Ferreting in Eire

By Carl Cameron

You've got to like ferreting to go ferreting and only those of you who have stood knee deep in snow in a January gale or waited for what seemed like 3 months for your beloved jills to reappear in horizontal 40 mile an hour rain and then cheerfully set to work netting the next bank will know what I mean.

Ferreting's great, forget football, forget fishing, forget horse racing - ferreting is the true sport of Kings. Well I'm going over the top a bit but to those of use who venture forth with ferret and net knows no better way of spending a winter's morning. I'm very lucky with my ferreting being a reasonable distance from home. Within an hour of leaving home the nets are up and the gods willing one or two in the game bag. There's many of you I know have to travel vast distances to get to your hunting grounds. Ads in the Countryman's Weekly regularly ask for ferreting within a radius of 100 miles of their home town and I for one can only take my hat off to you for folks like yourselves are truly the backbone of the ferreting community. I still give thanks to the day I passed my driving test - until that I had to ride, no not ride endure a near 50 mile round trip on a Honda moped, ferret box strapped on the back, net bag strapped to me and Penny, my terrier, stuffed inside my battered old waxed jacket and head off in the dark to County Sligo. Gritting lorries are pure science fiction in this part of Ireland even on quite big roads I should add, so I suppose it was only a matter of time before I came a cropper, luckily we all escaped my encounter with an extremely hard road unscathed, so it's with a sense of utter comfort that I now travel on my early morning forays.

The farms here are tiny by UK standards, entire farms are often smaller than a single English field and I suppose 30 acres is average size, although on the mountain where we live in Co. Leitrim 12 - 15 acres is nearer the mark. All these farms are well hedged although a single strand of wire is all that keep them stock proof in most cases. Fields too are very small, down to 1/2 an acre but again if I was to pick an average it would be 2 acres. Now that's a lot of hedge and an awful lot of rabbits because these hedges are honeycombed with warrens, in fact let's be honest there are too many warrens, it's just impossible to see where one warren starts and another ends. I could make nets from March until September and still not have enough for a day's ferreting. It's enough to give a young ferret a nervous breakdown. You just can't pick and choose the easy bit because there aren't any. So how do you attempt to tackle such monsters?

Well let's start at the business end of your operations namely your ferrets, and the colour is white. Yes, I know if you have ferreted well you should be able to hear worms breath never mind your ferret leaving that bolt hole you've missed in the middle of the field (to those of you out there who don't work their animals silence is all important for rabbits who suspect there are worse things waiting outside their holes are most unlikely to bolt which leaves you with the undesirable task of digging your little bundle of fun out because as sure as eggs is eggs they'll "kill down"). The chances on my patch is so great of my jills leaving unnoticed, often 50 to 100 yards from where they were introduced, the colour is definitely white! Now hand shy ferrets can become your worst nightmare on warrens such as these and you honestly stand more chance of catching rabbits if you leave them at home, bringing them out to make up numbers is of no use because you'll spend all day on your first warren trying to get the little darling back into its carrying box. Hand shyness, or skulking, is probably the worst fault of a working ferret and there is absolutely no need for the condition to have arisen in the first place. On your first few outings with your new ferrets be extra gently don't snatch them off the ground as soon as they appear leave them to the job in hand as much as possible, obviously if they are about to charge across the M25 then you've got to step in - I still like to let my jills sniff my hand before I pick them up, let them come clear of the hole and calm down if they've become excited after their first few bolts, who knows you might have to calm down a bit yourself if you are new to the game.

Where was I? Oh, yes ferreting monster hedges! Right then, tactics: I like to net both sides with purse nets (sound obvious, I'll explain later). Starting at one end and with a 25 yard long net at the hedge bottom, or through the middle of the hedge where space allows on the real monsters, I proceed to work my way down the hedge. The long net or in this case long stop would be more accurate is set well ahead of the last set purse nets (Don't forget you need hundreds where I hunt) to catch any fleeing bunnies that bolt ahead of the purse nets.

Now I was always told by old country sages that the only way to tackle the monster hedge was to run long nets up both sides of the hedge in place of purse nets. Now a lot of ferreters who use only purse nets imagine that all bolting bunnies leg it from ferret filled warrens to seek sanctuary else where and indeed if you only use purse nets that seems to be the case. Not so, I'm afraid, try it yourself, a very unproductive morning can be spent watching the bunnies play hide and seek with your jills - out of one hole and into another. Where as if those same holes were covered with a well set purse net it's curtains for Mr Rabbit. We must all remember the farmers on whose land he kindly allows you hunt expect a result - after all that's why he's given you permission in the first place - so it's up to you to work each tract of land as efficiently as the land itself allows.

I'm tackling my land with a judicial mix of purse net, long net and shotgun and I think I've got the mix about right. Times have moved much slower here in north west Ireland than in the UK. We, like most of our neighbours, still make hay by hand with pitch forks. Brendan who owns probably the biggest farm I hunt a massive 67 acres still cuts oats with a scythe and ties them in stooks to dry in the fields but time marches ever onwards and rabbit poison baits are on sale in every farm supply shop in Eire and I suppose the UK as well so it is even more important to do the job well or lose it to poisons or the gasman. Long nets are only a back-up tool for the ferreter and purse nets should be carefully set not just thrown over the holes! I know it is a pain when you've loads to do but your care will pay you back many times. So next time you see a massive hedge somewhere think of me - I could be at the bottom of it with my ferrets!

(First published in NFWS News - 38 July 1996)