautious optimism" among estates and new evidence that it is a multi-million-pound industry for Scotland.
A new report says grouse shooting generates 23.3 million for the economy and supports more than 1,000 jobs. But it also points out the number of birds is falling and estates need support to help manage the heather habitat and control predators.
The report, by the Fraser of Allander Institute for the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust (GWCT), says the "economic resilience" of grouse shooting is being tested, with just under half as many birds shot in Scotland in 2009 as in 2001.
It says in recent years, 41 per cent of estates have recovered all the costs of producing grouse, compared to just 1 per cent in the early 1990s. However, in order to maintain investment in heather-moor management, all forms of shooting have had to become more expensive, with the average fee for a brace rising from 91 in 2005 to 131 last year.
Stewart Dunlop, the report's author, said: "With the Scottish environment secretary arguing that Scottish natural heritage tourism is vital to the Scottish economy, this report strongly suggests that Scottish policymakers should engage with the grouse industry to secure and potentially increase its contribution to the Scottish economy."
Dr Adam Smith, the GWCT's Scottish director, said it was a "grave concern" that grouse numbers appeared to be under continuing pressure from predation, disease and afforestation. He said: "The GWCT is working with the Scottish Gamekeepers Association and other bodies to ensure that policies and tools are developed by government and agencies that ensure grouse shooting can continue."
The report looked at data from 2005-09 and a questionnaire sent to a sample of 304 upland estates representing nearly 950,000 acres - 70 per cent of the total moor area.
It estimates that every job in grouse shooting supports a further 1.2 jobs elsewhere in Scotland and every 1 paid in shooting supports a further 86p of wage payments in other areas.
Douglas McAdam, chief executive of landowners' organisation the Scottish Rural Property and Business Association, said the potential for expanding the benefits from grouse shooting was considerable, with at least 50 per cent of heather moorland in Scotland not yet seeing the investment associated with driven grouse shooting.
"We hope government recognises the need for policies which support habitat management, predator and disease control and for legislation that works to encourage such inward investment in the future", he said.
The trust's long-term monitoring suggests there are currently about one million red grouse in Scotland. However, the population is not evenly distributed, with moors in parts of Tayside and Moray struggling to maintain populations, while the prospects in Angus, the Cairngorms and the Monadhliath mountains are similar to or better than last year at most sites. Experts say the severe winter did not have as dramatic an impact on red grouse as initially thought.
Land and estate agency Strutt and Parker says the outlook for this year's season is relatively upbeat, although high ground moors are expected to fare better than the lower ones.
Robert McCulloch, an expert in sporting estates at the firm, said anecdotal reports suggested some grouse populations simply disappeared during the winter, with the Lammermuirs of East Lothian and Berwickshire and the hills of Strathdon in Aberdeenshire among the areas badly affected.
The Scottish Government said it recognised "the contribution the Scottish shooting industry makes to the economy of Scotland and the conservation benefits that it can also provide", adding: "It is positive that the shooting industry, together with other attractions, continues to draw visitors to the countryside."