Forget the spa — spending a day in the field among like-minded companions with a ladies’ syndicate is a serious tonic and a great way to make new friends, says Mary Skipwith
The sort of company found in female shooting syndicates is one ingredient to a great day’s sport but another is looking the part. Be sure to take a look at The Field‘s guide to essential shooting kit, including the best shooting socks, best ear defenders and best gumboots.
FEMALE SHOOTING SYNDICATES
“There’s something about a woman with the gumption to pick up a gun that makes her good company,” says Elizabeth Cook, who belongs to the East of England Women’s Social Shooting, one of a seemingly small number of all-female game-shooting syndicates within the UK. Her declaration is music to the ears of those frustrated by the assumption that a ‘girls’ day out’ must involve a spa. There are plenty of ladies who would rather be in a shoot room than a steam room, plastering mud on their gumboots rather than faces and talking of ‘numbers of shots’ in terms of cartridges fired rather than lemongrass and seaweed concoctions swallowed.
While Cook’s is “a loose virtual collective – rather than a solid block where the same people shoot in the same place, we have formed into overlapping teams as time and opportunities allow” – other syndicates are more defined. India Barber established hers a couple of years ago with nine of her best girlfriends who all pay into a kitty each month. “We love to join our husbands throughout the season for their various days, but we thought it was time the men were the peg candy and we were the ones firing the shots. It didn’t take much to convince the girls.” Since her syndicate members are spread out across the country, they choose a different location each year to make it fair.
“It was time we were the ones firing the shots”
Barber may find Lancashire-based Heather Tierney-Moore has pipped her to the post when booking. The shoot captain of The Gunpowder Girls, a roving syndicate, tells me: “We tend to stick to the north of England; the shooting is so good and plentiful and the topography is great.” She also has members spread around the country. “Initially it was a small group of local ladies, all from Lancashire, with little experience between us. We were supported by BASC and gents who would mentor and load for us and even take a peg if we couldn’t fill the day. We quickly gained confidence and started to expand the group. We now have more than 20 ladies who shoot with us, from Kent and Norfolk as well as more locally.”
The initial plan was for the captaincy to rotate, but Tierney-Moore proved to be so organised she was entrusted with it permanently. While the title may sound like an accolade, in reality planning the days requires immense organisation. “Over the years we have learnt a lot, not least to plan the season early and make sure people commit,” she says. “We get together in February to reflect on the successes of the last season and agree how many dates we want. We are clear about the types of day we are after, such as birds that are challenging but not stratospheric and two 200-bird days rather than one 400-bird day.”
Chelsea King is equally as efficient. “I arrange a few ladies’ days each season and also get involved with ladies’ days organised by friends. I get in touch with shoot owners to find out the cost and invite a group of ladies. I bullet-point the invitation with location, quarry available, size of bag, cost per gun, a list of accommodation and so on.” She’s also arranged a ladies’ day on her home shoot in Bedfordshire. “There were three women who were new to game shooting but had shot clays and beat on their local shoot so were well informed. I arranged instructors for them so they felt at ease and could enjoy the day. The gamekeeper took time at the end of the last drive to help two of the ladies bag their first duck. I think it’s small details like that which really stand out.”
Transitioning from clays to game can be daunting
Such consideration for making the day less intimidating is a thread that runs throughout conversations with other lady guns. Steph Davey, who ignited such a passion for shooting that she has turned it into her career coaching both clay and game shots, is now embarking on establishing her own ladies-only syndicate in Dorset. “There are some fantastic shooting estates and lots of women that shoot but no one bringing them together. I want to gather those ladies to enjoy summer clays and simulated game days before becoming a roving syndicate during the season,” she says. “Transitioning from clays to game can be a daunting task if you don’t have any links.” She has recently hosted her own ladies game day at the Winscombe Shoot, which was open to those of various experience levels. “With a peg sharing/ mentoring system in place it allowed ladies who maybe hadn’t shot driven game before, the opportunity, with the support and guidance of more experienced lady shots. It was a fabulous day with a lot of ‘firsts’.”
Alongside her syndicate, Davey is a member of the Mendip Game Birds in Somerset and The Game Dames in the north. Lydia Browne runs the latter. “The Game Dames’ aim is to be inclusive and encourage women from all backgrounds into the sport. We founded it in 2018 after a group of ladies involved in the local clay ground’s ladies’ coaching expressed an interest in game shooting. It’s run for the benefit of ladies’ shooting, not for profit. Shooting with an all-female team is a great laugh but also such a supportive community, celebrating the hits and shrugging off the misses.”
The importance of an inclusive, nurturing environment resonates with them all. While fieldsports continue to make huge strides towards more of a balance in gender division, it can still be intimidating for women to participate in the traditionally male-dominated environment of driven shooting. The Gunpowder Girls felt like a novelty act when they started out. “Every man and his dog came to watch. My friend said to me, ‘When no one comments on the shooting we know we’ve cracked it.’ There have been lots of shoots where we have been their first all-lady Gun team and while they are welcoming we can tell they are a bit anxious. However, that dissipates when they see us shoot.”
Occasional dubious looks from traditionalists
King has had similar experiences. “There have been the occasional dubious looks from traditionalists if they’ve never met us before, but once they see that we are safe and respect the sport any doubt is eradicated.” Consideration and effort goes into making the right impression. As Browne explains: “We pick the right shoots to attend. Often, one of our members has already beaten or shot there. We have also built up strong relationships with the teams and have been made to feel welcome and respected, which has led to us returning each year.” And as Cook points out: “If we tip well and leave some birds, who would mind that?”
It doesn’t mean that there isn’t a certain satisfaction in proving their prowess. Barber remembers her syndicate’s day two seasons ago. “There were two girls who had never shot before, yet by the end both had their first pheasant and duck. On the last drive two of the boys back-gunned, but their jaws dropped as quickly as the teal they had missed as another of the girls stopped it in its flight.” The idea of tradition is changing too, since daughters and granddaughters now feature more in the field. “We have had some lovely hand-me-downs from our fathers who are starting to hang up their cartridge bags. Mine sweetly gave me my great-grandfather’s Norfolk tweed shooting suit,” Barber says.
Something that arguably sets the women apart from many men is a readiness to gauge their ability and seek advice. Cook tells me: “When I started shooting, I had so much respect for the quarry instilled into me that I didn’t go near game for years. I remember people missing clays and declaring it was because they were game shooters and thinking, ‘If those clays were hard, birds must be entirely beyond my ken.’ I had a minder in the field for three seasons until I was confident I could conduct myself appropriately. I’ve never had a day that wasn’t enjoyable because if I haven’t shot well, I ask for help. Having shot terribly and caused my loader no end of despair one day, I had my gun refitted and that set me up for the rest of the season.”
Going for a wild wee is easier with a female shooting syndicate
This is only one of a few subtle differences between the sexes on a shoot. While men may take home a brace, Barber and her team “take home as much of the bag as we can for the freezer”. King concurs: “All the ladies tend to take birds home and use them to make elevenses, sharing recipes for game terrines and pastries.” She has noticed different preferences for the weather, too. Remembering the day she hosted a couple of years ago, she says: “It was a glorious September day and most enjoyable for the women. From experience I know men aren’t such fans of the sunshine on game days; they’d rather it be blowing a gale to push the birds.” Yet it is Davey who admits to the difference in sexes that offers the most relief (in more than one sense): “Going for a wild wee is easier when you don’t have to worry about the rest of the gunline.”
A syndicate format isn’t for everyone, though, and it is notable how few exist. Some women find it’s self-selecting – you either fit in or you don’t. Others bristle at the risk of being labelled a gaggle of guns. Understandably, the regular financial input can become prohibitive. Yet though Barber tells me that “between weddings and babies, our syndicate is top priority in our calendars”, it’s clear that the time commitment required can be a considerable restriction for many. Mhairi Morriss, owner of Glad Rags and Cartridge Bags, explains: “I founded my ladies’ clay-shooting company nine years ago and since then we have held more than 130 events. While we arrange them for every day of the week, without a doubt the most popular day is a Sunday because there’s ‘Daddy day-care’. But obviously game cannot be shot on a Sunday; hence, unsurprisingly, there are fewer all-women teams out there.
“While women are the queens of juggling many balls, in reality those balls cannot be parked away in a box for a whole day very often,” Morriss continues. “They tend to have more obligations than men, which prevents them from running out the door with their keys, purse and 20-bore. The commitment needed for a game syndicate is one that few women can sign up to.” Nevertheless, those who can and do commit reap many rewards. “It’s all about appreciating a day in the field and everything that goes into shooting: the countryside, heritage, beaters, keepers and picking-up teams,” claims Tierney-Moore. And with the skill, aptitude and energy these women bring to their syndicates and shoot days, they’ve proved they can nail a polished performance without a trip to the spa.