Where Have All The Rabbits Gone?

by Max Abell

At the time of writing this article it is mid-October, 2011. We decided to have a ferreting trip a couple of days ago so we packed up the ferrets, nets, locator, etc. and loaded the 4x4. The weather was windy but quite nice for October.

We arrived at a valley that we had ferreted with great success last season, taking about forty-odd rabbits. When we looked at the warrens they didn't look very good at all; the grass was too long and a lot of the warren holes had leaves blown into them. But as we were there we netted up a biggish warren with some purse nets and put a 100 yard long net around the warren to catch any rabbits that slipped the purse nets or that came out of an unnetted hole. (The warren was too big to purse net all of it).

We entered four experienced albino jills. They went in and out of a few holes but didn't seem overly interested. Then we had a rabbit bolt from an unnetted hole: it hit the long net and was caught. Meanwhile, the ferrets continued to work the big warren. We eventually ended up with three rabbits. The team and myself had a chat about how bad things were but we ferreted another two large warrens and got another two rabbits out of the first and one out of the other. We were very disappointed.

Things were getting worse: the warrens just looked empty. We decided to ferret a little four-holer before calling it a day. We purse netted it up and decided to try a young rescue albino jill that my niece had rescued this summer (2011). A girl had been keeping the jill in a hamster cage in an outhouse next to a tumble dryer. She'd never handled it and wondered why it used to bite her! Some of these people never cease to amaze me: they think ferret kits are toys. After a few bites and nips my niece Demi soon had her hand-trained and she was slowly introduced into the ferret court with our other jills and after the usual dominance issues, she soon settled in with them. She's fine now, she just needed looking after properly. My niece has called her Ivy.

Anyway, back the the four-holer. We put the locator collar on Ivy and put her at the entrance of the hole. She sniffed around the entrance for a few seconds so I lifted the purse net off and off she went down into the dark. We normally put an experienced jill down with a novice for the first few times, but as this was only a four-holer and the way our luck was running, we were not overly confident that there were any rabbits at home.

My brother looked over at me and gave an up and down motion with his fist to indicate he could hear rumbling underground. No sooner had he done it than two purse nets closed at the same time and caught both fleeing rabbits! These were quickly and humanely despatched and the two nets replaced. Ivy popped her head up from one of the holes that a rabbit had bolted from but as Demi went to pick her up, she went back down again. Thinking the warren was empty, we picked up the four purse nets and started having a chat; again Ivy put her head up and then went back down.

All of a sudden, whoosh, another rabbit bolted out and ran off into the woods. Did we feel stupid or what! We couldn't believe it and all jokingly started blaming each other for picking up the purse nets too early.

Ivy soon surfaced with that "Where did it go?" look on her face. Demi picked her up and put her in her box: the rescue jill had done well. We have some good rescue ferret workers on our team.

While the others were loading the gear into the 4x4, I took the six rabbits over to the wood and gutted them. On my way back to the 4x4 a lady I know came down the track on her horse and we started chatting. She told me there'd been myxomatosis about with dead carcasses laying all over the place three weeks earlier. This just confirmed our suspicions that mixy had ravaged the place; good for the crows and local buzzards, but not for us. Never in a million years did we expect to get just six rabbits in the same valley that we'd got forty from the previous season. It just shows how devastating mixy can be and the trouble is with more rabbits around during the long summers, the quicker the mixy flea spreads, so in effect the rabbits' own prolific breeding ability ends up being it's own downfall. No-one wants to see any animal die a slow, horrid death like myxomatosis, not even most of the landowners who benefit from a reduction in rabbit numbers.

Anyway, hope the season improves a bit and good luck to anyone who's going out ferreting.

As always, a big thank you to all that support the NFWS and ferret rescue centres.

(First published in NFWS News - #92 January 2012)