TRADITIONALLY served on the finest of tables and occasionally with a little lead for good measure, for many Scots settling down to a meal of grouse was largely left to well-heeled gourmets.

However a combination of a shift towards making the most of Scotland’s natural larder, greater availability and health conscious Scots seeking low-fat meats, appears to have sparked a boom in demand for “the king of game birds”.

Despite its controversial image, some game dealers are said to have noticed a five-fold increase in demand for grouse, while restaurateurs report that the birds tend to sell out whenever they appear on the menu.

The rising demand appears to fly in the face of opponents who dispute estate owners’ claims of the health benefits of grouse, and argue that grouse moors have a detrimental impact on the environment.

Among the critics is BBC presenter Chris Packham, who sparked headlines when he claimed the game bird is “toxic” and urged supermarkets against stocking it.

However according to the Gift of Grouse campaign, an initiative launched by the Scottish Moorland Group to highlight the benefits of grouse moors to Scotland, the bird is enjoying an unprecedented rise in popularity.

It says greater availability of grouse through local butchers, farms shops and game dealers selling oven-ready grouse direct to the public has fuelled fresh demand.

And far from being an elite product, the bird is now going down a storm in trendy bars where grouse dishes are washed down with a pint of craft beer.

Ochil Foods in Perthshire, which works with more than 30 Scottish suppliers and takes grouse from estates in Deeside, Angus and East Lothian, says it has seen sales soar from 1,100 grouse in 2016 to 5,700 last year.

The firm’s managing director, Jeremy Dixon, said: “Consumers more than ever want to eat the very best produce Scotland has to offer.

“We have seen a large portion of our sales growth come from establishments with lower price points, who hadn’t necessarily used grouse before, with chefs and consumers alike being more adventurous and wanting to see more Scottish produce on the menus.”

He said “wallet-friendly” bars were increasingly adding the bird to their menus, and selling up to 100 portions per week.

Budget supermarket Iceland recently began selling frozen grouse at half the price of fresh birds sold in more upmarket outlets.

An oven-ready young whole grouse is sold to restaurants for £4, or £1.50 for a single grouse breast. By the time it reaches butchers’ shops, birds usually sell for around £10 per 400g.

The current value of country sports tourism to the Scottish economy is put at £155 million, while the Scottish Country Sports Tourism Group’s “Game for Growth” strategy aims to increase that to £185m over the next three years. According to recent figures from Scotland’s seven moorland groups, over £23m flows directly into local businesses as a result of estate activity.

Andrew Hopetoun, chairman of the Scottish Moorland Group, said: “The owners of Scottish grouse moors invest in and manage these beautiful, heather-covered uplands creating rural employment and environmental benefits. Game offers a way of life to many rural communities and is an important part of many artisan food businesses. People today want produce with provenance and quality at heart and Scottish grouse has exactly that.”

However conservationists have pointed to concerns over a range of issues, from burning grouse moors to concerns that mountain hares, which are culled by grouse estates in a bid to minimise the risk of passing ticks to grouse, are facing local extinction.

Scottish Greens Lothian MSP Andy Wightman said: “There’s no assurance standards around grouse, we don’t know where the source of it is and we know there’s criminality mainly around the illegal culling of protected raptors.

“Produce from a system that involves criminal activity should not get to the plates of high end restaurants.

“I would also question whether grouse is healthy.”