Wednesday, 6 February 2008
Sunday morning dawned cold and transport-less, so I dressed up in a base layer of nylon sportswear, hoping the static generated would act as on-board central heating, with a layer of cotton work wear on top to keep out the thorns. I chose a bag that I'd be able to hose down if I needed to and said goodbye to the kids. As I was leaving the house I could hear Mrs SBW sniggering and singing Simon and Garfunkel's well known ode to successful rabbit hunting
'Bright eyes,Burning like fire.Bright eyes,How can you close the pain. How can the light that burned so brightly Suddenly burn so pale? Bright eyes.'
After three changes of train due to engineering works I was finally on my way to meet James for a spot of old-school rabbit hunting. With Ferrets.
And what a great way to spend the day it is,James and Sara met me at the station and we drove through the Sussex countryside. For readers in the US - it looks just like the farmed parts of my adopted home of Northern Virginia, except the roads are narrower and the cars are smaller.
James's dad's place is big enough to have several warrens all in different states of occupation. The biggest coney conurbation we investigated had been flooded out by the recent rains and was unoccupied. Of the five warrens we tried, two yielded a total of three bunnies.
The Ferrets are charming, they have an animated curiosity about them and while I'm sure rabbits view them as dangerous thugs, to me they look very pet-like and from what I've been reading are easy to keep as companions and hunters. Here in the UK their role in feeding a hungry nation is quite well documented with references in court papers going back at least as far as the twelfth century when a ferreter was listed as part of the Royal Court. Today Ferrets ownership and hunting counjours up an images of working class countrymen in flat caps and long coats (to hide the booty) with bulging trousers using them for poaching for the pot or pest control for the land owner but it wasn't always the case. In the 1300's you'd have needed an annual income of some forty shillings (I'm not exactly sure of the exchange rate - but it was quite a lot of money) to own a ferret and the penalty for unlicensed ownership would have been harsh. King Richard II issued a decree in 1384 allowing one of his clerks to hunt rabbits with ferrets and they're mentioned again in 1390 with a law prohibiting the use of ferrets on Sunday when feeding your family wouldn't be allowed to interfere with marshal archery practice.
Ferreting is very simple, at the end of the afternoon I asked James if there was anything more I needed to know and he replied 'that's about it'.
First you need a business of ferrets, two seems to be the preferred number. I'd recently read that one male one female was considered the best ratio, with males being more aggressive and females being more through, James reckoned that whatever you had would do at a pinch. We used the modern locator collars which certainly made things a lot easier when it cam to the digging. In days gone by you'd have had to tie a tread to your Ferret and let it pay out as the Ferret went down the hole, when the Ferret stopped taking line you'd know that it had either killed a rabbit and was taking a nap (something they're notorious for), or it had backed the bunny into a hole with no exit and wasn't letting it out. Either way it would be time to start digging along the tread until you got to the action. With a locator you're spared a hell of a lot of digging as you can find the spot from above ground and dig directly down. In the wet clay laden soil it's still hard work. If your lucky and it all goes according to plan, you've put you ferrets into the right holes the rabbits bolt out of the warren into 'purse' nets that you've secured over the exits. As the rabbit barrels into the net it's own momentum pulls the drawstring tight capturing it. These bolted bunnies are the most highly prized as without teeth marks from the Ferrets their flesh is untainted by coagulating blood and the make slightly less gamey eating.
On the subject of eating special thanks and a commendation must go to Janet (james's mum) for the huge, hearty country lunch she served us that kept out the cold and the AMAZING bread and butter pudding she made.
James has posted a video of our hunt here.
As Ferrets usually come in pairs, they offer up some amusing naming opportunities.
James had a pair called Dead and Buried and a lad called Robin who lives in Scotland and has a Ferreting blog calls his business Purdey and Kalashnikov!
At the school gates I ran into young R, (well he ran into me) a lad in bushwacker jnrs class, he's absolutely fascinated with everything 'survival' and was proudly showing me his copy of The Dangerous Book for Boys when his mum showed up. She'd heard about the forthcoming trip from Mrs SBW and wanted to know if I'd been. I told her we'd gotten three rabbits
S. 'where are they? in a shed in the garden?
SBW 'No! they're in the freezer!'
She scuttled off dragging young R behind her leaving me wondering is she still speaking to us or are we now a family of evil rabbit killing hillbillys?
As they say up north 'there's owt as queer as folk'
Thanks for reading
PS If your interested in getting started yourself Deben have a DVD, sell the locator collars and net making kits.
Stained glass, Long Melford,Suffolk. Picture by chris chapman
Have a look at his fascinating site about the motif and it's appearance in medieval art across the world.