Species spotlight: Grouse and ptarmigan

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The hardiest of all British game birds must be the ptarmigan. Scratching a bleak existence from the lichen lined, granite cathedrals of the Scottish Highlands, this bird’s survival through the seasons is nothing short of miraculous. During the short summer it lives in a lunar-like landscape, where a short seasonal glut of new shoots, crowberry and insects supplement its winter arctic diet of little else. I have pursued the ptarmigan in Scotland, Scandinavia and Greenland. It is no secret that the snow grouse is my favourite of game birds, and I have been fortunate to shoot a good number; as I like to be about the high-tops, my path has crossed that of the ptarmigan more often than most sportsmen. That said, I have been careful not to over-shoot them in their sanctuaries, preferring only to take a brace or two from any given area.

If not over-shot, most estates that host this delightful medium-sized game bird will continue to have a shootable harvest for those who like their sport wild and challenging. However, if weather patterns continue to get milder, ptarmigan populations will suffer greatly, and then it will be a different story. An example of this may be seen in Arran, which once hosted the lowest and southernmost population of ptarmigan in Britain. Worryingly, the bird now seems to have disappeared from this isolated outpost.

It would be a tragedy to lose this pluckiest of game birds to milder weather patterns. As a species, it has adapted over millennia to tackle the harshest of weather, and developed as near perfect a camouflage that nature could create. If the snow doesn’t come in the winter months, the ptarmigan’s winter-white plumage would work against it, advertising rather than disguising its presence to every predator around.

Ptarmigan, Lagopus mutus, male, Scotland, spring

Ptarmigan, Lagopus mutus, male, Scotland, spring

Ptarmigan Identification

Ptarmigan – Lagopus mutus

A small grouse: male 36–39cm (14-15 ½”) female 33-36cm (13-14”). Both sexes characterised by pure white wings and under parts at all seasons. In winter both sexes pure white except for black tail. Male in autumn has greyish brown mottled head, neck, flanks, upper breast and body, and black tail; female darker. Juvenile like autumn female, but with pale brown wings and tail same colour as back. Distinctive rusty hinge croaking call. White wings and under body, and preferred habitat typically above 1000m, easily distinguish ptarmigan from other British grouse species, but most similar bird is the red grouse.

Shooting season: Scotland only – 12 August to 10 December

Grouse – Lagopus lagopus scoticus

Medium-sized grouse male 36-39cm (14-15½”) female 33-36cm (13-14”) characterised by rotund appearance, short wings; body plumage uniform dark rufous-brown with darker wings and black rounded tail. Sexes similar, but female more barred and a duller rufous colour. Adults appear greyer in winter, with white underwing feathers and occasionally show white on flanks and belly. Juvenile generally like female. May be confused with female black grouse (greyhen); and the ptarmigan distinguished by smaller size and white wings and other parts.

Shooting season: England, Scotland and Wales – 12 August to 10 December; Northern Ireland – 12 August to 30 November

Copy from BASC Quarry ID guide 


The title of Britain’s hardiest game bird has got to go to the ptarmigan. Pronounced with a silent “P”, it is a corruption of its Gaelic name Tàrmachan. In the Germanic tongues it is simply known as the Schneehuhn – which translates to snow hen or snow grouse. It is an apt description, and one I prefer to the Gaelic corruptive. A close but slightly smaller cousin of the red grouse, ptarmigan only thrive on the highest of Scottish mountaintops in Britain.

I was inspired in my youth by reading the exploits of that old ptarmigan shooting sage, Robin Rolfe, and eventually tried out a day on the high-tops in pursuit of the snow grouse. When that inaugural foray finally came around, it was the start of many adventures on great estates such as Coignafearn, Invercauld, Glenshee, Glenshero, Tulchan, Black Mount, and Glen Etive, yet that initial encounter with ptarmigan proved to be the best day out I have experienced to date in pursuit of those wonderfully elusive birds.

The sportsman cannot reasonably expect big bags of these birds, and a brace per gun nowadays should be more than enough for the ethical sportsmen. However, like the grouse, ptarmigan populations do fluctuate and in bumper years more birds may be shot.

As far as wild sport goes, ptarmigan shooting cannot be beaten, but you have to be reasonably fit to pursue them, otherwise you will certainly end up in a serious situation. They are a hardy, resilient game bird living in an unforgiving environment, but that is only part of their allure. The sportsman has to work hard for his chances, and when presented make the most it.

Furthermore, this is the most exquisitely flavoured game bird on Britain’s quarry list, all the more enjoyable for the pain, sweat and sometimes tears involved in getting it to the plate.

In short, ptarmigan shooting is always an adventure and one that all dedicated but fit bird shooters should sample at least once in a lifetime, as being about the high tops with gun in hand is absolutely unique.

No one wants to kill many ptarmigan these days – indeed, few people invade his solitudes, where he lives a more or less haunted life, crouching under the eye of the peregrine falcon and golden eagle.


Record Bag

The record bag of Ptarmigan was achieved on 25th August 1866 by the Hon. Geoffery Hill, who shot 112 ptarmigan to his own gun at Achnashellac, Rosshire. This total does not seem to have been beaten even by a party of guns who shot 112 on a day’s driving in 1901 at Gaick Invernesshire.


Walked up

The actual shooting of ptarmigan is usually easy, but a high wind makes them rise wild, and lift too far in front. They’ve also a habit of flying across from one high top to another, a matter of a few moments to them, but entailing perhaps a two hours’ climb to whoever is pursuing them. In Scotland, ptarmigan shooting generally consists of few shots and far between. The coveys are sometimes, however, very considerate, and fly around the same top instead off launching into space. I do not think there is any bird that can be more considerate or more exasperating.

On some days everything is easy; on others, each covey of the birds is made as though they had an uncanny knowledge of the disabilities of man. When they do rise, often as not it is close to the sportsman, who is often wrong footed on slippery or moving scree. The shot would be a straightforward one on more solid ground but and in the ‘high-tops’ element and it’s a different matter.

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It is possible to drive ptarmigan, but as far as my experience goes, this is merely a matter of getting one or two shots for three of four standing (rather crouching) guns with one or two keepers as beaters. The line of flight of a covey is by no means certain, and the keepers do not pay much attention to its direction. Why should they? It is only once in every three years or so some crack-brained sportsman desires a day’s ptarmigan shooting. These impromptu drives are to my mind, much more interesting than the set drives of the lower lands. I yield to no one in my joy in a day’s ptarmigan driving, for – especially as I grow older – my mind goes back with just as much, perhaps more, pleasure to the little days, when one lurked behind a rock and a single keeper drove the top. There is a rock piled butt on the tops of Glen Shee, in Corrie Vinian I think, and here I’ve crouched and shot a left and a right and a mountain hare on one such drive as the keeper walked around the summit to drive us some sport, and what fun it was.

The ptarmigan is a wary quarry, and not one for the fainthearted, to engage him requires a lot of toil, but his pursuit is worth it. Highland majesty will surround you as the heather carpeted hills give way to scree and finally the granite high tops and summits. Once thee you are truly in Great Britain’s last wilderness and seeking out the wildest and most beautiful of all British gamebirds.

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Where to shoot ptarmigan

Kildermorie Estate is a remote but accessible traditional Scottish Highland Estate in Ross-shire which in season attracts sporting parties. The estate offers ptarmigan on the high scree of the 838 metre Carn Chuinneag and grouse walked up over dogs. Ptarmigan and grouse £450 + vat per outing for up to 6 guns. The party may keep one brace per gun. Both lodge (sleeps 20), and cottage accommodation (for smaller parties) is available.

Contact: enquiries@kildermorie.co.uk

Ben Damph Estate is situated between Shieldaig and Torridon close to Applecross, in Wester Ross. The 14,500 acres estate contains an awe-inspiring mixture of magnificent mountains, glens, and lochs. There are ptarmigan on the high tops above 2000ft and a few grouse, while greylag geese, duck, snipe and woodcock are on the lower ground. Pointers or setters are used for grouse and a spaniel or labrador for the other species. Lodge, cottage or bothy accommodation is available. Walked up grouse, ptarmigan and rough shooting, costs £30 per gun per day.

Contact info@bendamph.com

Croick Estate is in the middle of the northern Highlands of Scotland at Strathcarron, near Bonar Bridge, Sutherland. Covering some 12,000 acres, it is a wonderful mix of fertile strath, trees heather, mountain scree, river and loch. Croick Manse Lodge has recently been refurbished, has four bedrooms, three bathrooms and sleeps eight in comfort. Grouse, and ptarmigan shooting by arrangement POA.

Contact croickestate@googlemail.com


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One comment on “Species spotlight: Grouse and ptarmigan
  1. Kenneth Allen says:

    I love watching and hunting ptarmigan. Here in Colorado we have the White Tailed Ptarmigan (no Rock Ptarmigan, just called Ptarmigan in UK, here in Colorado) and as the name implies it has an all white tail in winter. Very few people hunt ptarmigan in Colorado. I think I am one of about a dozen hunters who do this in the whole state. It took me several years to locate them consistently. They are always above tree line which is 11,000 to 11,200 feet in Colorado so it is a fair slog of hike! Like you I only shoot a couple of brace a year. Flocks are usually 5 to a dozen birds and I never tell anyone where to go to find these birds. Just got back from my latest Ptarmigan hunt on October 20 of this year (2016) and got a brace.
    Interestingly these White Tailed Ptarmigan are fast learners. My German Shorthaired Pointer pointed the first birds, but the birds quickly learned that the dog meant trouble and then flushed at a fair range.

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