To Eat a Grouse

[You think The Jungle an exclusive place … get a load of this. I’d get a kick out of hearing what some of our resident sports think of this. This is from SB SM]

BLACKADDER: ‘Basically, it’s a right old mess. Toffs at the top, plebs at the bottom, and me in the middle making a fat pile of cash out of both of them.’

MRS MIGGINS: ‘Oh, you’d better watch out, Mr. Blackadder; things are bound to change.’

~ Blackadder the Third (Curtis and Elton)

September 2020: Covid infection rates are rising and the testing system is collapsing. In Downing Street, Prime Minister Boris Johnson is signing off a new law, the ‘rule of six’, while thumbing a fuck-off wallpaper catalogue. His mobile rings. Aware of the new rule’s ramifications, a familiar voice pleads with the Old Etonian (OE) to make an exemption, reminding him of favours owed. Days later, a broken nation is informed that it will become illegal to gather with seven or more people. Except, that is, for the friends and owners of grouse moors.

It’s likely we will never know the name of the mysterious caller, even though only 150 people in Britain own a grouse moor. Satirical magazine The Fence handily compiled a list of suspects, notably (Lord) Harry Dalmeny (OE), who hosted a trigger-happy Prime Minister at a pheasant shoot in 1999. Nevertheless, this list remains educated guesswork, as many grouse moor owners now hide their identities with trusts and offshore companies, although a 2016 investigation by ‘Who owns England?’ found that an astonishing 550,000 acres of land, an area the size of Greater London, is covered by grouse moor: for context, that is roughly 4 per cent of the landmass of England.

Game, land and power have always been intertwined. The story starts around 1500 BC, when members of the Egyptian royal family began rearing antelopes, gazelle and elephants to kill for pleasure rather than protein. It was the Greeks, however, who first got the taste for cultivated gamebirds including black grouse, pleasingly named L.tetrix. The Romans also got in on the act, building house-sized aviaries or ‘ornithones’ to breed and eat birds whilst listening to them tweet. Simultaneously, the first laws were being codified to ensure that the landowning upper classes got their grouse. Roman law dictated that ‘only that which is within my power may be mine’, while the toffs in Germania similarly dictated that only ‘he who is authorised to bear arms may freely capture animals’.

But, as with all good ideas about keeping the great unwashed out of your backyard, dissent from the lower classes was only a few centuries away. In the late 1780s, peasants in Germany overturned laws about game hunting, enabling them to grab a weapon and go and bag what they liked. (The result was carnage; nearly all game stocks in these areas were decimated.) In Britain, the Game Act of 1831 technically allowed anyone with a game licence to shoot within the boundaries of a ‘season’, designed to protect the species in question, but the cost of the licence was so expensive that it inculcated grouse hunting as the preserve of British landowners and the upper classes. Shooting grouse became a ‘sport’ rather than an essential means of preserving life through food. If anything, technology was created to make grouse hunting even more difficult; earlier guns were lit by taking a match to a slow-smouldering piece of string, like one of those comedy bombs in a Wile E. Coyote cartoon – hopeless for a bird that flies up to 70 miles an hour.

It was around the eve of the twentieth century that the modern version of grouse shooting found its footing with the creation of ‘driven grouse’, where dogs and lowly paid ‘beaters’ would startle grouse towards a line of eight shooters, concealed in ‘butts’ – stone dugouts traditionally made of stone and trimmed by heather and moss. This innovation, fuelled by cheap human labour, enabled vast amounts of birds to be shot. During this pre-war period, the big shoots would have been owned almost entirely by royals and the peerage – and when I say big, I mean big. In 1888 Lord Walsingham (OE) personally killed 1,070 grouse in a single day on Blubberhouses Moor in Yorkshire – a rate of one every 13 seconds. On 12 August 1915, eight guns brought down the biggest bag in history, shooting a truly unfathomable 2,929 birds on the Earl of Sefton’s (OE) Abbeystead estate in Lancashire. 

But to truly understand grouse’s link with power, you have to go to White’s, in St James’s. Founded in 1693, White’s is the oldest club of its kind in London. (You have probably never been, and likely never will.) From the 1780s the club became the unofficial headquarters of the Tory party, while also becoming one of the most fashionable spots to place a bet – one of the most infamous wagers recorded was Lord Alvanley’s 1816 flutter of £3,000, or £299,000 in today’s money, betting that a particular raindrop would beat another down the club’s bow window. Since then, White’s has retained its tradition as a home from home for gentlemen, with members such as Prince Charles and Prince William (OE), as well as Tory grandees like Sir Nicholas Soames (OE). David Cameron (OE), whose late father Ian (OE) was Chairman of White’s, famously resigned his membership as he didn’t feel the club represented a modern Conservative Party.

The edifice of White’s

Most of the grouse shot in England has historically gone to clubs like White’s and the other St James’s clubs. Their names are Wodehousian – Boodle’s, Brooks’s, Buck’s Club, the Carlton Club, the East India Club, Pratt’s, the Reform Club (where the fictitious Phileas Fogg started his journey around the world in 80 days) and the Turf Club, to name a few – each of them with an associated interest (the Turf’s, for example, is horseracing) and an infantile rivalry that mimics the inter-house competitions of their former private schools. The one thing all of them have typically had in common is that women were not allowed, unless to clean or cook, a quality they share with the most famous public (i.e. private) school for boys in the country: Eton College.

Eton, clubland and grouse moors form an unbreakable triangle. An Eton education provides an infinite range of foundational courses essential to accessing both the British upper-middle class (BUM) and also private members’ clubs like White’s. (There is an important distinction to be made here: unlike aristocrats who are born with a title and land, entrance to the BUM can simply be achieved via a top private education and an extremely well-paid job.) At Eton, teenagers can golf, polo, beagle (hunt with dogs) and shoot, either with rifles (think snipers) or shotguns (think grouse shooting and bank jobs). Nothing’s off limits. Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall (OE) famously bludgeoned a duck to death with a brick before roasting it in an orange sauce while studying there. It really should be of no wonder that Conservative prime ministers, 20 out of 55 went to Eton, govern this country without the slightest consideration of restraint – or that so-called, self-proclaimed ‘gentlemen’ could design spaces that prevented their own mothers from eating lunch with them. ‘Clubland’ was – and is – an extension of childhood: a place where women perform domestic tasks and men are free to behave as they wish without being ‘nagged’ by ‘she who must be obeyed’. 

In this respect, the food on offer is similar to restaurants that fulfil the ‘taste of home’ aspect for a diaspora: here, clubs are reminiscent of both private/boarding school and home/nursery (when my father went to Eton, he could bring back a pheasant and they would cook it for him in the tuck shop). For the uninitiated, upon first eating grouse, your primal brain might reject the taste and suggest that it might be a reasonable idea to projectile vomit. Yet I have the same connection to grouse that Grace Dent has to Angel Delight or Tom Parker Bowles (OE) has to the Duchess of Cornwall’s roasts. Decades on from my first taste, I still have an irrational longing for that heady blend of faecal and renal, its very fibres hewn from the kind of things Jay Rayner long ago trademarked as ‘the good stuff’: heather, bilberry and air so clean you want to lick it.

But the taste of grouse, like club rules, is something that divides people – those in the know versus those who are not. In an article for Eater London, food writer George Reynolds (OE) calls grouse a symbol of ‘conservatism, asymmetry and exclusion… suggestive of the things the self-appointed guardians of England’s so-called national identity hold dear: the consolidation of land and wealth into the hands of the very few.’ It seems in both production and consumption, grouse will never stop dividing palates and social strata alike.     

Boris Johnson: pheasant plucker Image: CAMERA PRESS/Andrew Crowley

On 27 October 1986, the BUM exploded. Prior to this date, the major financial institutions in the UK had to be majority-owned by British shareholders. These shareholders all happened to be ‘PLU’, aka ‘People Like Us’. Margaret Thatcher, however, didn’t like this one bit, as she believed in free markets and meritocracy. So she and the then-Chancellor of the Exchequer, Nigel Lawson, instigated what is known as ‘Big Bang’, which broke up the fat-cat public schoolboy cabal and introduced electronic trading, new regulators and foreign ownership.

Before the Big Bang, clubland was the bastion of well-connected gentlemen who made significant amounts of money running the Empire but also the banks, insurance companies, the church and major educational institutions. Grouse hunting served critical functions for the BUM as well as the aristocracy. ‘Firstly, it allows you to show off how good your own shooting season has been, which is basically a way of showing off your wealth’, one clubland member tells me. ‘Secondly, it shows how many other clubs you’ve been invited to, if you can compare the grouse at White’s to that of rival club Boodles. This is a way of showing off your popularity.’ For the aristocracy, inviting the BUM to both rent and shoot grouse on their land and bring it back to their London clubs was necessary for their estates to survive.

Yet the ‘ghastly Americans’ – who bought up all the legacy finance houses – had a very different idea of what working life meant. Long liquid lunches with grouse, claret and port at Rules were eschewed in favour of the Pret sandwich at your desk. Gone were cigars and brandy; in came cocaine, snorted hastily in cubicles. But the Americans didn’t care, as productivity rose, and so did their profits. The knock-on effect for the BUM was profound. For generations they’d had both power and money – but, while there was an initially thrilling payday for the partners forced to sell off their stakes, this capital has been significantly eroded.

The nub of this problem is that, without the BUM funding grouse moors (and the gentlemen’s clubs that buy the grouse to sell in their dining rooms), the future of the sport is under threat. It’s not just that the modern management of grouse is steeped in risk (last year, a particularly frosty spring meant that entire broods of grouse were lost) or that environmental concerns (both for the moorland and the grouse’s natural predators) mean that there ever-growing range of vocal alliances and charities whose sole purpose is to see an end to grouse hunting. It’s also that if you want to shoot a grouse, the cost ranges from £2,000 up to £15,000 for the very best days. If you want to buy a grouse moor, you’re looking at a cost of roughly £4,000 per brace (pair) of grouse, multiplied by the average amount of brace, averaged over a ten-year period. In plain English, an average of 1,600 birds (800 brace per year) is going to set you back £3.2 million. In reality, the good shoots are bought for considerably more than that. In addition, a basic estate will need a couple of gamekeepers a year (£30,000 each) as well as houses for them to live in, Land Rovers to drive and staff to run the main estate’s lodge (circa £100,000 a year). On the shoot day itself you will need thirty beaters (£25 a day each), loaders (£90 per day) and cooks to make breakfast, elevenses (bullshot and sausage rolls), lunch, tea and dinner (another £100,000 a year).

This is why despite having controlled grouse shooting for more than a century, the peerage – Dukes, Earls and Lords – now own only half of the UK’s ten biggest moors. The new reality is that the biggest names in grouse production are not landed gentry but those whose fortunes were made possible by the Big Bang. Aside from Harry Dalmeny, two other possible candidates for the mysterious Boris Johnson phone call are Jeremy Herrmann, whose hedge fund is named after a cannibalistic trout (and who also attempted to offset his grouse moor loss as a tax deductable item), and Carphone Warehouse co-founder David Ross, who gifted a Caribbean holiday to the Prime Minister. Both are fresh faces in the sport, having made their own fortunes rather than inheriting them (though Ross is not exactly new money – his grandfather was a wealthy fish industrialist.) Neither went to the major public schools of their generation (Eton, Harrow or Winchester) but, most significantly, both are prominent Conservative party donors, as eager to influence Whitehall as they are to bag a brace. In this context, it would seem highly likely that Boris Johnson’s grouse moor exemption had an ulterior motive behind it regardless of what exact class strata the mystery caller belonged to.

My own attempts last year to buy a grouse confirmed the risks and environmental concerns facing the industry; before the season ended in mid-December, I went to my local butcher, The Ginger Pig in West London, where the manager, Tomasz, said he hadn’t stocked a single bird since the season began on 12 August (aka the ‘Glorious Twelfth’). The retail price of available grouse had skyrocketed to £24 per bird and most of them had gone to gentlemen’s clubs like White’s in addition to muscular restaurants that cater to aspirational food-dudes (e.g. St John and Gymkhana).

Taking advantage of a rare invite, I decided to channel my inner Bertie Wooster (OE) (and Patrick Bateman) and changed into a Huntsman midnight wool, single-breasted twill suit before hailing a black cab to White’s. I imagine that a night in the grand high-ceilinged clubrooms was once exhilarating; that the ghastly paintings of dogs and horses hung in the central clubroom were once fashionable. Yet going to White’s now is like going to an English Heritage museum, with out-of-work actors listlessly attempting to recreate the great days of clubland. The ‘experience’ has become an ordeal, every beat of the ‘customer journey’ designed to discipline you: you must wear a suit and tie, only get a drink if a chinless member orders, nor say anything to the waiter unless you are invited to. This is hospitality as punishment, echoing childhoods when parents sent their eight-year-old children to be abused by strangers.

This evening, there are only a handful of members at White’s: it appears it might not be just grouse shooting that’s in danger of dying, but the very class of people that shot them in the first place. Yet, as I sit in one of the club’s opulent dining rooms, it is as if nothing has changed, or ever will. I begin to relax, reluctantly seduced by the comforting sight of bow-tied waiters, the sound of clinking claret-filled glasses and earnest chatter. A cheery waitress comes to take our order. 

‘We’ve got lots of good things today,’ she says earnestly. ‘Lovely partridge, a whole grilled Dover sole and the venison tartare looks delicious. But I’m afraid to say, we’re plain out of grouse.’

Justin Gayner (OE) is a media entrepreneur, former QI elf and recovering journalist based in Shepherd’s Bush. The fee for this article has been donated by the author to Age Unlimited, a charity which he is a trustee of that helps vulnerable young and old people. The charity’s first cookbook, Recipes From Le Rouzet, is available to buy here. (100% of the cover price will go to the charity.) 

The illustration is by Alex Christian, a designer and illustrator based in London. You can find more of his work at

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