We are well into the shooting season for game, fowl and deer and, while you relax in the warmth with a brew and a cheeky HobNob, if you were to imagine the scene across the windy moorland of one of the great estates of Yorkshire and Lancashire, one distinct image may well jump to mind. A betting man would lay his mortgage on the fact that you pictured a group of rotund gentlemen, green flat caps, the Ready Brek glow emanating from their noses, hinting at a recent overindulgence from the port bottle and expensive tweed jackets bulging at the buttons. Well, you might want to rethink; women have played a major role in the story of shooting, stalking and hunting in general.
Top up your cuppa, grab another biscuit and I’ll tell you about it.
Roman mythology eulogised the hunting prowess of Diana who possessed the power to talk to and control the animals of the woodland like some kind of classical Dr Dolittle. Diana is often pictured in hunting boots with a pack of dogs and a deer and, apparently, after being spotted bathing naked by Acteon, she transformed him into a stag and set her hunting hounds upon him as a punishment that was essentially the Roman equivalent of the ASBO.
This may not seem hugely relevant to today’s stalking and shooting etiquette but it could be enough to give the French photographer who used a long range zoom to document our future King and Queen’s villa holiday a couple of years ago a few sleepless nights. Like the Roman goddess, Kate Middleton has indulged in a spot of deer stalking herself; the Gallic snapper must hope that the similarities end there.
There was outrage in 2007 when Kate, then Prince William’s girlfriend, was spotted on the hunting trip; a reaction many put down to pure sexism. No one seemed to mind that William was taking part, it was deemed normal behaviour, but for a woman to join in was too much for some. The Daily Mail even thought it necessary to point out that Kate was adorned with dangly earrings whilst out in the field as if that bore any relevance to anything.
Incidentally, William’s mother Diana (appropriate, huh?) had suffered a similar backlash when she fired a gun on a trip to the Scottish Highlands with Charles in 1980. It appears that, in the eyes of some people, women and hunting just aren’t seen as compatible which is bizarre when you consider that history has seen a fine array of females involved with such sport.
Anne Boleyn, just like most noble women at the time, had learnt to hunt from childhood. By the time she married Henry VIII she was extremely proficient with a bow and arrow and on meeting her inevitable fate, her decapitated head was buried in the same box that held her
arrows in life, such was her love for the weapons.
In 1894 a book was released entitled Ladies in the Field, compiling tales of ladies who stalked. Lady Mildred Boynton was one such woman and spoke of how hunting had increased in popularity with the fairer sex in the years preceding the book’s publication, “a few years ago, a ‘shooting lady’ was almost as rare as the great auk; if here and there one
member of the sex, more venturesome than her fellows, were bold enough to take to the gun in preference to the knitting needle, she was looked upon as most eccentric and fast, and underwent much adverse criticism”.
For others who wished to forego the knitting needle, Lady Boynton had some advice on the ideal places to buy weaponry and distributed salient tips on how to avoid bruising from the recoil of the shotgun; particularly handy, she espoused, if one had a function to attend that evening.
Around the same time LadyBreadalbane was celebrating her greatest hunting achievement, having disposed of six stags with six bullets in one session in the Highlands. Other fine female stalkers include Mrs Peter Fleming who bagged 930 deer before she retired from the sport at the age of 84, Patricia Strutt who died at 80 having killed 2,000 of the animals and French Duchess d’Uzes who topped even that total.
Many claim that the hunting of deer is an act of cruelty whereas supporters insist that numbers need controlling. Despite some reservations, the popularity of deer stalking is actually increasing. There are many exclusive hunts with price tags often topping £1,000 for the opportunity to hunt the much sought-after roebuck but there has also been a rise in the availability of trips costing as little as £40 (less than many Premier League
football tickets). It is now seen as a novel activity for a day out and women are largely responsible for this upturn.
The Daily Telegraph reported that Andrea Mort, a housewife from Widnes, had recently taken up the sport and was ready to study for her deer stalking licence. “I have always been fascinated by deer and last year I just thought I couldn’t wait any longer and should give it a go,” she told the paper. “The reason people do it is to see nature and to understand it.”
Similarly Angie Middleton from the West Midlands was interviewed after passing her Deer Stalking Certificate Level One test, “I have been interested in stalking since I was a child. I’ve always been a bit tomboyish” she said. “I must have been shooting a couple of dozen
times now but have only shot one deer. The kill is the easy part. It is all about the trail.”
There are some that take it one step further though. Global fury was caused last year when TV presenter Melissa Bachman was pictured on Twitter sitting beside a lion which she claimed to have slain in South Africa. The internet exploded with condemnation but
Bachman was backed up by Olivia Nalos Opre and Mindy Arthurs, two other female hunters who claimed to have killed more than 70 species between them including lions and bears. They insisted that these shootings were necessary for conservation.
Away from shooting, women are an integral part of foxhunts around the country too. In the wake of the Hunting Act 2004, which placed stringent restrictions on the sport, many hunts
around the country looked set to fold forever until a new influx of women came to the rescue. Among their number was Jane Rosalie Butler Adams, who became joint master of the Middleton hunt in North Yorkshire, stating: “I couldn’t bear the thought of the hunt collapsing”. Integral to the Pendle Forest and Craven Hunt is committee member Jo Foster, a racehorse trainer and newspaper columnist. The advice to lady riders who intend to join them on horseback on their website states, “a hair-net should be worn at all times when hunting, and, for your own safety, earrings must not be worn on the hunting” which may just have precluded the future Queen from joining their ranks.
So next time you picture those stoic souls, shotguns in hand, tramping through the heather, a keen eye out for prey, you’ll know that this isn’t just some boys’ club, an excuse to talk turkey (and shoot grouse) while the women sip sherry indoors. As unexpected as it seems, this seemingly traditional throwback of old England is much more of a portrait of sexual equality than you may first have thought.
Right, time for another HobNob.