THE Glorious 12th signals the start of the grouse shooting season today.

Middlesmoor in North Yorkshire’s Nidderdale Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty resounded to the sound of the first shots fired.

Supporters say the activity provides an economic and environmental boost for rural communities.

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But an argument is raging as it emerged grouse moor estates received millions of pounds in subsidies last year, according to analysis which comes amid a debate over the future of farming payments after Brexit.

In the Yorkshire Dales, a six-strong shooting party from Suffolk were on Lofthouse Moor to bag an early brace.

The shooting party also stopped in at the ‘shooting box’ on the moor where the first freshly shot grouse of the day was plucked and cooked up on a hot grill.

The Northern Echo:

Ben Ramsden, owner of Lotfhouse Moor said: “Today is a great opportunity to show a wider audience what grouse shooting is all about and hopefully dispel a few of the myths that surround the subject.

"I passionately believe that grouse shooting produces substantial benefits, not only to unique upland wildlife and the environment, but also to the local economy where it is a much-needed shot in the arm for remote rural businesses.”

Peter Woolley, shooting party leader said: “Today offers a great opportunity to explore the beautiful dales, work my dogs in this unique habitat, appreciate the diversity of ecology and most importantly enjoy a sociable day out with friends.”

Lofthouse Moor is one of 11 grouse moors in the Nidderdale Moorland Group, an organisation dedicated to promoting the positive benefits of moorland management and conservation.

Nine estates recently surveyed by the Nidderdale Moorland Group show that they alone will be hosting 150 driven shoot days throughout the four-month season with many more expected to run on other estates across the North of England.

It is estimated this will result in nearly 1000 overnight stays in Nidderdale hotels and the shoot days will directly contribute more than £100,000 to local hotels, restaurants and pubs throughout the season.

The survey also revealed that each grouse moor will employ around 35 people per shoot day, including local youngsters.

Throughout the forthcoming season, an estimated 5,000 workdays of additional employment will be provided for those assisting on shoot days, including beaters, flankers, loaders, pickers-up and caterers.

Meanwhile, as the sector gears up for the "Glorious 12th", an assessment of EU farming payments has revealed 30 major estates in England received a total of £4.5million in subsidies in 2016, up from £4million two years earlier.

Friends of the Earth, which produced the analysis, criticised the Government for handing out increasing amounts of taxpayers' money to wealthy landowners and offshore companies in support of an "environmentally-damaging sport".

The Glorious 12th has also focused renewed attention on the decline of hen harriers, birds which prey on young grouse chicks.

Conservationists blame falling numbers on illegal persecution by gamekeepers to protect shooting revenues, but the sector insists it wants to work with wildlife organisations to save the hen harrier.

Environmental groups want the Government to reform current EU subsidies after Brexit, changing from a system that sees payments reflect the amount of land owned to payments reflecting the delivery of public services such as nature protection and flood prevention.

Commenting on the new figures, Friends of the Earth campaigner Guy Shrubsole, said: "Grouse moor management too often involves practices that are anything but glorious - worsening flooding by keeping uplands bare of trees and the illegal killing of hen harriers.

"Environment Secretary Michael Gove has promised to reform farm payments and force landowners to earn their money.

"He must stop propping up grouse moor estates and instead fund public goods, like tree-planting, restoring wildlife habitats and flood prevention."

Jeff Knott, RSPB Head of Nature Policy, said hills and moors were home to precious wildlife, and could reduce flash flooding and lock up carbon emissions.

"Where moorland management has been intensified to deliver the maximum number of red grouse to be shot, the opportunities for delivering wider public benefits have been reduced," he warned.

"We believe a fair set of rules are needed in the form of a licensing system to ensure the driven grouse industry delivers management to the highest standards for the multiple benefits of us all."

The Moorland Association's director Amanda Anderson said the organisation was fully supportive of public goods for public money.

"We think it is vitally important to keep people in the hills and rewarding those that can preserve and enhance the UK's unique and treasured upland ecology, landscape and cultural heritage is key."

Grouse moors were already taking action on controlling invasive bracken and restoring deep peat, while safeguarding populations of birds such as curlew and lapwing was crucial and protecting hen harriers was a priority, she said.

And Gary Doolan, spokesman for the British Association for Shooting and Conservation (BASC), said: ""The conservation, economic and social benefits of grouse shooting are significant.

"Heather moorland is rarer than rainforest - 75 per cent is found in Britain because of grouse moor management and up to five times more threatened wading birds are supported on moors managed by gamekeepers."

He also said grouse shooting was a "lifeline" for fragile rural economies, worth almost £100 million to the economy each year, providing the equivalent of 2,500 jobs and supporting local hotels, shops, garages and other businesses.

He said the prospects for this year's season were mixed, with most moors in northern England seeing good numbers but a more varied picture for Scotland where late snow and early June downpours, as well as high tick numbers, affected broods in some areas.