English Ferrets, Yankee Ferreting

An American travels to England to gain
insight about ferrets through ferreting.
by Bob Church

By the time ferrets were being introduced into the United States as pets in the late 1970s, their history as cunning little rat warriors and providers of bunny delicacies was largely forgotten. Consequently, what most Americans learned about ferrets, myself included, pertained to them as a pet.

This has long been a source of amusement to our European bretheren who think of "ferret legging", the sport of sticking a ferret into an occupied pair of pants, as a manly pursuit. I realized I had a firsthand knowledge of ferrets based on a history that only began in America in the late 1970s. So, in true American fashion, I wrote to my British friend and fellow fancier Sheila Crompton, politely inviting myself to a round of ferreting, or whatever they call it.

Sheila politely accepted my self-invitation, knowing full well that the likelihood of a Yank travelling to England just to go ferreting was only remotely possible. (Sheila might have remembered the chances of being struck by lightning were extremely remote, but she forgot that they were 100 percent for the person lit up like a Christmas tree.)

A British Greeting

History has a way of repeating itself. Back in 1667, the Dutch sent a fleet up the Thames River to visit the British fleet at Chatham for a round of ferreting out ships of the line. Centuries later, the Dutch, responsible for bringing me to the Netherlands to pontificate at their Ferret Symposium, helped launch me across the Channel and up the Thames to visit Sheila for a round of ferreting out rabbits of the bury. Coincidence? Perhaps, but we will never know. Regardless, Sheila, in true British fashion - and with an obligatory stiff upper lip - piloted her "van of the line" to my invasion point, the Bolton rail station.

I was standing outside the station when Sheila arrived. Imagine my surprise to see and excited dog driving her van. Then another. Then another and another. Four dogs were driving that van. Well, I guess you would need four; one to steer, one for the brakes and gas, one for the clutch, and one to shift gears. I felt for a moment as if I were in the middle of a Walt Disney film, but then I remembered that the British drive on the left side of the road, which I lovingly call "the wrong side". The dogs weren't driving; they were on the passenger seat, keeping it warm for my Yankee bottom.

After a short introduction, Sheila bravely attempted to drive off her Yankee invader by a brilliant defensive strategy: drinking beer - Fursty Ferret - in forced proximity to excited lurchers. If you don't know, a lurcher is a dog frequently used when rabbiting. They look a lot like greyhounds, except some (including these) have shaggy coats that look more like a skein of yarn after a dozen cats have finished with it. Lurchers are fast, agile and excitable. I barely survived - you might say I was licked.


The following morning, the lurchers (who support themselves with gainful employment as alarm clocks), Sheila and I drove on the wrong side of roads winding through picturesque green hills, occasionally dotted with thatched cottages and me in pants bulging with ferrets. I think that is what I saw, but it was hard to tell through the lurcher spit on my glasses. You haven't experienced life until you've been driven on the wrong side of winding roads with four lurchers vying to be the one that gets to plant their butt on your lap.

Six thousand licks later, we ended up in Gargrave, North Yorkshire, where Sheila threw the back of her van open and started cooking bacon sandwiches. Apparently, the bacon cooking ritual is an important aspect of ferreting that's poorly reported in the American media. After repeatedly reminding me not to walk, talk, rattle equipment or breathe because I could scare the rabbits, Sheila put down some nets. Only then was the first ferret removed from her hutch in the back of the van.

The ferret was a beauty, a tiny albino jill. Sheila's gruff demeanor dropped as she cradled the white fluff delicately against her chest and deftly attached a collar equipped with a small box - a locating beacon. I was green with envy. I wanted that box for a ferret of mine that completely evaporates on a daily basis. My neighbours run a betting pool on how many times a day I will yell, "Darcy, where in the world are you?" Sheila softly cooed something full of British vowels into the ferret's ear, and then gently released her into a covered stack of hay bales. The jill instantly vanished.

The Hunt Begins

Sheila releases her jills into a stack of hay bales covered with black plastic
Left: Sheila releases her jills into a stack of hay bales covered with black plastic.

Periodically, we saw a brief flash of a white face as the ferret peeked out from between the bales. My job was to quietly wait at the far end of the stack. I knew I was supposed to be silent because Sheila kept interrupting my banter to remind me. The job of the lurchers was to patrol the area, waiting for bolting rabbits. Sheila's job was to make sure I didn't scare the rabbits back in.

Sheila's jill exits from the stacked hay bales; no rabbits were found.

Right: Sheila's jill exits from the stacked hay bales; no rabbits were found.

After a short length of time, the jill wandered out of my side of the bales, apparently satisfied that the stack was free of rabbits. I lifted her up, and nuzzled into my jacket and licked my face like and old friend.

Sheila gathered the nets and we wandered downhill to an area next to an old fence. We quietly inspected the area, finding fresh rabbit droppings, fresh tailings and scratches, and even a fresh rabbit skull that was lying ominously about. OK, I'll admit I had to play the part of the zooarchaeologist, pointing out the tooth marks of the fox-sized creature that initially consumed it. Sheila just rolled her eyes and said, "coney bury", which I first thought was an Australian city until I saw her pointing to a rabbit hole. "Coney" is British for rabbit, and "bury" refers to a large set of rabbit burrows.

One of the signs that the area was populated by rabbits was the discovery of this rabbit skull.

Left: One of the signs that the area was populated by rabbits was the discovery of this rabbit skull.

We inspected each opening, covering them with a small net called a "purse net". These are small, circular nets with a cord woven into the outer edge that closes like a purse when pulled tight by a bolting rabbit - a rabbit-proof and ferret-friendly bag. Sheila then set up a long net, making the place seem like a bizarre version of Wimbledon. The long net was to stop any rabbits that made it past the purse nets. With the lurchers patrolling the area, we were ready.

Sheila sets a purse net over a rabbit hole.

Left: Sheila sets a purse net over a rabbit hole.

I pretended I was a real ferreter when Sheila allowed me to carry the ferret boxes. I was carrying those boxes like a child might tote a shiny new toy, looking for a grown-up to impress. Sheila pulled her albino jill from one of the boxes and placed her near a likely rabbit hole. The ferret slipped through the purse net like she was lubricated and vanished. A second later, she was back, poked her nose through the net, sniffed, and then she vanished again.

Periodically, the lurchers would run to a hole and peer in, but nothing came out of it. Finally, there was an explosion of movement as a rabbit bolted from a hole hidden near the fence line to race over my foot and through a tiny gap where the long net met the fence. It ran up the hill to safety as Sheila chuckled something about there always being one over-looked hole and one tiny gap.

Sheila places the long nets to prevent the escape of rabbits that bolt from the ferrets.

Right: Sheila places the long nets to prevent the escape of rabbits that bolt from the ferrets.

After a while, Sheila motioned to stop my endless banter and lowered her head near a rabbit hole. She mentioned that I might do the same, and, while my first reaction was to assume this was British version of the Boy Scout snipe hunt, designed to get me to do silly things that wouldn't actually catch anything, I complied.

I heard thumping! A ferret dooking! More thumping! Sheila said the jill was dancing with the rabbits, which I suspected was more allegory than established fact. But, while we listened and sometimes heard this dancing beneath the turf, neither a ferret nor rabbit came out of a hole.

Sheila's jill exits a burrow, past a purse net, only to vanish again into a second rabbit hole.

Left: Sheila's jill exits a burrow, past a purse net, only to vanish again into a second rabbit hole.

Sheila uses her locator device to dowse for the location of her ferret.

Right: Sheila uses her locator device to dowse for the location of her ferret.

Sheila suspected her jill had killed a rabbit and settled in for lunch, so she fetched the ferret locator I had envied. Bent over at the waist and holding the locator at arm's length, she quietly dowsed the area looking for any response to her electronic inquiry. Satisfied she had located her jill, Sheila pulled a short shovel from her magic bag and started digging into the bury.

Sheila digs for her jill, which is holed up in an underground bury.

Left: Sheila digs for her jill, which is holed up in an underground bury.

Now Sheila is not the tallest nor thickset woman you would ever meet, and her shock of white hair would make you suspect she was not a spring chicken either. Nonetheless, she handled that shovel like a '49er digging to China for gold, and in a few minutes she had opened a new exit into the underground burrow.

Have you ever seen the cat toy with a circular tube that contains a small ball, so the cat can whack and move the ball, but it never can get out of the tube? That is what I was seeing, peering underground. Gazing into the hole, I would see a flash of brown, then of white, then of brown, and so on until I got dizzy and had to lie down. Eventually, the rabbit decided that even though it was making good time, it was going nowhere fast - it bolted into one of the purse nets. The lurchers knew what was going to happen before the rabbit did and almost before it started, it was over, Sheila retrieved the rabbit and set about to coax her jill out of the earth. The bury must have been fairly empty of rabbits, because before long, a sweet white face appeared in a hole, blinking in the bright sun.

Sheila and her lurchers wait quietly for the ferret to chase a rabbit from the burrow

Sheila and her lurchers wait quietly for the ferret to chase a rabbit from the burrow

Sheila's albino jill rests after a morning of ferreting.

Sheila's albino jill rests after a morning of ferreting.

More British Hospitality

Since the goal of the morning was to teach an old Yankee a new trick, only a single rabbit had to be sacrificed for the lesson. To the disappointment of the lurchers and ferrets, we packed up the ferreting equipment and headed back to the van. Once there, Sheila fed our catch to the ferrets, which they appreciated very much, thank you.

We took a moment to visit the property owner - and to warm up with a up of cocoa - and then drove off to visit Sheila's friend, Jennie Loweth, owner and editor of the British magazine Ferrets First. I saw how the British house their ferrets. Later, I even got to sample real British steak and kidney pudding, with a real English beer, in a real pub, in England. All in all, it was a very educational day

It's All About Learning

I didn't ask Sheila to take me ferreting because I am a hunter. I do not hunt or fish, and I tote spiders outside rather than stomp them. I am, in fact, a staunch animal lover, but I also love ferrets and want to help them in any manner possible. To do that, I need to understand as much as possible about them, including their 2,500-year history of being used as hunting animals.

Watching a ferret work the rabbit bury took me by surprise. Sheila's ferrets looked and acted the same as countless ferrets in America. Still, their enthusiasm for ferreting was obvious; they shook with excitement, tails bottle-brushed, squirming to get down and into a rabbit hole

Have you ever seen a young Labrador retriever dance with excitement and recklessly plunge into icy water to retrieve a toy? They love it, their body language shows they love it, and the fact that they will do it for hours proves their love of the game. From what I saw, the same is true of ferrets during the sport of ferreting.

I had the chance to closely inspect Sheila's ferrets over several days and I was struck by their health, sweet disposition, and unfailing interest in absolutely everything. In nearly every respect, they reminded me of American ferrets in terms of size and color, and disposition to people. They were as much of a pet to Sheila as my own ferrets are to me. Yet, when placed into an environment for which they were bred, the rabbit burrow, they transformed into excited bundles of fur, joyfully exploring crannies and burrows as if nothing else in the world mattered. They were in their element and it was obvious.

This was an important lesson for me. I realized the sport of ferreting, however distastful it might be to non-hunters or rabbit lovers, was something that a ferret was bred for - and wanted - to do.

For 2,500 years, ferrets have been domesticated, maintained and selectively bred to be creatures of the dark tunnels. It is inconceivable that a couple of decades of maintaining them as house-hold pets would change that inbred desire.

This experience spurred me to look at other questions of ferret behavior as well. What were their specific instincts? What makes them bond to people or each other? Why do they do the things they do, and why in a corner? With every question I have answered, a dozen or more leap into their place. That afternoon of ferreting was quite illuminating.

Modifying Enrichments

Not a lot of Americans that will read this and start out in the morning to "ferret dem sum rabbits". Even if they wanted to, state hunting regulations would prohibit such a thing. Nor would I want to be known as spector of death for rabbitskind, but I think the lessons are extremely applicable for ferret owners

From a practical standpoint, I have started to change my enrichment techniques from the "general carnivore" type to those more specific to the behavior and psychology of the ferret. That means more nesting boxes, a lot more sewage pipes and dryer tubes, more mouse-sized cloth toys, and much, much more outdoor time. More importantly, I now realize that ferrets have things they like to do and it gives them great pleasure to do them. Because I care for them, it also gives me great pleasure to see them so happy

(First published in "Ferrets" issue Sept/Oct 2006)