by John Dowd
The stereotype of the male hunter seems to be becoming a thing of the past, and numerous big-name-brand companies are beginning to target the new demographic with programs like the National Rifle Association’s NRA Women’s Wilderness Escape and Ducks Unlimited’s Hunt Like a Girl. These programs are no doubt a response to this change of season within the hunting market. One program, started in Montana, seeks to educate and give women the tools to be effective hunters. HerUpland focuses on showing women how to bird hunt, and puts a strong emphasis on doing so with dogs. A participant of the organization, who believes herself part of this new trend, spoke on her experience and why she found hunting so close to her heart.
Rachel Willard, a physical therapist in Florence and a “Field Mentor” for HerUpland said, “I really dove into the deep end.” She said it’s only been five years since she started hunting, but that she went all in.
She got her start hunting big game with her husband. Willard and her sister-in-law saw the boys going out and thought, hey, that’s something that we can do, too! Eventually, they got into hunting birds over dogs, and that is where her love for hunting really took off.
“I have always had a passion for working dogs, who were given a specific task, and the sheer joy that you get from watching them work is awesome!” said Willard.
She told a story of a puppy she and her husband are training. They recently took him out for his first season, as part of the training process, and though they didn’t shoot any birds, the puppy pointed out three different groups of grouse. To Willard, it was a victory just to see that. Willard believes, at least when it comes to bird hunting, “the dogs make it.”
To her, the dogs are more than just important for the finding and retrieving of the birds. She loves the connection with them, and working as a well-oiled team. In fact, that is why she loves hunting in general: the animals and teamwork. It is also why she believes so many women are finding hunting.
Willard said that in today’s world, many women are getting into hunting because the family dynamics are changing. It’s partly taking down stereotypes, but it is also part of a world changing towards a more cohesive family unit. To her, families are moving away from traditional roles, though she believes there is nothing wrong with those, and migrating more towards a team of people who can do everything together.
“Women are learning that it is OK to shoot guns and it is OK to get out into nature and be rough and tumble,” said Willard.
She believes hunting has been not only a fantastic family activity for them, but has become a mainstay for their kitchen, as well.
“In our house, we don’t ever go to the grocery store [for meat]. We try to eat completely off whatever we hunt,” said Willard. Having a background in physical therapy, being in shape and eating healthy are core values. The food they hunt, she said, is always healthier and sourced in an ethical way. She controls the method of the take, and she works for it, so she knows how the animal lived and died.
Willard said she was the kind of child that always wanted to watch Animal Planet. She loves animals, and expressed how hunting has gotten her closer to nature than she ever imagined.
“In order to be a good hunter, you need to really know the animals,” said Willard. “Hunting opened my eyes to things I never would have seen!”
To her, simply the process of getting out into the woods and hunting has allowed her to experience animals in a very real and connected way, something she believes she never would have experienced had she not gotten into hunting. This is also why she joined HerUpland, to help other women and girls learn to experience the same thing.
HerUpland hosts numerous camps and workshops geared towards women and teaching ethical and effective hunting strategies. “Girls go from knowing nothing to having all the tools,” said Willard. The nonprofit hosts dog training camps, species specific camps and rendezvous hunts for class graduates. Their programs reach beginner from-the-ground-up level students to intermediate and may even start expert level programs. They also do a number of conservation programs, and now the organization is nationwide.
Willard said they also have two scholarships for youth for each camp, bringing out a young girl and a chaperone to learn to hunt. The camps are all-female, and show participants everything they need to know. Their website is a great source of information, Willard said, saying they “even have Q and A’s about which camps to join.”
To Willard, and many other women nationwide, hunting is no longer just a man’s sport. It’s a family thing, and this new generation of female hunters is just as passionate about hunting, animals, conservation and good ethical values as the men.
For more information about HerUpland, interested parties can visit the organization website, herupland.com.