It was a scene more evocative of Victorian times than of the late 20th century. Standing knee-deep in heather on a moor, the two men were identically dressed in tweed suits with vests and knickers, tightly knotted ties and woolen caps.

The older of the two held a dead, brown-feathered fowl the size of a small chicken. In a ceremonial gesture, he dipped his fingers into the bird's blood and anointed the side of the younger man's beaming face.

Russell Lucas-Rowe, 22, had just shot his first grouse. To make the moment sweeter, he had bagged it on the Glorious Twelfth, the day each August when those who can afford the time and expense take part in the quintessential sporting ritual of the British upper class.

Britain abounds in game, from deer to pheasant, snipe and partridge. But the grouse, an elusive, ground-nesting bird found in the wild heather that grows on treeless hills in certain parts of Scotland and northeast England, has long held a special place in the hearts of Britons.

Unlike other game birds, it has not been successfully grown in captivity for release into the wild. Its diet is particular -- almost exclusively young heather shoots. It prefers, for reasons unknown, those grown within a few miles of where it is born. Its constitution is delicate, with unusually late summers or early falls taking heavy tolls.

Perhaps most crucial for the preservation of the grouse is the fee that hunters must pay, as much as $2,000 a day, for the privilege of tramping desolate and usually rainy hillsides to shoot it.

A deep commitment to the sport is even more costly. A good pair of custom-made British shotguns, specially designed for bird hunting, demands as much as $45,000. While some parvenus take to the hills in blue jeans and denim jackets, a true enthusiast needs the right clothes. Prewar tweeds in earth tones are preferred, although kilts are optional for Scots.

Like the queen's birthday and the Grand National steeplechase, the opening day of the four-month grouse season invokes high ceremony, and little has changed in the 150 years since the form was perfected. For those who do not participate directly, it is a mark of status to lunch on freshly shot grouse, a bony and strong-tasting bird, in an exclusive restaurant.

Prestige London establishments vie to have the earliest bird on the table -- this year the Savoy Hotel enlisted the help of a British Army parachute regiment to fly in the initial fowl shot on the duke of Westminster's Lancashire estate by 11:30 a.m.

The grouse has become the bird of status not only for Britons, but also for wealthy foreigners. Gamekeepers here in the Kincardine hills, about 50 miles southwest of Aberdeen, estimate that Americans make up at least half of the thousands of tweed-clad men who stalk the moors each fall.

Not everyone in Britain is pleased by the traditional shoot. Some argue that the moors -- land cleared of tenant farmers beginning in the 18th century by feudal landlords who saw more profit in grazing sheep and providing sport for the wealthy -- could be put to more productive human use.

But the better-connected shooting enthusiasts, together with a segment of the conservation movement, have prevailed. The latter sees preservation of shooting as a way to halt development and pollution and preserve the grouse itself. Added support comes from a vast service structure, including gamekeepers and the operators of country inns and restaurants, sharing in the estimated $18 million that grouse shooting brings each year to Scotland alone.

For many in this region, including those who own the vast estates of tens of thousands of acres on which the moors are located, grouse hunting is a business.

Following a tradition that began when the Scottish lairds charged two shillings for the privilege of shooting a brace of grouse, most of those who own grouse-filled estates in England and Scotland today -- from the duke of Westminster to the royal family of the United Arab Emirates -- exact steep fees from shooting parties. Most of the revenue goes to pay for upkeep and taxes, and to subsidize the owners' own sport.

No matter how many a grouse hunter shoots today, tradition still holds that he keep only one brace, or pair, from the day's bag. The rest of the birds go to the estate owner, most of them destined for restaurant tables.

Even in the high-priced world of grouse shooting, however, there are levels of status. The cream of the sport, said Colin McKelvie of the Game Conservancy, a private British charity devoted to preserving the birds' habitat, is the "driven shoot." Here, each "gun" (a word that refers both to the firearm and its operator) is stationed in a "butt," one in a line of chest-high semicircles of piled rocks stretched for as much as a quarter-mile across a brae, or hill.

Another line of men, the "beaters" employed by the estate, is stationed as much as a mile away. The beaters, out of sight of the guns, begin walking through the deep heather, flushing the birds toward the butts. As hundreds fly over at high speed, the guns pick them off.

Much more arduous, and considerably less expensive at as little as $200 a day, is the "walking-up" shoot. Dispensing with the beaters, the guns position themselves in a straight line across the hill face and slowly trudge through the heather. Looking like small evergreen shrubs, the dense, knee-high plants are covered with small purple blooms whose beauty conceals woody and twisted roots that make trudging back and forth through them for the 15 miles or so of a day's shoot both treacherous and exhausting.

Russell Lucas-Rowe, a young farm owner from the county of Kent in southern England, had come on his first shoot with a walking-up party of eight guns. Most were accompanied by wives or girlfriends who, while they dressed the part -- albeit with strings of pearls hanging outside their country jackets -- did not shoot.

"They don't like women to shoot," said Lucy Dingell-Fordyce, whose husband Andrew owns a farm near Aberdeen. While women are welcome to tag along, they are not encouraged to participate in what is considered a male activity.

The three-day shooting party, organized by McKelvie of the Game Conservancy on an 18,000-acre private estate, began at 9 a.m. on the Glorious Twelfth with a glass of champagne under unusually clear skies. McKelvie described the party as fairly typical of the "professional" class that has taken up what was once considered a sport purely for those with inherited wealth. In addition to the two farmers, it included an architect, an Army officer, a financier, a schoolteacher and the head gun appraiser from Sotheby's auctioneers.

At the estate lodge, the party transferred to four-wheel vehicles. Accompanied by the three estate gamekeepers and an assortment of local assistants, they headed up to the moors.

The keepers are crucial to the upkeep of the moor and lower woodlands. Strips of heather must be burned off the moors periodically to promote new growth of the young shoots favored by the grouse. Other birds, including 6,000 pheasants yearly on this estate, must be raised by hand and released for shooting later in the season. Deer land must be fenced for hunting parties -- shooting refers only to fowl, while hunters stalk four-legged game. Proliferating animals such as rabbits and foxes are destroyed.

Many gamekeepers have inherited their jobs. In addition to their salaries, each is given a small cottage on the estate, an allowance to feed hunting and retrieving dogs, and, each year, a new suit of tweeds made to order.

Although the grouse population in the northeastern English moors has risen steadily in recent years, Scotland has seen a steady and unexplained drop since World War II in the number of grouse shot each year. Several decades ago, this party could expect several hundred brace of grouse before lunch in this ancestral seat of grouse-shooting ethos.

Despite the nearly two dozen people participating in an average shoot, grousing is a fairly solitary pastime. Spread across the hills, the guns are barely within shouting distance of one another, and each is listening intently above the wind for the whoosh and flap of wings and the "eh-eh-eh-eh" sound of a startled grouse bursting from the heather before the line. A sudden blast of gunfire echoes around the contours of the moor, bringing everyone on the line to a halt while a dog is sent to fetch the bird.

Lunch was eaten on the moor -- the keepers sitting separately with their sandwiches, the shooters contentedly sipping from thermoses filled with game soup laced with sherry, the dogs munching on large bones and scraps of red meat.

The morning's bag was 48 birds. As the keepers laid them out on the grass to count and pack into wooden boxes, one was set aside for stuffing. Lucas-Rowe had identified it, as the keeper had instructed, by tying a small scarf around its neck.