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Lady Guns and the future of shooting

Al Gabriel spends a day with a group of lady Guns in the heart of Northumberland, at a special shoot where the focus is on the future

Kerry McCubbin swings through a high bird

In a place where time has had little impact on the traditional way of life, it was an honour to spend a day with a group of lady Guns. I was on my way to a picturesque family-run shoot called Northumberland Sporting Game (NSG) in Bellingham. Driving in on the foggiest, stillest of days, I feared the birds might not want to play ball. Nonetheless, for an avid deerstalker who rarely participates in driven days, the invitation to watch one was set to be the highlight of my week. 

A special let day had been put together at the shoot for a roving all-woman syndicate called The Game Birds. NSG’s father-mother-daughter team — Colin and Michelle Anderson and their daughter Tracy Turner — had worked very hard for The Game Birds to make this day a success. What made it special was that not only the Guns but also the beaters were all women. To complete the line-up, some of the hardiest dogs from the north were on hand to show off their flushing and picking up skills. 


Spent cartridges

The background story of the shoot is worth mentioning: it is on an organic farm, and current working royals have visited the site. The shoot operates on a golden circle principle: shot game is sold locally through local dealer Ridley’s Fish and Game. The feathers from downed pheasants and partridges are used for decorations by a local business called Spent Shells that makes jewellery, hats and decorations. Even spent cartridges are used for its products, which adds to the green credentials of the shoot. 

But there is more: locally shot game is also the mainstay for elevenses and gunroom lunches. At a time when farm diversification is more important than ever, few do it as successfully as NSG.

Jo Findley, Chloe Sinclair, Lynn Paxton and Julie Elborough (behind the pheasant) on the final drive

The social fabric holding the team together was evident on the day. Despite the hardships of Covid and the rise in the cost of living, this close-knit team of beaters, Guns and keepers made the day a real treat. Before the start, Colin, a farmer, gave a brief overview while the Guns kept warm with hot drinks. The excitement was palpable. 

Morgaine McKay, organiser of the Guns, then gave them some words of encouragement. The group is made up of like-minded women from different parts of the country who come together to celebrate shooting. Even their male partners could not miss the opportunity to enjoy the day, many of them attending  as loaders. 

As the shoot is spread around thousands of acres of land, every Gun needs a proper vehicle to get to their pegs. While my pickup was at the garage, I had decided to get there in a Mini Countryman. With plenty of pickups on site I was invited to jump in one with a visiting Gun for the day. You can’t beat northern hospitality. 

Hope, a labrador belonging to Emma Davidson, retrieves a smart pheasant after Charlton Dene


In her element

The first drive, Whitey Pot, was around a small pond with a steep bank in front. As the Guns found their pegs, I was able to admire all the dogs that make the day what it is. I was particularly excited to see a border terrier who was absolutely in her element: her gaze was fixed on the sky; she knew what was coming. 

Despite the beaters’ best efforts, the drive was unexpectedly slow. Plenty of birds were pushed towards the Guns, but they chose not to fly and rather snuck out of danger by flanking the Guns on foot. After all, flying on a still day is ‘energy expensive’ from a pheasant’s point of view. Some did take to the air close to the Guns but were too low. I must have counted at least two dozen birds flying low over well-disciplined Guns.

At the sound of the horn, it was the end of the drive, but with three to go, there would be more opportunities.

One of the lady beaters, Debs Morrison, flushing pheasants on Tennis Court drive



The day was young, so off we went to the second drive, Charlton Dene. This was rather exciting because the elevation on the ground meant that it was a fantastic opportunity for high birds. I couldn’t help but spot an eager flatcoat waiting for her first bird. The Guns were lined up in a horseshoe arrangement. I could hear the birds approaching. 

Suddenly, a few pheasants broke cover and took to the skies: the Guns were on point. The pheasants kept coming at a steady rate with a mixture of very high and low fliers. Most Guns did see plenty of action with excellent dog work. This drive had bumped the bag count up, and when the horn sounded, it was time for elevenses. 

This was everything you might hope for. Michelle, first lady of the farm, had whipped out a fine spread including pheasant goujons, sandwiches and homemade sausages. Elevenses remain the sole domain of Michelle, whom everybody recognises as the real boss. 

Debs Morrison and Sarah Breckons enjoy some much-need refreshment at the end of the day

All the produce used comes from the shoot or the farm, so with minimal carbon footprint. The Guns were soon enjoying the food and some good conversation. Shoot days are a wonderful opportunity to meet new people from different walks of life.

It didn’t take me long to strike up a conversation with a lady Gun who runs her own company called the Dog First Aid Co. I never fully appreciated the complexities of dog first aid and I was surprised to find out that, although most of us do carry dog first-aid kits, the products they contain are often made for human use but repackaged for dogs, and they rarely work as expected.

I was pleased to hear that the industry is moving in the right direction. Our four-legged friends deserve nothing less.

The third drive, The Bog, started with a bang. A handful of mallard suddenly made an appearance but they lived to tell the tale. Not long after, the first pheasants started to come in and, with shots going off everywhere, the dogs were working hard marking and picking up. A couple of pegs in particular were productive and Guns couldn’t load
fast enough. The 75-bird day was taking shape.

A quick debrief for Emma Davidson and Kerry McCubbin after the Charlton Dene drive


Impressive restraint

The final drive of the day was the called Tennis Court. As the Guns looked to the skies with excitement, I was placed at a flush point. I could see dozens of birds approaching, then taking off, yards from where I was stood. This last drive provided the most exciting birds with fantastic shooting. Low birds were left alone with impressive restraint. It was an appropriate finale to the day, with smiles all around. I even spotted what I think was an antlered roe doe that decided to make an appearance, but I only had a glimpse. They are few and far between.

When the sport ended, the whole team gathered at the farm to swap stories. With the final birds picked up, we went back to the gunroom for some food and much-deserved drinks. This was a great opportunity to meet the beaters and get their take on the day. Among them were plenty of young faces. This has never been as important as it is now; it is heart-warming to see so many youngsters. They really are this sport’s future.

The picking up team of Ken Alder, Pat Staines and Laura Gray

At a time when shooting is facing more and more challenges through misinformation and unnecessary regulation, it is vital to keep our green credentials and focus on our net gain aims. In my view, not a single bird should be shot if the market to utilise the meat is not there. Shoots are producers of healthy and nutritious food, and finding appropriate outlets for game meat is key to our future. 

NSG represents a fantastic model in which businesses come together to create a resilient local collaboration that showcases the best of British. Such a model should be adopted by lots of shoots across the country.

At the heart of all local shoots is that sense of family and support systems that transcend merely the day. It is a tradition that binds us all and a way of life that means so much to so many people. We must continue to ensure that shooting is enjoyed by people from all walks of life. It is only through good shooting practices that we can safeguard our sport’s survival for generations to come.