Nick Ridley observes the next generation of female shooters coming through at one of Oxfordshire's most progressive driven game shoots
To the uninitiated, game shooting is often thought of as a male-dominated arena, but today’s shooters know that is far from the truth. On many shoots the picking-up team has, for years, been dominated by women. Similarly, ladies make up a good proportion of the beating line, notably on smaller family shoots. Ladies on the Gun bus are hardly the “novelty” they may once have been.
One shoot that has done much to challenge the outdated preconception of shooting as a man’s game is the Punchbowl & Blowingstone shoot in Oxfordshire. Situated in the valleys of the Ridgeway near Wantage, the shoot extends to just over 2,500 acres, and for the past few years, Charles Matthews and his wife Jayne have hosted a “ladies only” day for family and friends.
Charles will tell you that running a commercial shoot is hard work. It takes effort, time and money, especially when you have to try to get most of your shoot days in before Christmas. In late winter it can be bleak in this part of the country. You do not want to be out on the slopes of the Ridgeway in bad weather.
Normally Charles and Jayne’s ladies’ day is held later in the season, but this year it was decided to give the Guns a chance at partridges earlier on. And what an exciting day it proved to be. Charles was at pains to point out to everyone that the shoot was about having an enjoyable and safe day, and no one should feel under pressure.
The Guns were a mixture of experienced hands and novices, and included three of Charles and Jayne’s daughters, Kate, Rachel and Lizzie. All three have been brought up in the countryside and shooting was an integral part of their childhood. They all have a great understanding of the complex workings of a driven shoot and can hold their own when shooting high, fast partridges. Being sisters, there was plenty of friendly rivalry
throughout the day — and there were also plenty of birds hitting the ground.
Though this was a “family and friends affair”, you could see that, at times, the girls were keen to ensure they did justice to the hard work put in during the close season. Kate explained that they were proud of what Charles, Jayne and their team had achieved on the shoot and they wanted to reflect that effort by shooting well.
The chat in the shoot wagon was about covercrops, shotguns and horses, and it was obvious that countryside matters are an important part of everyday life to all of the Guns. Shooting is important to the whole Matthews family — Kate had also brought along her six-year-old daughter Charlotte to help her grandmother Jayne, and Harvey, the Clumber spaniel, to assist with the picking-up duties.
There were a couple of novice Guns, and for Helen McKenna it was her first time on the peg. Though she beats regularly on a local shoot with her German short- haired pointer, Helen came to shooting later in life. She initially took up clay- shooting during the summer months — and she quickly became hooked.
A proud moment
As a father, I know how special having “Daddy and Daughter” days are, and for Ralph Castle, looking after his daughter Danika on only her second driven game day, it was indeed very special. Sixteen-year-old Danika has been involved in the shoot for a number of years, mainly in the beating line, though this summer she has worked as gamekeeper Dan Painter’s assistant. Danika had a slight advantage over the other Guns as she knew each and every drive from the beater’s perspective and she knew exactly where the birds were coming from.
From the number of pheasants and partridges taking to the air it was quite clear that this had been an excellent rearing season for the shoot, and prospects are looking good for later in the season.
Another young lady who was enjoying her first time at game shooting was Sophie Shepherd, aged 20. She was looked after by John Smith, who in his younger days shot clays for england, so as well as making sure everything was safe he was also able to give some first- class coaching.
The beating line
In keeping with the theme of the day, the picking-up team was also all female and very much a family affair. Jayne not only picks-up with her Clumber spaniel, she is also a first-class cook and successfully combined her field duties with ensuring everyone was well fed and watered. Helen Saunders, Mandy Pitman (the wife of ex-jockey and well-known broadcaster richard Pitman) and another Jane Matthews are all regulars on the shoot, and Charles openly admits he couldn’t manage without them.
The beating team for this particular day was also made up of a range of ladies who regularly give their time and effort to support the shoot, most of them combining their roles with other outdoor activities, particularly equestrian. It was quite obvious that there was a great team spirit and, despite the difficult terrain, the smiles
were evident throughout the day.
As the horn blew to finish the last drive I noticed Charles showing his granddaughter Charlotte some of the covercrop that lies over a 30-acre block at the bottom of a steep bank. I overheard him telling her that the crop has not only been planted to hold the partridges and pheasants, but it will also feed all the little birds during the colder months. Like all six year olds, she was asking plenty of questions. I suspect that in not so many years’ time another female family member may be joining the gun line at the Matthews’ shoot!