by Jo Woodward
Ferrets as pets is a relatively new concept and it is only in the last 10 - 20 years that ferrets as house pets has caught on. Ferrets as working companions, however, is a relationship dating back centuries.
Ferreting is a field sport, and the differences between field sports and blood sports are myriad.
Blood sports involve an animal being transported to an enclosed area with no means of escape, whereas in field sports the animals are hunted in their natural habitat with every chance of escape. Any ferreter will tell you about the rabbits that have slipped through nets or used undiscovered bolt holes. "How the B**!!Y H**L did he get out?" is a question often hissed through clenched teeth.
The rabbit is a pest species. The damage done to agriculture alone cost millions of pounds every year. More sad is to see keen gardeners whose hard work is slowly destroyed by rabbits, or young trees planted as part of the new forest schemes stripped bare of bark and succumbing to disease. It should be noted that the law (N.F.W.S: Pests Act 1954, Section 1) requires people to deal with pest species living on their land or be held responsible for the damage perpetrated by the pests. British Rail learned this law the hard way.
The question of how to control rabbits has five answers gassing, snaring, shooting, myxomatosis or ferreting.
This can only be carried out under license and uses cyanide (Cymag). It is indiscriminate, killing all animals in the tunnels. Sometimes, cyanide does not kill quickly and there is no way of checking. (N.F.W.S: This can also be dangerous for the ferret. If holes have not been filled in or a warning placed by the landowner that cyanide has been used, the unsuspecting ferreter can work his ferrets in the run with terrible consequences. Our Chairman lost one of his jills in this way.).
This is an effective form of rabbit control, but it is only for expert pest controllers. It takes a long time to learn how and where to set snares effectively. In inexperienced hands, snares are, at best ineffectual and at worse can cause suffering to other animals caught in them.
No marksperson can guarantee a 100% first shot kill rate, particularly at night when some animals will, inevitably, be wounded but not killed. It is not always possible to find wounded animals and if they live, the wound will fester and the animal dies a slow and painful death. In many areas, shooting is totally impractical, putting building, animals and people at risk.
This is a man made disease. It is only when a person has seen the results of myxomatosis in a living rabbit that the full horror of the disease becomes apparent. Soft tissue swells, the face becomes so puffed that breathing and eating are difficult, blindness comes slowly as the eyes film over then swell shut completely and digestion becomes impaired; no nutrition can be absorbed. Spreading myxomatosis is now illegal. Rabbits may be breeding with some resistance, but many still suffer and die.
By using the ferrets' natural hunting instincts, rabbits are bolted from underground into purse nets or long nets. The rabbits can be caught in nets and then discriminatly dispatched in less than a minute (i.e. young and pregnant rabbits can be released). Dispatching is carried out bloodlessly, by dislocating the neck. A mangled rabbit is no good if the ferreter has a butcher waiting. Ferreting leaves no chemicals or poisons in the ground and it harms no other animals. Rabbits not caught on the day are left unhurt.
There are people opposed to field sports through a misguided sense of morality or a misguided sense of class warfare. There are also some pet ferret owners who oppose ferreting. What none of these people can offer is an alternative to ferreting which provides a selective, ecologically safe and humane solution to rabbit control.