The domestic ferret has traditionally been used for rodent and rabbit control but is now more likely to be kept as a pet. It is believed to have originated from the Western or Eastern European polecat, both of which looked similar and belong to the weasel genus.
Ferrets have a chequered history through no fault of their own. They have been used in New Zealand (to great effect) and in Australia (to lesser effect) to eradicate or control huge rabbit populations that were introduced by man.
It is difficult to know, as with many species that have been introduced to the UK, exactly where and when they became domesticated. What is clear is that they are fearless hunters. As a child, keeping ferrets I was always a bit scared of them, they did not smell nice and were often known to ‘nip’ as my grandfather would say.
They are either black, brown and white, or totally white (albino almost) and live for between 7-10 years. The white variety are favoured as they are easy to see through cover when they exit a rabbit burrow. The male is always larger than the female who will give birth to a litter of ‘kits’ ranging from 6 to 10, who are blind and deaf at birth. Although born without teeth they develop these quickly and will have their first “nippy” teeth by 10 days old.
Caring for Ferrets
Ferrets are strict carnivores, although years ago they were fed bread and milk! They cannot digest this type of food and need to be fed meat in small quantities on a regular basis. The most important thing however is water. They must have constant access to clean water as they need this to help their digestion process.
Ferrets can be bought relatively cheaply, partly due to the ‘fad’ of keeping them as pets. They should have a hutch similar to a rabbit, split into two parts with a dark part to sleep in. Sawdust on the base of the hutch and some hay in the bedroom will ensure they are comfortable.
Before hunting with ferrets, you need to decide on what method you will use to catch and dispatch the rabbits once they exit their burrow, often at speed. Nets are the quietest and most effective way although some people use dogs or even shoot the rabbits as they clear the cover after exiting the burrow. The most important thing is that you have people either side of the hedge or mound so you can see the ferret once it pops out.
In the past a small collar with a bell on it would give you an idea of its location as long as it was moving! This has been superseded by advances in technology; GPS collars are now readily available to allow exact re-location of the ferret if it decides to eat a caught rabbit and go to sleep underground. GPS doesn’t work underground however!
Once you have made a plan and identified a suitable rabbit warren, and have permission to be there, then quietly place and peg nets over the top of as many rabbit holes as you can identify. Try to make sure the net is laid on the ground for several inches then looped over the hole and pegged down. This will ensure that the rabbit should not be able to run straight out and go under the net which happens more often than admitted.
Now take the ferret out of its case or bag and let it do its job. Once it enters the warren stay and wait as it will not take long. If there are rabbits there, they will sense and smell the ferret. This is where survival kicks in and the rabbit will make for safety above ground as quickly as possible. You can often hear a ‘thump, thump’ from outside as the rabbit is racing to get out of the burrow. Once it exits it will become tangled in the net and should be dispatched as humanely and quickly as possible.
You might be surprised by how many rabbits there are in one location. This where experience will come to the fore. Once several rabbits have ‘bolted’ and it goes quiet you need to be vigilant to spot the ferret exiting the burrow. Once picked up and all nets collected the work starts to turn your rabbits into something delicious, although the unfashionable bit is gutting them. Do this as quickly as possible and do not forget to reward the ferret with the liver and kidneys!
Whilst it will never (in the vast majority of cases) steal your heart or become a companion, the humble ferret should of course be valued for what it does. It needs neither training nor affection, it simply does what its instinct tells it to do and we ultimately benefit.