A Veggie Goes Ferreting

by Sheila Crompton

When I have been telling people about ferrets either when walking my ferrets on a lead or doing PR at shows I have always done my best to educate them about the use of ferrets in the control of the rabbit population. I could only quote from the various books I had read on the subject as I had no first hand experience of working with these wonderful little animals.

On the 16th of October 1995 a stray polecat coloured jill came into our possession. It was a beautiful ferret in top condition. Four days later we received a phone call from a chap who was frantically trying to find his lost ferret - after very carefully quizzing him about the ferret he had lost we reached the conclusion that she must be his ferret. Five minutes later he (Jack) arrived at our door, he had brought her half sister and umpteen photographs of both ferrets working. Jack offered to supply us with some rabbits and also praised the work that the ferret rescues do. We were informed that the poley jill that we had rescued was this years champion ferret at the Lowther Show.

Before Jack left with both his ferrets I asked if I could go rabbiting with him, - arrangements were made for the 29th October. Jack arrived at half seven in his 4x4 vehicle with Stephen, a twelve year old lad he was teaching, three jills (all polecats) and Lucy a six year old whippet. It was a glorious morning, a bit on the cool side but fine and dry. Jack had changed his mind about our destination and had opted for a farm in Upper Wharfedale were he had permission to work. We arrived at the farmhouse at a quarter to nine - paid the farmer. As Jack said three pounds each for a day's sport is cheap in this day and age!

Jack drove up a steep track to get as near as possible to where we would be working - he had injured his leg some time before and found it painful to walk any distance. On getting out of the vehicle we all had a hot drink and a butty. When we eventually set off I opted to carry the spade. Jack had already put the collars on his two ferrets and checked that the box (ferret finder) was working. Stephen didn't have a collar for his ferret but Jack said that it was nearly impossible to lose a ferret where we were.

We set off walking up the fell, I was trailing well behind and gasping for breath, I gave up smoking nearly two years ago but it would appear that I'm still suffering from the years of abuse I had subjected my lungs to.

Lucy, the whippet, was marking a hole. Jack assured me that Lucy was never wrong and that there was someone at home. A ferret was put down the hole and a few nets were deployed - Yes I'd read that the holes were netted first and then the ferret was sent in but it was only a small warren and Lucy would deal with anything that bolted. Lots of thumping and bumping and then silence. Out comes the box, ferret two feet down, the spade is handed over and Jack starts digging and then lies full length on the ground and reaches into the hole he lifts out a rabbit which is closely followed by the jill. The rabbit is quickly and humanely dispatched by chinning. Lucy meanwhile, is off up the fell and is now marking another warren. Jack places the rabbit is his bag and we set off after the dog. The ferret is introduced and more nets are placed in position. I even have a go at setting a net myself. A rabbit makes a bolt for it out of a hole that hadn't been netted, Lucy sets off in pursuit but the rabbit gets away. Jack's not bothered as there are hundreds of rabbits up here. More bumping sounds and a rabbit hits the net - another one to add to the bag. Lucy has lost interest in the warren and the ferret is mooching about on the grass.

Stephen offers to take the two rabbits back to the car, while we pick up the nets, I make 'a pigs ear' of trying to fold a net until Jack shows me how to do it. Then Jack and I just stand and admire the scenery, the view from up here is marvellous the River Wharfe down in the valley and the distant fells, the clean air and the silence apart from a ferret moving around in its carrying box.

Stephen rejoins us and we head off across the tops. Lucy is running ahead watched by us and some sheep, - I asked Jack how he trained Lucy to ignore the sheep - he said that when she was a pup he used to take her for walks through sheep and if she pricked her ears or looked interested she received a smart tap on the nose.

Lucy is now marking another warren, Jack puts his two jills down this time and Stephen asks if he can try his ferret out. No nets are deployed this time as the dog will be used, Stephen is worried because his ferret doesn't appear to want to go down the hole. Jack advises him to leave her alone and she'll pick her time. She eventually dives down and reappears a few feet away chattering to herself, she bounces around and then disappears back underground. Jack's ferrets have bolted a rabbit straight into the waiting Lucy. Jack takes the rabbit from Lucy's mouth and swiftly kills it. Another rabbit bolts - Lucy dashes off after it and as she lowers her head to grab it the rabbit jinks to the left and the dog snaps at fresh air. Jack calls Lucy back to him and the rabbit takes cover in a dry stonewall.

Off we go to another warren, Lucy has already indicated that there are no more rabbits in the one were are currently at. Lucy marks a warren in a series of rocky depressions, Jack however, calls her off as he said that places like that scare him as it looked as if there could be a cave underneath it. The area is full of pot holes and we don't want to be the first to find another entrance to one.

We find another likely place and once again all the ferrets are used. This time the bag is five rabbits - even the novice ferret bolts a couple. Jack however had to dig for one of the rabbits that a jill had backed-up into a dead end. Jack offers the live rabbit to me to chin, I decline the offer saying that I'll have to get used to the idea first! It took me a while before I could use a priest on a fish so it'll take a few more trips out ferreting before I eventually get around to chinning a rabbit, it is mainly lack of confidence in my ability to kill the rabbit quickly.

I stopped eating meat when cattle were diagnosed with BSE, I began to wonder just what drugs were being pumped into animals destined for the food market. I can live quite happily without meat but my ferrets can't they need whole carcass to remain in good health and if they are used to catch their own food I can't see any problem with that. My ferrets aren't fed 'tortured flesh' (see letter in the Autumn '94 Newsletter) just rabbit caught fair and square and killed as quickly and humanely as possible- as for LACS condoning the use of cyanide all I can say is that I reckon they must be really sick!, gassing is indiscriminate and can knock off any other animal that happens to wander into a warren that has just been done. Greenpeace may have lost credibility over the Brent Spar issue but at least some members accept ferreting as an ecological way of controlling rabbits.

We carry on across the fell bolting one or two rabbits from every warren that Lucy marks. By this time Jack's rucksack is getting pretty heavy and Stephen puts his new knife to use legging the rabbits. He legs three and passes the knife over to me to try it. I feel for the spot to slit the hind leg and have just placed the tip of the knife against the leg when a muscle spasm caused the hind leg to kick -I drop the knife, and Stephen does the job. He hangs the four rabbits on a spare net and slings the lot over his shoulder. When a fifth rabbit was added to the net Stephen began to falter a bit, the net was digging into his shoulder, by this time I was carrying both the spade and the bag of nets so I took the rabbits and passed the nets to Stephen. I slung the string of rabbits on the spade handle and got the lot nicely balanced over my shoulder with the rabbits hanging down my back.

Lucy has picked a warren in the middle of a flat bit of the fell, however there is a limestone outcrop, I believe the term is pavement, fairly near so Jack left me there to turn any bolting rabbit, he didn't want Lucy running across the rocky bit in case she injured herself. The rabbit that bolted however dashed into a nearby warren. We decided to net as well as Lucy missed the next rabbit that bolted. We heard some bumping around and then silence, once more the ferret finder and spade were brought into play. This time Jack pulled a dead rabbit out of the hole, the jill had killed it with a neck bite.

With fourteen rabbits in the bag we decided that we had enough to carry back to the car but Lucy has been wandering around when she starts chasing a rabbit which she eventually catches Jack reckons that the rabbit must be ill or injured because of the ease with which Lucy caught it. Sure enough the rabbit is suffering from myxomatosis - anyway it is soon put out of its misery and pain. The rabbit is left for any passing fox, Jack assured me that it was quite safe to eat but that there isn't much meat on them. The next thing Lucy is off after another which she caught and dispatched. So another rabbit is added to the net and hung from the spade. We arrive back at the car and out come the flasks and sandwiches. I ask where the ferrets' water is only to be told that they will be getting some liver to eat when the rabbits are gutted. I keep quiet for now, I don't want to rock the boat too much to start with. I intend to take Kurt and Deanna Troi with me next time I go with Jack and I will make sure that I take a bottle of water for them. So come on you lads who work ferrets you take a flask of tea or coffee for yourself - what about a drink for the workers!! OK you give the ferret some liver when you gut the rabbits but that is not the same as a nice drink of cold water.

Stephen took the spade and dug a hole to take the rabbit guts, he was still anxious to try out his new knife. He picked up one of the rabbits and eyed it warily, it was obvious that he'd never done the job before. Jack who was still eating told him how to hold the rabbit and where to make the first incision with the point of the knife, he was a bit confused as to the next move the bit where the belly is slit without piercing the internal organs. I knew how the job was done having, as a child, watched my mother gut and skin a rabbit. Rabbit was on the menu at least once a week when I was a child but I haven't eaten it since seeing them suffering from myxomatosis when it was introduced in the early 50's. Anyway Jack who had now finished eating, grabbed another rabbit and gave a demonstration.

The ferrets were given some liver, I bet they would have enjoyed a drink of water as well to wash it down with!

We pile the 17 gutted rabbits into the back of the car and then set off to see if there was anything doing further down the hill but there didn't appear to be anyone at home in any of the warrens. While Lucy was investigating one hole Jack commented on the presence of 'fell rats', I looked up to see about a dozen walkers coming down the footpath which crossed the fell. Jack uses the term because as he puts it, "They put nothing into the countryside and want everything out of it!" He also said that he had been subjected to verbal abuse from them at times but on other occasions some walkers have taken an interest and have watched for quite a while.

Jack decides to try the field at the back of the farm house so we all go back to the car and make our way back down the track to the road. Stephen is the lucky one who has to deal with all the gates.

Jack parks just off the road and we make our way to the field at the back of the house, Lucy takes an interest in a rubbish dump in a corner of the field. This time we do the job properly and net before the ferrets are introduced, the first rabbit bolts out of a hole that hadn't been netted, Stephen apologises and said "I'd noticed the gap but I didn't think it was a hole", it was partly covered with what looked like a top of a tractor cab. Lots of bumping and rumbling and two more rabbits hit the nets and are quickly dispatched. Silence for a bit and then flurry as a rabbit hits a net and escapes without being caught by it. The jill pops out of the hole and gives Jack a look of disgust and then disappears back underground. Two more rabbits are caught and with the tally at twenty-one Jack decides to call it a day, Stephen still wants to carry on but as Jack rightly points out we've had a good day and it'll be going dark in an hour and half and he would like to drive home in daylight. Stephen pees and guts the four rabbits. While Jack and I collect and fold the nets, the ferrets have their collars removed and are placed in their boxes with another piece of liver. We head back to the car and set off for Bolton.

I have half a dozen rabbits for the freezer, I 'phone some friends who have 15 ferrets to see if they'd like some rabbits - Gill calls the next day to pick them up.

When I mentioned to Ron that I'd like to take Kurt and Deanna out rabbiting the only thing he said was "Don't you dare come home without them!!" I've found a wooden box which will do for a box for the two jills, it just needs some air holes drilling and a shoulder strap. The main piece of equipment I require is a collar, the ferret finder will come later as I'll be going with Jack and Stephen for a while yet. For starters I wouldn't get permission to ferret on the land we were on without Jack and we all know getting permission to work is extremely difficult these days.

(First published in NFWS News - #36 February 1996)