The Ferret & Ferreting Society

by Dick Nutt

Tom Alexander's mention of the old F.F.S. in the April newsletter really took me on a "memory lane" trip back to the first country show I ever did with them, at Bowood House in Wiltshire which must have been, I suppose, about 1980. I certainly can't remember everyone who was manning the tent on that day, but Graham Wellstead was definitely there as he gave me a signed copy of his most excellent book "The Ferret and Ferreting Guide", (ISBN 0-7153-8013-3) still a volume very much worth adding to anyone's collection.

It does, however, stick in my mind that almost all of us there wore beards, including, at that time myself and there were also one or two "brewer's corporations" in evidence! In fact, members of the public could have been forgiven for thinking that we were an out of uniform Morris Dancing group, performing strange rites involving ferrets!

In the relatively small tent were plenty of ferrets and kits as well as information pamphlets, copies of Graham's book and membership badges (still got yours, Tom?) but, compared with today's shows, hardly any ferret related goods. I don't think their sales potential for fund raising was fully realised, and not many manufacturers were interested at that time, although Young Bros. down at Misterton, a real hangover from the 1940's, were still selling ferrets, wire copes and bottles of doubtful remedies such as Ferret Tonic and Ferret Wound Powder!

So we sat around, making nets, handling ferrets, nattering with other keepers who came in and talking on ferrets to the public, trying to show them that these creatures weren't the man-eating monsters grandpa had told them about. Plus, it must be said, giving the beer tent a fair bit of trade, something I would not consider doing when in the public eye at a show today.

During the afternoon a lady came up to the tent carrying a large, bell shaped parrot's cage, with a cloth covering over it, told us she had heard we were going to be at the show and wondered if we could help her with a small problem she had. This remark produced a few raised eyebrows, but a sense of decorum was maintained and we asked what we could do!

The problem, she told us, was Fred, a nine year old hob who had retired from working a year previously, and who had recently lost his lifetime cage mate. Fred, she felt, was getting lonely and she had come to us in the hope she could acquire a young jill to keep him company in his twilight years. We all agreed that this seemed a reasonable and fair request and asked if we could have a look at the old gentleman concerned. She lifted the cover off the parrot cage and there, stretched out on an old woollen jumper in the afternoon sunshine was the ancient warrior himself.

Never, ever, have I seen a more world-weary, battered and battled scarred old boy such as this. A pale coloured polecat who must have weighed in close on five pounds and very much still all muscle, he had the look about him that said, "been there, done that, got all the Tee-shirts". Yes, I thought, and most likely eaten the Tee-shirt vendor in the bargain!

His left ear was raggedly divided in two, with two parallel lines of old scar tissue running from the ear, across his cheek to his muzzle, with one of them passing across his long empty left eye socket. His good and very bright right eye regarded us all as he yawned and had a good scratch with a rear paw. I'm sure if he could have spoken he would have sounded just like the late Robert Newton doing his Blackbeard the Pirate act.

She lifted him out and passed him to us for a general inspection, and Fred proved to be as laid-back, gentle and friendly as anyone could wish, contrary to his somewhat villainous appearance, as he was handed all round and given the odd sup from a beer mug. He was short of a few teeth as might be expected in one of his age, but could still use those he had as he proved to us when put back into his cage and given a chick.

It was generally agreed that he did indeed deserve another companion, and one of those present offered to give the lady, he would not consider selling to her, an early-born jill kit who was almost full grown, had been well handled and was usually very quiet.

When asked how Fred had come by his scars and missing eye she told us it had happened when he was two years old. They had been working a warren in which some of the holes had been enlarged, yet there had been no sign of badger occupancy such as airing bedding or dung pits in the area, no obvious footprints or smell of fox at any of the holes either.

Nothing had been bolted after about a quarter hour's waiting and eventually Fred had emerged in a state of collapse, covered in blood and with his left eye gone. She said she had tied a handkerchief around his head and made a dash for her vet, about a half hour's journey. The vet had cleaned up the gashes and the eye socket, pumped him full of antibiotics and sedative and that was that. After a subsequent check up he was pronounced fine and had never had any trouble since, apart from his looks being ruined, but then you can't very well fit a ferret with an eye patch!

The general consensus was that Fred had indeed come across a badger, but probably one that was either half asleep or a bit off colour, and in true ferret style had charged in where angels fear to tread! He must have received a sideswipe from one of those mighty front paws with claws doing the damage nature intended them to. How he had got away was miraculous, because had he come in range of those jaws then I wouldn't be writing this now.

There are men who have been treated in the same way by a lion or leopard, often getting far worse injuries from the paws alone than Fred had received in his encounter, and lived to tell the tale, but he certainly was a very lucky ferret!

Even now I still won't enter a ferret into a much enlarged rabbit burrow, although there may not be any signs at all of Brock around the area it isn't a chance I will take.

Fred and his new girlfriend were placed in a small enclosure outside the tent, and to our delight sniffed about each other quite happily, with the jill doing that little mock war dance and giving him the odd playful nip as disrespectful young ferrets will.

When they were eventually both put into the parrot cage they settled down quite happily, both chattering, so the cover was put back over the cage and they were left to their own devices. As the jill's keeper had refused any offer of money for her, the lady offered to join the F.F.S. and was enrolled on the spot! As she left, carefully carrying the happy couple, a somewhat off-key and beery voice at the back of the tent burst out in full song -

"Her beauty was sold
for an old man's gold,
Just a bird in a gilded caaaage!"

(First published in NFWS News Issue No. 43 - October, 1997)

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