It was once seen as a men’s playground but more women are joining the field, which is great for the sport, says Jack Bell
It will probably not come as any sort of surprise to learn that shooting sports are predominately the pastime of men. The most recent Home Office figures reveal that 94% of shotgun and firearms certificate holders in England and Wales are male. The 6% minority, however, equates to more than 36,000 individuals and this figure only represents those who are licensed, failing to highlight the numerous women who have significant involvement in fieldsports in a variety of capacities.
Women driven shooting
Oddly, there still seems to be some stigma around women driven shooting. Speak to any lady, whether they are picking-up, beating or shooting, and they will likely have a story to tell about inappropriate remarks or an atmosphere change when they arrive on a male-dominated shoot day.
I hope these tales will soon be from ‘the bad old days’, but we must accept that there are still some who need to modernise their way of thinking and accept that the shooting field is no longer only a ‘men’s playground’. (Read our tips on what women should wear in the field.)
Times are changing
Tania Coxon, founder of shooting organisation Country Girls UK, has a positive outlook on the growing popularity of women driven shooting and their acceptance into the wider shooting community. Tania is firmly of the opinion that “times are changing, more opportunities are arising and preconceived misconceptions about women in fieldsports are becoming extinct”. It is probably inaccurate to call this an ‘opinion’ because the undisputed success of Tania’s initiative is testament to the growing popularity of shooting among women, as well as her obvious enthusiasm and passion to promote it. (Read best tweed shooting jackets for women.)
She is not only dedicated to promoting women driven shooting, but also has a devotion to the countryside in general. After graduating from the Royal Agricultural College, she returned home to work on the family arable farm in the north-east of England. Tania wanted to share her passion for shooting and used social media to rally the troops.
Her group brings together women of various levels of experience and ability, with the primary aim of ensuring that every person taking part enjoys their day and makes great memories with new friends. The mainstays of their calendar are the numerous sell-out game days that are hosted at specially selected venues throughout the UK. In the off-season, simulated days, shooting tuition and other social events fill the diary.
On the first Saturday in December an 18-strong team of women travelled to the Clerkhill Estate, near Langholm, to pit their skills against some of south-west Scotland’s best pheasants, partridges and ducks. The day was hosted by Rick Jenkinson and his partner Amelia Threlfall of Jenkinson’s Game, who are in their first season at Clerkhill.
I don’t usually feel nervous arriving on shoot days, but on walking into the farmhouse kitchen for breakfast, I have to admit I was slightly daunted to be faced with an all-female team. The tables were well and truly turned — I expect many female Shots have felt this same feeling when arriving on shoot days across the country. Obviously, I had nothing to be worried about and was soon happily tucking into my cooked breakfast. The ladies were excited and eager to get out on the peg. The terrain, with its high bracken-clad banks and strategically placed conifer plantations on the steep hillsides, filled everyone with anticipation that the day would produce some very sporting birds.
After a quick safety briefing, we made a short car journey along a public road and arrived at the first drive. It looked promising and a steep bank with a Sitka spruce shelterbelt on its peak made for a lofty flushing point, with the team of beaters blanking-in the surrounding woodlands and bracken banks.
The 18 women driven shooting were split into pairs. It is standard Country Girls UK practice to shoot half-pegs and the team would be standing on nine pegs in total. Unlike the more common practice of each Gun swapping after a drive, this team rotate on peg, meaning each person shoots until their gun is empty, then they swap over. This allows each Gun to experience every drive and have a more equal number of shots. Only one gun is in the air at any one time and safety is of the utmost priority. As such, this system works well.
Weather conditions for the first drive were not ideal, with clear skies, no wind and the birds flying directly into the sun. These are not normal conditions for this part of the world — the local village is regarded as one of the wettest places in the UK — but the weather would become more typical later in the day. The bright sun caused several birds to dip quickly; however, the Guns proved their mettle and selected only the best ones.
Tania swung through a high hen pheasant, before dropping it with her first barrel; the falling bird almost took out me and my springer spaniel as it plummeted behind the line.
Mid-drive there were plenty of pheasants in the air and some excellent shots at tall, curling birds. Two white pheasants flushed and almost simultaneously began to drop in height, but both managed to get through the line unscathed. This was probably a relief for the Guns as they would have incurred a hefty fine had the birds come to any harm. A good number of quality pheasants were added to the bag, but one in particular stood out when Beth Sales from Chester shot her first pheasant in spectacular style.
The sense of community was lovely, even though many of the Guns had just met a few hours previously. Applause went up as Beth’s first pheasant fell to the ground. Only a few weeks before, Beth had shot her first duck on another day hosted by Tania. I cannot think of a better introduction to live quarry than being with a team like this, where support was abundant. It made me reflect on the many times I’ve had my leg pulled for missing birds that I should have probably brought down. I also noted that nobody was hiding their enthusiasm for shooting, which is a bit of contrast to the coolness of some of the men I often shoot with.
The second drive was another test of the team’s abilities, with high-flying ducks and pheasants appearing from multiple flushing points. As I stood with Erin Bain on the edge of the fast-flowing White Esk river, a towering cock bird got up from the bank behind us and set its wings. Reacting quickly, Erin shot it well out in front, dropping it on to the far bank of the river. It was a brilliant shot by any standards.
On their first pass, the ducks hugged the river, offering few safe shots, before they accelerated and climbed into the distance. When they returned, they provided some very challenging shooting, with several of the birds now well out of range.
Cheers were heard from further down the line, as someone pulled down a quality bird. With a lesser team of Guns, there would have been a few more disgruntled sighs rather than joyous cheers, but these ladies can shoot and they want to be standing under challenging birds.
As the sun began to set prior to the final drive, there was a significant change in the weather. It would not be shooting in Scotland in December without a flurry of snow, but this was a full-blown snowstorm with exceptionally high winds.
The wind chill was piercing and the visibility had deteriorated as the ducks began to lift from the pond. I had to strain my eyes to look at them directly with the wet snow pummelling my face.
The simple task of loading and opening shotguns was becoming difficult as the Guns began to lose the feeling in their fingers. Seemingly undeterred, Sarah Emerson finished the day on a high by expertly folding a stratospheric mallard among the clouds of descending snowflakes. As the bird tumbled then hit the pond with a large splash, the horn sounded, signalling not only the end of the drive but the end of a great day in good company.
The weather had deteriorated but the happiness and esprit de corps this team radiated had not. There have, it’s true, been women in the shooting field for a long time but it’s great to see that now there are many more of them.
The truth is that the more inclusive shooting can be, the stronger we are. There is still a perception that everyone who shoots looks the same, speaks the same and thinks the same things. In reality, though, we are an eclectic bunch and we’re becoming more eclectic as time goes by. (Read tips for women shooters here.)