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What happened on a ladies-only shoot day with an all-female keepering team?

New Rigg College's Curtis Mossop reports back

female Gun with gundogs

Rebecca Avison and dogs wait for the action to start at Wandells

Shooting is becoming ever more accessible to a greater audience, none more so than women. This increasing popularity has driven the creation of fantastic communities such as Femmes Fatales and the Shotgun 
& Chelsea Bun Club, allowing women of all ages and abilities to get involved and meet like-minded individuals.

A 8% increase in female keepering students

Traditionally, gamekeeping and wildlife management courses at further education level have been very male dominated. However, in the past few years there has been a steady increase in the number of young women applying for, and enrolling on to, full-time courses at Newton Rigg College. The current academic year has attracted the highest number yet, with female students making up just over 20 per cent of the group. “Only 
a fifth of students are female, that’s not very good”, you might think, but in only three years we have seen an eight per cent increase, which is something to be celebrated.
Several months ago, a plan was hatched to put together a ladies’ day that we would host on the shoot at Newton Rigg. The added twist was an all-female gamekeeping team made up of students. Gender doesn’t matter, of course, but for this day we wanted to celebrate women within 
all forms of shooting sports.

Lady Guns

Lady Guns

A crack team of lady Guns

The day was upon us and excitement levels were building. With the help 
of Claire Sadler, who had been a huge supporter of my vision of the day, 
we had put together a crack team 
of lady Guns. Student headkeeper Grace Patterson gathered her immediate team and methodically went through each drive. Her two underkeepers for the day were Lily Twigger and Alice Cushnie, each making mental notes of the hedgerows and unharvested headlands that needed to be blanked-in. Leading the pickers-up was Ella Stapley, who passed on Grace’s instructions to her small team, complete with a pack of Labradors, cockers, springers and even 
a Clumber spaniel.

As the beaters moved off to line out, student shoot captain Kirstan Harpham welcomed the Guns and delivered the safety briefing. Though she admitted to being nervous, Kirstan did a great job and gave the women a brief synopsis of the day and explained the thinking behind its conception. The instructions to move off were given and they headed for the minibus.

The Newton Rigg shoot is compact. It makes use of every available space on the 550-acre farm to run the days but, most importantly, the students are at the heart of it. It is their responsibility to conduct the corvid and mustelid control in the spring, the rearing of the partridges and pheasants, feeding the drives after the point of release and the day-to-day management of their individual beats throughout the season.

Female Gun

First drive

The first drive was Arboretum, a seven-acre wood perched on top of a gradual slope surrounded by game cover crops. Kirstan efficiently escorted the Guns to their pegs on a long, curved line at the base of the hill. The beating line began to move forward. Small coveys of red-legged partridge attempting to breach the flanks made for some early shooting but, as the drive progressed, towering pheasants began to make their way over the line. Fortunately for them, they beat the Guns most of the time.

Student picker up Alfie Walton

Student picker up Alfie Walton

Smiles all round

The horn signalled the end of the drive and the ladies gathered by the game cart. There were smiles all round, as well as some light-hearted mickey-taking and serious discussions on the required lead for these pheasants.

The following two drives, Thulbar and Wandells, again produced some testing birds with some large coveys zipping over the line. The pheasants were gaining height remarkably well considering the light, northerly breeze. Rebecca Avison found her rhythm on Wandells, taking some excellent birds and returning to the game cart clutching a handful of partridges and wearing a wide grin.

Elevenses after the third drive gave the women the chance to reflect on the morning over a glass of sloe gin fizz. What this day represented was the main topic of conversation; none of the Guns had shot on a day where the whole team was female. Added to that was the fact that these were all young students, all aged 18 or under, running a shoot for the first time. They had done a brilliant job so far.

Grace and the beaters began the long walk to White Flatts to blank areas of cover into the intended drive. Radio communication between Grace, Lily and Alice was frequent 
and professional. This drive is 
a challenging one to line out due to its highly irregular shape, but the students made quick work of it and the message came through the radio from Grace: “Kirstan, we are all lined out and ready for the Guns.”

Labrador gundog with bird

Grouse with a long retrieve

Rocketing coveys

The women sprang into action and made the short walk down to the maize stubbles. Partridges were 
there in force; small but frequent 
coveys came rocketing over the large 
hedge in front and, on seeing the 
line of Guns, they changed down 
a gear and began to climb, creating some excellent shooting. Guns Kate Fensterstock, Marina Gibson and Christina Jones were in the thick of the action and taking birds cleanly.

The size of the coveys gliding over became larger and larger; Grace took charge of the situation by slowing down the main body of the line while Lily began squeezing her right flank toward the cover crop, pushing birds across the front of pegs three, four and five but toward six, seven and eight. This spread out the shooting and allowed the higher-numbered Guns such as Clare Harford to take some lovely shots.

Gundog delivering bird to hand

Grouse delivers a bird to hand to Rebecca

The horn eventually blasted out and the picking-up team, led by Ella, began sweeping behind the Guns collecting the fallen birds. Marina’s small Romanian ex-street dog, Sedge, valiantly tried to recover a partridge from the stubbles.

Moving on to Thacka, the Guns only had a short distance to walk, whereas the students had to be ferried in minibuses to the rear of the drive. Blanking-in across approximately 800m of maize stubble, drilled winter cereal and wheat stubble, the students managed to contain the partridges and turn them towards the cover crop. The pheasants had other plans and broke back over the right flank but not before Claire took a lovely long crossing hen bird. The keepers made a note for a change in approach for the next shoot day.

Grace had the pace of the beating line to perfection. They slowly made their way through the kale with spaniels frantically quartering through the crop, finding those crafty pheasants opting to sit tight. The synchronised flagging efforts of Alice’s left flank helped to funnel partridges over the right-hand side of the Gun line. Vicki Avison, on peg eight, proved highly proficient under the high birds, sending them tumbling.

At lunchtime the whole team of Guns, beaters and pickers-up headed back to the Game & Wildlife building. With the skies darkening and light fading, the break was relatively short-lived. Everyone was keen to get back out to enjoy the remaining two drives.

Trump-card drive

The penultimate drive, Wildriggs, was across the main road that splits the busy college farm in two. With courses such as agriculture, forestry and equine studies using the land for practical demonstration sessions, it is astonishing that a partridge shoot functions at all. Wildriggs is one of those trump-card drives, situated in the quietest part of the farm. You can always be quietly confident that partridges will appear. Shortly after the radio command from Kirstan to the headkeeper — “Guns are all in position, fire away” — partridges were flushed from their hiding places in the stubble turnips towards the line of Guns.

Large groups of redlegs were star-bursting over the hedge, providing some fantastic shooting; Claire was in the hot seat and taking some wonderful birds, providing some work for my pack of Labradors 
come the end of the drive.

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We finished on Ashcroft drive but, despite it being a little quieter than anticipated, the women were not fazed. The young students had produced a fantastic day, seamlessly run, and their positive attitude throughout only helped to add 
to their air of professionalism.

Back at the college, the female students sat down with the Guns over a cup of tea to discuss the day’s events. There followed a captivating and incredibly motivating discussion from each of the Guns on their rise to career success, overcoming stereotypes and challenges they have faced in the workplace. As I looked at the awestruck faces of my students, their sense of empowerment was obvious. They had seen a group of strong and passionate women offering them invaluable advice and the confidence to follow their dreams.