Working or Pet?

by Max Abell

Ferrets: countryman's tools or trendy, lovely pets? The answer: both.

Whether you work them or walk them you can't help but admire this distinctive, oddly shaped, stange yet beautiful animal. Personally in the 30 years I have owned ferrets I have never kept them as pets, mine are working stock. However, I do have a nine year old polecat jill whom I have owned since birth, so I suppose she could now be classed as my pet as she will live her days out in the court with the others.

Their court consists of two large sheds with an avairy between the two, all linked together with pipes and things for the ferrets to play with and keep them occupied and fit. The whole lot is fully alarmed as ferret theft is quite common now.

In the summer months our ferrets are not worked; this is the time of year when, if we need any, we breed young kits. We only breed from our very best workers and only for ourselves or very close friends. We do not breed just for the sake of it. Our vasectomised hob, Charlie is used to take our breeding jills out of season. All our other jills have been spayed and Charlie is used for working, come wintertime.

From a working ferreter's perspective I can't think of anything better than being out in the fields on a crisp frosty morning with my ferreting companions, ferrets, nets and a flask of hot coffee; this is heaven to me, but I do understand that it's not every ferret keeper's idea of a good time! Once home, the ferrets are always cleaned, fed, watered and left in peace for a well-deserved kip.

Ferrets, like any working animal, will only work well if they are fed well and are fit and happy. Ferrets are not forced to work; it's in their nature to hunt but they still have to be happy in themselves to work well. Look after your ferrets and they will give you years of loyal service as MOST working ferreters understand and do.

Unfortunately you do get the odd keepers who still live in the middle ages and who think it's OK to keep ferrets in small filthy cages at the bottom of the garden, not be fed a proper diet and only to come out of the cage when needed for rabbiting. Thankfully these people are now rare and very soon put straight by the majority of working ferreters. If you look at websites like the and you will see that any idiot that comes out with talk of neglect or cruelty is jumped on very quickly by the rest of the keepers on these sites and told in no uncertain terms to get their act in order. But no matter how hard you try you will always get the odd cruel, igorant keeper, hence the need for societies like this one and others.

After doing some research, there does seem to be a divide between some working ferreters and some ferret pet owners, which is a real shame. Some pet owners seem to have got it into their heads that working ferreters only keep their ferrets for their own ends and don't look after them properly - simply not true. Whilst from the other side of the coin, some working ferreters think that pet ferret owners are doing more damage because their ferrets are normally fat and unfit, having their natural instincts spoilt by trying to turn them into lap cats: also not true.

I personally think that both sides of this divide can be put down to the listening of gossip and misunderstanding of the opposite type of keeper, a lot of neglect is, I think, not intended as cruelty, it's down to an ignorance of breeding, feeding and ferret husbandry.

A while ago I spoke to a young lad who adored his ferrets but on seeing them they looked a bit lethargic and rough round the edges. On asking a few questions he told me he only ever fed them on bread and milk sops because that is what an old ferreting man had told him so as to keep them keen for the taste of meat. He also told the lad to starve them the day before working them to keep them more keen to work. I soon told this lad that this information was absolute rubbish and put him right on what to feed them and to never ever starve them; his ferrets are now a picture of health and working fine. In fact the lad sometimes comes ferreting with us. Good food, fresh water and most importantly, handling and human contact is a must for all healthy ferrets, be they put or working.

So please let's try to understand each others love for our ferrets regardless of their purpose. Thankfully cruelty is decreasing because we are now in the 21st century and leaving the middle ages behind us. What we must all do though is try and keep up the good work to protect this brilliant little creature. Well done to all for supporting the NFWS and good luck with your ferrets, whatever their purpose.

(First published in NFWS News - #85 September 2009)