A growing number of women who love adventure and the outdoors are embracing a traditionally male-dominated pastime — hunting. Their passion for the skills they learn and the challenges they work through is evident, as is the amount of criticism they attract.
Emma Sears, 24, nurse
Emma Sears grew up in a farming family in Stratford, in Victoria’s East Gippsland, and was out hunting ducks, rabbits and foxes at a young age.
As an older teenager she started learning how to hunt deer and other game.
She prefers hunting solo, and is excited to see the growing number of women getting into the industry — the Sporting Shooters’ Association of Australia reports a steady increase in its female membership, with 10 per cent of its 177,000 members women.
“I wanted to challenge myself and test myself out in the bush against wild animals, and be successful,” she said of her solo trips.
“Obviously it’s fun hunting with companions, but you get a really good sense of achievement and satisfaction in a successful hunt on your own.”
Ms Sears last year worked at three major hunting industry trade shows in the United States, where she met hundreds of like-minded women.
“The US and Canada are definitely a lot more encouraging of women in the outdoors,” she said.
“It’s so accepted. It’s ingrained in their culture and their values. They just love it.”
Ms Sears hunts for trophies and for meat, harvesting as much meat off an animal as possible. She also loves the bush and exploring new country.
“It’s all that excitement of what are you going to find today, and having that challenge against the wind, against the elements, and then against the wild animal,” she said.
“It’s not always about the kill. It doesn’t always pay off.
“The animal often gets the better of you or the elements get the better of you. And it makes you want to go back and be successful.”
Ms Sears heads out to hunt when she needs to fill the freezer, and also looks for trophy animals — generally, older animals that are past their prime.
“I might pass up multiple animals and go many, many times without ever actually taking an animal, waiting for that big mature stag to present itself. And then that’s where the challenge comes from,” she said.
“I saw 11 deer the other afternoon, so I watched them feed out, but I didn’t need to shoot anything for meat, and there was nothing there that was of trophy size, so I just watched them and they didn’t know I was there.
“And that’s really exciting. I sometimes find that even more exciting than taking an animal — to watch and try to get a photo.”
Dealing with negative feedback
Ms Sears is aware of the criticism that abounds when you talk about hunting, but said it usually came from people who did not understand.
“I’m really respectful of people’s opinions, and if you don’t want to discuss hunting, I don’t,” she said.
“But usually people are inquisitive, and that gives me an opportunity to talk to them about why I go hunting and the benefit for me.
“And ultimately it comes down to, even if we don’t agree, we can agree to disagree and be respectful in our views.”
It is something she practises with her best friend, who is a vegetarian.
“We have robust discussions, but at the end of the day we don’t agree on certain things,” Ms Sears said.
“But then we also have a significant understanding about what I like to do around hunting, and how she feels about animal rights and animal cruelty.
“And she sees hunting as a really ethical way of obtaining your food.”
Sharna Johnson, 28, nurse
Sharna Johnson remembers going out shooting rabbits with her pop at the age of five, then going home and watching her nan cook them up.
Growing up in the high country town of Omeo, in north-east Victoria, she was exposed to hunting from an early age.
“I’ve always had a pretty big love of adventure and learning new things, and I absolutely love the high country and the mountains and getting out exploring them,” she said.
“I think hunting just became an extension of that.”
Ms Johnson started a small business, HCG Like a Girl, which sells hunting clothing for women, and she runs an associated Facebook page providing a place for female hunters to swap stories and photos.
“I think females themselves within the hunting community in Australia have been really good at supporting each other,” she said.
“I think that’s one of the things with HCG Like a Girl — when I started doing that it was about getting some images out there and some stories out there, because there was lots and lots of girls doing it, but it wasn’t really considered normal.”
Ms Johnson loves the learning experience and the challenges of hunting, aiming to improve her skills with each trip.
She is primarily a hound hunter, taking her dogs out to trail deer.
“There is a bit of adrenaline that gets going, when you’re sneaking in on a deer and getting in close,” she said.
“I’ve been out chasing fallow deer recently just with the camera and trying to get in close enough to get that really good shot. Every day you’re learning something new.”
Talking about the antis
As a hunter, she is used to dealing with criticisms from people who think hunting is cruel.
Negative feedback ranges from people who are on the fence regarding hunting, to people those in the industry call “antis”.
“Generally the stuff on my Facebook page that I deal with is the crazies,” Ms Johnson said.
“Half the time it doesn’t make any sense at all. It’s not very often you get an educated argument put forward to you.
“I’ve got a firm delete and block policy. There’s no point trying to start an argument with the antis.”
She said hunting was a more ethical way to source meat, and when it came to pest control, a quick clean kill was preferable to other options.
“Unless you’re eating lettuce every day, you’ve got blood on your hands in some way,” Ms Johnson said.
“I always try to take a clean, ethical shot.
“In terms of animal cruelty, when you’re talking about the wild dog population that we have locally, what they’re going to do to a lamb or a calf is crueller than what I’m going to do.
“[A clean kill] is better than 1080 bait. It’s pretty disgusting what the animals go through [with baiting].”
Rebecca Brammer, 25, pet nutritionist
Growing up on a farm near Geelong, Rebecca Brammer comes from a long line of shooters.
“I’m a sixth-generation shooter. Dad was a sporting clay shooter, and we also hunted rabbits and foxes and things like that around the place,” she said.
“Mainly I do deer hunting and fox hunting now.”
Ms Brammer loves the outdoors and spending nights camping in the bush.
“I also love eating venison and I love eating something I’ve managed to harvest,” she said.
“I’m an animal lover and I work in the animal health industry, and I have a lot of issues with commercially bred and slaughtered meat.
“So I really like to be able to know where my meat comes from and that it was respected and killed humanely.”
Ms Brammer also has to deal with people who are against hunting, to the extent that she shut down her personal Facebook page and now has a ‘like’ page.
“Almost every day I would get a message from somebody I would consider as an anti, and they’re really, really nasty,” she said.
“I don’t quite understand how somebody who thinks what I’m doing is cruel and wrong can turn around and hope my children die or that I get raped, and they just go all out.
“It’s incredible some of the things they come out with and some of the things they think are appropriate.”
Taking an ethical shot
Ms Brammer said she was not killing for the sake of killing, but for pest control or to harvest her own meat.
She said the animal was being killed in its own environment with a minimum of stress.
“I respect its carcass. I’ve thanked every single deer that I’ve shot. I go up to them, and just in my head I give them a bit of a pat and a thank you,” she said.
“I always make sure that if we’re leaving a carcass in the bush that it’s folded up nicely, or maybe put in a bit of hole, and we put trees over the top. A slaughter cow doesn’t get that kind of respect.”
Ms Brammer said she would only take a shot if she knew it was ethical, trying to make sure her kills were quick and clean.
“I’ll use the correct calibre of rifle or the correct poundage and weight of broadhead with my bow, and make sure that I’m able to hit those vital spots,” she said.
“And if something has gone amiss, then I make sure that second shot is being followed up really quickly.”
Ms Brammer said nothing she had shot had ever had to walk around the bush suffering.
“It’s more ethical than any other way of harvesting meat,” she said.
Ms Brammer said social media and marketing aimed at women was part of the reason for the increasing numbers of females out hunting.
“I think there’s probably been a lot of women hunting … but now on social media women can hook up and link in and meet each other, which has changed it,” she said.
“There are all these companies releasing women’s camo and pink guns and tailoring it to the women’s market a little bit more.
“And I think the chicks who before would have gone, ‘Hunting’s not for me’, are now going, ‘Oh, there’s a pink rifle, it must be for me’.”
Ms Brammer is another woman who has developed a business out of her love of hunting, creating jewellery such as rings and earrings from spent bullet casings.