Hunting with Ferrets
by G.A. Cooke
Brief History The hunting of rabbits with ferrets has been reported throughout history, it was known in ancient Greece and more recently in mediaeval England (1390) a law was passed restricting the ownership of ferrets only to those with an income greater than forty shillings per year, in order to prevent the working classes from using them to poach rabbits, which were then highly regarded as meat providers. The keeping of ferrets in the UK for hunting purposes was very widespread before and during the war, when a ferreted rabbit made a welcome addition to the family meat ration. The popularity of ferreting (the hunting with ferrets) declined rapidly with the introduction of myxamatosis and the massive drop in rabbit numbers. With the rabbit population again at a high level, ferreting is enjoying an increase in popularity, as is the keeping of ferrets as pets, the two activities being highly compatible.
Hunting with ferrets
Firstly, should you wish to take your ferrets hunting, please make sure that it is legal, here in the UK it is, in many places in the US it is not legal. Secondly, if it is legal where you are, make sure you have the landowner's permission, preferably in writing.
Ferrets are introduced to the rabbit burrow, typically at least two are used, otherwise the rabbits give the ferrets the run-around and don't come out (getting the rabbits to bolt is the general idea of the exercise). If the burrow is occupied, a rabbit may bolt from a hole and be caught. This may be done with a net (traditional way), by shooting, or by the use of dogs (typically lurchers) or with a trained hawk (such as a Harris or goshawk) (in order of efficiency). Either way the quarry is killed instantaneously, in the case of netting the ferreter either dispatches the rabbit with a sharp blow to the back of the head (using a priest) or by 'chinning'. The result of a successful hunt is a reduction in the rabbit population for the farmer and healthy, low fat, free range meat for the ferreter (and the ferrets!).
However, this is not always the case. Occasionally the ferret will kill underground, feed on the rabbit and then go to sleep next to it, this is called a "lay-up". Because of their larger size, hobs (males) are more likely to kill and hence are more prone to lay-up. At this point there are two possible actions. First, and hardest, is to dig the ferret out. Traditionally this is done by putting a large hob down dragging a line (a liner). The hob goes to the kill, scares off the sleeping ferret and takes his place by the kill. You then dig along the line to find him and the rabbit. The modern way to do this task is by using an electronic locator. This can either be on the working ferret (no liner needed) or on a liner (with no line!). The second way to retrieve your ferret is to block up all the holes, except one, and put a mink trap out, hopefully your ferret will be there in the morning.
Obviously ferrets are needed! it is usual to use jills to reduce the chance of lay-ups, but as always there are people who disagree. Similarly there are arguments over the colour of ferret to be used, rumour has it that albinos are weak, so shouldn't be used, or that albinos should be used as they are easier to see in the undergrowth - except you can see a poley more easily in the snow! Basically people stand by their ferrets, those with albinos swear by them, those with poleys think theirs are the best. Aggressiveness is another thing, very tame ferrets might not hunt as well - but then they might also not lay-up so easily by the same argument!
Apart from the ferrets, the only other things needed are nets and a carrying box. Purse nets are usually used, these are pegged out over the holes and close up like an old fashioned purse when the bolting rabbit runs into them. The carrying box is typically 10x10x18 inches and provides a warm dry safe place for the ferrets. Other things that are recommended are, an electronic locator (I like to monitor the hunt, seeing how much they are running if they are down for a long time - it getting boring otherwise), cutters are useful for getting through undergrowth, a strong spade (known as a graft) in case your ferret lays-up and you have to dig for her/him, a sharp lock knife for legging and paunching the rabbits and I always take along some milk for the workers at half time.
The Modern Ferreter
The traditional view of a ferreter is that of a furtive poacher, out on a dark night, with one or more vicious, bloodthirsty ferrets secreted about his person, probably in his trousers. This view may have been true decades ago, but today the ferreter is most likely to have been invited by the landowner to control the rabbits, to arrive in a car during daylight, with his very friendly workers carried in a sturdy, dry box. Although he may still be a gamekeeper or farm worker, he is as likely to be a stockbroker or schoolteacher whose ferrets live in a plush city flat during the week and curl up on their owners lap in front of the TV in the evening.
The old ferreter (poacher?) generally kept his animals in poor conditions, feeding them only milk and bread and rarely handling them, thus they were often semi-wild, to be picked up only with gloves. The origin of putting them down ones trousers seems to have developed as a way of concealing them from the gamekeeper and later evolved in the "sport" of ferret legging, where the winner was the one whose ferret stayed down longest. Luckily (for both participants) this practice is now all but dead.
Welfare of Hunting Ferrets
This section really should be first, because the welfare of the ferrets is paramount. I feel that working ferrets should be treated like pets when not working so all of the good advice available elsewhere on the web also applies, check out Ferret Central. They should be kept active and alert with toys, be handled regularly (this is rewarded when you put your hand into the unknown under a hedge). Also if she comes when called this is much better! Working ferrets also need to be fed a good diet, the old timers diet of "milk sops" is definitely out, as is the chuck them a rabbit once a week philosophy. You only get out what you put in, well treated ferrets are happy and work much better than neglected ones. We feed a dry mix specially formulated for ferrets and supplement this with fresh meat, beef, pheasant and of course, rabbit.
The ferrets should be housed in as large an area as possible, the options here are, your house, a cage (known as a cub) or a ferret court (a sort of outdoor run area with a dry, warm, box for sleeping). If kept indoors they may not develop a really thick coat which is vital for working in the winter. A cage is OK, but must be really big, at least 6 feet long and 2 to 3 feet wide. A ferret court is probably the best, but does require building properly. Our ferrets come indoors most evenings for a play and to hide things to keep us on our toes. Ferrets should be bought from a reliable source at 12 weeks of age or older, younger than this and they are not properly weaned (Another source for stock is one of the many ferret rescues/welfares, adopt one of their rescues). In the UK ferrets cost next to nothing 15 pounds is expensive, this is because many people feel their jills must breed every year. It is true that unspayed jills must be mated every year, but this can be with a vasectomised male and so ideally one would have at least one to ensure problems were not encountered. Two of our jills are spayed, it can be quite an expensive operation (the cost depends on your vet but the cost of spaying a jill is roughly the same as that of cat) but it saves any worry about mating them. If an unspayed jill is not mated, she will stay in season and the stress will usually result in a very nasty death. As a last resort a vet can give a hormone injection to bring her off heat, however, I am told that this can make the ferret very unwell for a few day, also, two injections cost the same as spaying (and she may come into season twice in one year anyway!), so spaying is the best option if you don't have access to a vasectomised hob.
Ferrets used for working should not be descented, it is a vital form of defence and doesn't stop the characteristic odour anyway, it isn't necessary for a pet either, castration and spaying are more effective means of reducing the odour. Finally, I have been asked whether ferrets actually enjoy hunting. Well ours dance when their locator collars come out and get really excited. It is after all natural for them. There is always a risk they may meet rats (though some ferrets are used to catch rats - not recommended as the ferret can be seriously injured or even killed by a cornered rat!!!), badgers or other animals underground, but if they are fit and alert, they can run and if all else fails they can "scent", generally the ferreter must use some common sense. As for the rabbits, this is an important point, when caught in the net they can be killed instantaneously by the ferreter. This is, in my opinion, better than gassing, crushing, poisoning or snaring which would otherwise be done to control the population (also the meat is free range and is used, rather than being left to rot).