Endemic to the UK, the red grouse is an attractive, medium-sized game bird. They are a subspecies of the willow grouse, which are found across northern Europe, Asia and North America, but unlike willow grouse, red grouse do not turn white in winter. Since the mid-1800s, the habitats of the red grouse have been extensively managed to control populations for shooting. Rotational heather-burning techniques are used to promote fresh growth, which is highly for the grouse. Burning in patches leaves some taller, older heather, which provides cover for the birds. However, there is much controversy over the management of upland moors in this way, as some studies have suggested burning heather has several negative effects. In addition, the illegal persecution of birds of prey such as hen harriers on grouse moors has significant detrimental effects on hen harrier populations.

The dependence of red grouse on heather for shelter, foraging and nesting means they can be found there all year round. At this time of the year, males will be displaying in the hope of attracting mates, so are more approachable. Get out early or late in the day as birds tend to be more active around these times. Also, the sun will be lower in the sky, and its light has a much softer quality. When the sun is near the horizon, you can also experiment with back lighting and side-lighting. This can be very effective in the right scenario, and will mean your images stand out from those of others.

Shooting advice

The red grouse can be very timid, which is unsurprising given the relationship between the birds and some humans. Often, the first time you become aware of one is as it explodes out and disappears into the distance, making a ‘goback’ call as it goes. Despite this, some individuals can be very confiding, particularly during the spring when males are displaying. When photographing at this time of the year, I would strongly recommend you stick to the paths, as their nests can be extremely well-camouflaged on the ground and the last thing you want is to inadvertently step on one.

Shoot from the same level as your subject for more intimate portraits. This will also throw the foreground and background out of focus, to make them stand out. The red grouse is a great subject all year round. Winter in the uplands often brings snow, which provides a blank canvas and in August and September the heather will flower, creating a carpet of purple. But bear in mind the birds may be more skittish around the shooting season, which starts on August. In the latter part of the year, visit areas where the birds are not actively shot. Otherwise, if they become comfortable in the presence of humans, it may be detrimental to their chances of survival.

Kit list

  • Tele converters Grouse can be skittish, and as you are restricted where you can go by where the paths are, tele converters are a great way of extending the reach of your equipment. Before you buy any however, make sure your lenses are compatible, and check out reviews online of the impact on auto focus speed and sharpness.