Gamekeeper Graeme MacDonald leads a shooting party on a grouse moor in Aviemore, Scotland, on Aug. 12. That’s the day the grouse season opens — “the Glorious Twelfth,” to grouse-hunting enthusiasts. (Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

We ventured up to the heather moors to watch tweedy gents shoot many grouse. That is not as easy as it sounds, not in Britain today, where the traditional blood sports pursued by the elite have become highly politicized — and shielded by a clubby, slightly paranoid veil of secrecy.

In the United Kingdom, grouse shooting is under fire from a coalition of environmentalists, birdwatchers and anti- cruelty activists — or, as one of the hunters, a retired solicitor, described them, a rabble of "extremists and Jeremy Corbyn types living in the Islington echo chamber," a reference to the vegetarian Labour Party leader and his lefty London constituency.

This fight over the future of a game-bird hunt is a surprisingly serious business, a subject to be debated in Parliament and the opinion pages, because it is as much about class and tradition, rural life and changing times as it is about the whirling red grouse itself, a bird that is bigger than a quail, smaller than a chicken, but blazingly, video-game fast on the wing. 

The grouse-shooting folk — who may own heirloom shotguns, vote Tory and have a nickname like Bunny — can mock their critics, but the activists still inspire unease, even dread, because they have accomplished the once unimaginable: In the early 2000s, they got fox hunting with dogs banned in England, Scotland and Wales.

As the environmentalists like to boast, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds has more paying members than all the U.K. political parties combined, not to mention the backing of celebrities such as the late Sir Roger Moore, a.k.a. James Bond, who once declared sport hunting "a perversion."

Now the anti-hunting crowd is targeting the annual grouse shoots, which take place on a few hundred private, often vast estates in northern England and Scotland, beginning, per the Game Act of 1831, on the day they call "the Glorious Twelfth" in August and ending in December.

Driven grouse shoots are a pinnacle of field sports for the tallyho set. If you are into shooting birds, this is as good as it gets. Aficionados wax rhapsodic about the darting, jinxing flier capable of speeds of over 50 mph — the quarry of kings, if they have keen aim.

Shooting them can cost upward of $2,000 or $3,000 a day, per person, accommodation not included. "Yachts, castles and Bentleys — if you have enough money, all these can be yours," the Financial Times explained. "Yet grouse moors are different."

Exactly, said Luke Steele, a spokesman for a local group called "Ban Bloodsports on Ilkley Moor," who adds bluntly: "It's over." 

"The British care deeply about animal protection and the environment, and to see half a million birds shot out of the sky each year for sport?" he said. "It's so out of tune with the way modern society is progressing."

Steele and his allies claim that the intensive shoots create too much collateral damage: flooding; illegal culling of eagles, owls, hawks; and the release of planet-warming carbon when the peat bogs are burned. 

Asked about the tradition of it all, Steele, who also works for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, answered, "Bear baiting was tradition."

Because of shooters' concerns about harassment, it is not easy to watch a day of grouse hunting. One must be invited — or be a foreign correspondent who promises to abide by strict ground rules.

For The Washington Post, those rules included not naming the Owner of the Moor, or the local Lord, or any nearby manors, pubs, sheep farms or the unique view of the sea. We also are not to name the staff — not the Gamekeeper, Loaders, Beaters or Flankers.

When we asked, as a droll joke, if we could mention any of the dogs by name, it was decided that some of the hounds were quite well known locally and could help identify the grouse moor, and so the answer was, please, best not.

Amanda Anderson, director of the Moorland Association, which supports both grouse hunting and uplands preservation, drove us out to the site in North York Moors National Park, a patchwork of privately owned lands. It was a stunning autumn morning of sun and cloud. 

Anderson explained that the moors are not truly wild landscapes, but have been shaped by humans since the Iron Age. Grouse moors are today intensively managed, Anderson said — for grouse. The gamekeepers eradicate invasive weeds, sometimes with aerial spraying. The heather itself is burned in patches, to provide ideal habitat — older heather for nesting and young heather for eating.

One of the day’s “Guns” surveys the hunting estate in the North York Moors National Park. It is a treeless, boggy, peaty environment that humans have shaped to their own needs since the Iron Age. (William Booth/The Washington Post)

As we bumped along the dirt track, Anderson pointed out the metal traps arranged over the soggy streams, designed to snap shut and kill weasels and stoats, who like to eat grouse. The Gamekeeper also hunts the foxes, with a gun and spotting lamp, to keep their numbers low. This is all legal.

Until recently, red grouse populations would spike and plummet. Now, the gamekeepers feed the birds a medicated grit that kills the worms that once decimated the flocks.

Anderson argued that grouse shooting is saving the precious moors, providing the money the old families and new owners need to manage the habitat for generations to come. "The moors would be lifeless without shoots," she said. 

We parked and the hunters arrived, in a flurry of well-waxed mustaches and Range Rovers. There were nine paying guests this day, called the "Guns," decked out head to toe in traditional tweed. Everyone wore a sporty tie. 

"Safety first!" the Moor Owner advised as the Guns assembled. "Please, don't shoot anyone!" The clients chuckled, but a grouse shoot is an almost martial affair, organized along strict rules — with horns, whistles, flags — to make sure no one does as Vice President Richard B. Cheney did on a quail hunt in Texas in 2006, which was shoot a 78-year-old attorney in the face.

We went out to the first of six "drives." These events involve dozens of very happy dogs, who imagine the day was organized just for them, along with locals hired as "Beaters," who drive the birds toward the Guns, who conceal themselves in trenches, and their "Loaders," who replace spent shells in their shotguns to quicken the pace of fire.

Driven grouse hunting is booming. Developed by the Victorians 150 years ago, enabled then by railroads and breech-loading shotguns, the sport today positively exudes posh, with a morning break for a glass of champagne, followed by a catered lunch of game and French reds, and ending with an evening of whisky by the fire.

Depending on your view of meat and where it comes from, grouse shoots are exhilarating or disturbing — or an opportunity for debate. It was certainly thrilling for the hunters.

One of the “Guns” waits for the birds to fly his way. He is partially concealed from the grouse by his tweedy attire and his location in a trench, called a “butt.” (William Booth/The Washington Post)

On the first drive, we huddled behind a skilled Gun in his trench, alongside his Loader. About a half-mile away, we could hear whoops and see the Beaters whipping flags through the air, the dogs howling in a sea of purple heather.

As the grouse began to flush, the Gun lit a cigar. He was a retired doctor, on the quiet side. But as the first coveys were driven toward him, his gun stock leapt to his cheek, and he began to fire and fire.

First one grouse, a puff of exploded feathers, and the dead bird cartwheeled to earth. Then a second, winged and wounded, a crash landing. Then his Loader pressed another fresh shotgun into his hand.

This went on all day. Hits and misses. A row of nine Guns, aided by their teams, can shoot a lot of birds. By lunch time, they had killed 144. The butcher's bill for the day surely topped 200 grouse.

Yet many more birds survived than died. The grouse were quick. The dead and the wounded lay in the heather, until they were quickly found by the dogs and collected. The injured birds were dispatched by the picker-uppers with a smack to the skull.

Grouse can taste rich or gamy, depending. Most Guns don't really want to eat a lot of them. It might cost $125 to shoot a grouse, which the butcher sells for $7 a dressed bird.  

Mark Avery is a conservation campaigner and a former director of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. He said, "There are far more reasons to ban intensive grouse hunting than fox hunting." Fox hunting became unpopular when people saw films of dogs tearing the foxes apart. It was a cruelty issue, and the British — who love their sausage — have a soft spot for animals.

According to Avery, those managing the moors for grouse hunting are killing not just foxes and weasels, but birds of prey, who also eat grouse. He points to the hen harrier, a threatened raptor known for its aerial "sky dancing." Studies suggest there should be sufficient habitat for 2,600 hen harrier pairs in England and Scotland — but there are 575. In England, there are seven breeding pairs.

"I don't think you can run a large, driven grouse shooting operation and follow the law," said Avery, author of "Inglorious: Conflict in the Uplands," who has rounded up 123,077 online signatures for a petition to get grouse hunts banned.

Edd Morrison is a shooting consultant who helped manage the day. He pointed to the young Beaters.

"They make 50 pounds a day," almost $70, he said. In all, about 40 people would serve the nine Guns. Then add the inns, pubs, gun shops, tweed tailors and Land Rover dealerships, he said.

"The whole of North Yorkshire revolves around the grouse shoot, and we're on the brink of getting banned?" Morrison said. "It's warfare."

Just then, one of the Guns missed a darting grouse — and his shotgun's pellets peppered a stone wall beside us, a breach of etiquette.

"Bloody hell," Morrison said. 

He promised he'd have a word with that gent. 

Shooters head out on the moor in Aviemore, Scotland, on Aug. 12. Scotland has numerous grouse-hunting sites, and they attract affluent hunters from all over the world. (Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)