Meet the people trying to make country pursuits more accessible to women

The Country Girls UK, founded by arable farmer Tania Coxon, is empowering like-minded women to get involved in field sports like shooting, and supporting local businesses in the process.

Tania Coxon, on the left, wants to make country pursuits more accessible for women. (Picture: Sam Freeman).

The nationwide business has seen great success in Yorkshire where approximately 20 per cent of its membership is based. Events at Abbey Sporting in Rievaulx, Grimston Park Estate near Tadcaster, and Thimbleby Shooting Ground near Northallerton, have proved very popular with beginners and experienced shots alike.

So far, more than 80 women have enjoyed shoots in Yorkshire, with places selling out well in advance.

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The Country Girls UK (CGUK) officially launched last November, but the seeds were sown two years earlier. Tania Coxon, who manages the family farm in County Durham and has a large social media following, began to share content about the pigeons that were decimating her crops.

A group shot from an Abbey Sporting simulated game day. (Picture: Sam Freeman).

“Shooting the pigeons is the only way to assure a profitable and sustainable crop at the end of year, but many people didn’t understand. So I began to explain and educate people about the importance of shooting,” says Coxon, who won the Best Prospective Farmer Award at the Royal Agricultural University.

Coxon was bombarded with questions about shooting and country life, and built an online community for women to exchange information and share their love of the outdoors. The first event, a simulated game day, took place at Grimston Park, in June 2019. “We had so much fun, it was like we had known each other for years, because we had all been driven to this shoot through common interests”, says Coxon.

The first lockdown gave Coxon the opportunity to grow the community into a business. But when the harvest began she found herself working 15-hour days and brought in a virtual assistant, Charlotte Handley, who is based in Helmsley.

Six months after The Country Girls UK launched officially, there are already 220 members, not counting those who have attended shoot days but not yet purchased membership. Coxon has appointed 12 Regional Ambassadors, including one for Yorkshire, to cope with demand. “It’s really gathering momentum,” adds Handley. “There are Country Girls all around me, in Thirsk, Malton, Pickering.”

Coxon and Handley speak very highly of the Grimston Park Estate and of the “incredible” family-run shoot at Abbey Sporting at Rievaulx. Thimbleby Shooting Ground, located within the North Yorkshire Moors National Park, is also a favourite.

As with many shoots in Yorkshire, all the hospitality at Thimbleby is local. Any meat that does not come from the 3,000-acre estate is sourced from a local butcher in Northallerton. “Supporting British businesses and having that translate through to our actual events when the shoots use local businesses too, is so important to us,” says Handley.

The Country Girls UK are frequently contacted by shoots offering to host them at their grounds. “The Country Girls were a great bunch, all-laughing, all-smiling,” says Philip Thompson, Thimbleby’s Shoot Ground Manager. And were they good shots? “At the end of the day they were.”

Liam French, owner of Grimston Park Shoot, agrees: “Some of the Country Girls shoot better than the men!” He believes what Coxon has created is something that is very good for the sport.

Not all businesses are as supportive, however. Occasionally, Coxon has encountered the sort of sexism that reinforces the need to even out the gender imbalance in country pursuits.

“I’ve had shoots say that they will put the girls on a lower drive, or they will try and charge me ridiculous prices because I’m a woman and they assume I don’t know what I’m talking about,” Coxon says. “You ladies are much better shots than we thought you would be,” is a common response from shoot organisers on the day.

As of March 2021, there are 567,358 shotgun licences in the UK, but only six per cent of those shotgun licences are held by women. What are some of the obstacles that women face?

According to Coxon, it’s often a lack of confidence. “Men are more likely to throw themselves in, whereas I think women tend to worry more about getting it wrong, or not being any good.”

Certainly, pre-shoot nerves are common. “Signing up for a membership is such a big thing for so many women,” says Handley, “but our community is so supportive, there is nothing to worry about. We are there for one another.”

The events attract women of all ages and occupations, ranging from gamekeepers and farmers to nurses, doctors, police officers and accountants. “We had a mother and daughter on a simulated day at Thimbleby. How amazing is it that there is an organisation where you can go shooting with your mum, and both of you fit in?” says Handley.

The community aspect is strong. In February, members undertook to run, walk or cycle 100km each, and raised over £6,500 for the Gamekeepers’ Welfare Trust, and members also enjoy regular social events, including an upcoming day in York.

After months of lockdown, the camaraderie is a strong pull factor. “I’ve always been a very sociable person, but in farming you can be quite isolated, whereas now I am meeting 15 new people every single weekend,” says Coxon.

The organisation is about much more than just shooting and socialising, however. “A huge part of our ethos is education”, says Coxon, who organises several talks and masterclasses each month. A recent demonstration from a venison expert walked the members through the whole butchery process.

The CGUK website is a bank of information, where members share recipes and inspiration on the blog (the rules are strict: if you shoot it, you eat it). Recent favourites have included Asian-inspired sticky pheasant goujons, and haggis bon bons with whisky marmalade for Burns Night.

Coxon also hopes to expand into gun dog training, stalking, falconry, and fishing. And, when not running the family farm or attending CGUK events, Coxon has been designing an all-British clothing line for women who shoot, to be launched at the Game Fair in July.

It is rare for an events business to have grown during the pandemic, but CGUK’s success lies not just in the events, but in the community it has built: one of mutual support and respect – for each other, for their quarry, and for the countryside.

The popularity of the events shows that the Country Girls are succeeding in demystifying country pursuits, and making them more accessible and affordable for women.

“We want to go beyond the trope of the token girl on a peg, and raise that six per cent statistic,” says Handley. “Don’t underestimate us.”