Close Encounters of the Ferreting Kind
DR JUNE McNICHOLAS is used to people thinking that all ferreters are male and either look like Compo or a strapping six footer dressed in combat gear with shaven head, earring, and 'love' and 'hate' tattooed on his knuckles.
Maybe I should work on acquiring the image but, nevertheless, I am a working ferreter, spending quite a bit of my time in the winter months helping to keep down the rabbit numbers, humanely and efficiently, without the use of snares or gas.
One of the real pleasures I get out of working ferrets is the encounters I have with wildlife. While doing regular work at one location, a young vixen took to waiting by a gate for me. She would lazily stretch and yawn and then trot after me to the rabbit banks and wait patiently for a rabbit to bolt from an unnetted hole. She would get a free meal while I had the pleasure of her company. Many times, I have had rather closer encounters than I would care for from other creatures, like the time a little owl shot out of rabbit hole and bloodied my nose. Or a green woodpecker, outraged at being disturbed, which took me so much by surprise that I fell off the bank into a ditch of freezing water. Most peculiar was the family of mallards marching out of a rabbit hole in single file! What they were doing breeding in January and in a rabbit hole is beyond me. But such encounters are rewarding and none of the creatures is ever harmed.
Perhaps the most thrilling experience was the sight of two stoats doing their own rabbiting at a bank where I'd planned to lay my nets. Much smaller and quicker than my ferrets, they darted in and out of the rabbit holes trying to locate their prey.
Their agility and speed made even my smallest, quickest, jills look slow and ponderous and I could feel only admiration when one, with lightning speed, took a rabbit at least three times its size and dragged it off into the hedgerow. I left them to it, theirs was the greater right and I could return another day.
And then there are the badgers. I have discovered many setts while ferreting and, like many ferreters, I have genuine affection and respect for badgers so the setts are regularly checked during a day's work. They are often close to quite large rabbit populations - it must be like living next to a takeaway for some badgers and there is often evidence that one has sneaked out for a quick snack of dozing bunny. Obviously, these dug out rabbit holes are left well alone. Aside from the legalities, I care too much for my ferrets to risk them meeting a snoozing badger! And aren't badgers curious?
It's not unusual for them to come out to watch me or even inspect the empty ferret boxes left at the side of a bank. Twice I've had my sandwiches stolen, along with gloves, scarf and even my maps. It conjures up the image of a badger relaxing in his sett, wearing gloves, eating sandwiches and studying a map!
The Foot and Mouth problems kept ferreting to a minimum and only within areas declared safe from the disease. This is the second or third year of necessarily light ferreting. An outbreak of myxomatosis in September '99 reduced rabbits in many areas of Warwickshire. On the Worcestershire borders, rabbit viral haemorragic disease (VHD) resulted in an 80% mortality rate in some areas. The remaining rabbits posed no real threat of crop damage and were left for the natural predators. There have been a couple of other outbreaks of VHD since and these are worrying. This virus has naturally occurred from time to time thoughout Europe but has been artifically introduced into Australia to deal with the huge rabbit problems. Since its use in 1992, outbreaks have occurred elsewhere in the world, although no one can be certain why. One can only hope that it does not produce the widespread devastation to the rabbit population and their predators that followed the introduction of myxomatosis.
So here's one ferreter who says good luck to the bunnies. They are showing signs of recovery and bred throughout the mild start to last winter. If the numbers become too great, we'll be called out again - and I'll remember to hide my belongings from the badgers!