Saturday, 25 June 2016

Vermin Patrol Part 2: Ferrets

If you don't like the idea of traps, how about using a ferret instead?

This is the first time I've tried ferreting. The concept is simple: Find a rabbit burrow with multiple holes. Using little purse nets, cover every hole you can find. Pop the ferret under a net into the burrow and let her (females are best) hunt the rabbits. The rabbits run in fear, bolt out of a hole covered with a net, and get caught. Rabbits can be dispatched quickly (and turned into rabbit curry later).

I shadowed Winsor, a keen ferreter. He was hired to clear out some rabbit burrows undermining the formal lawns at the big house. Moles and rabbits create soil mounds and hollows when burrowing. Mounds and hollows are tolerated around the informal parts of the garden, parts that are mowed with a giant tractor or grazed by sheep. But, in the formal gardens, the soil mounds ruin the blades on fine cylinder mowers, upset the flat surface of a croquet lawn, and are generally unsightly.

Ferrets are of the mustelid family. Most mustelids in Britain are the bane of a keeper’s life: mink, weasels, stoats, polecats, even badgers.  Ferrets are unique as most can be tamed by feeding and handling (there’s always some that hold on to their independence and bite when handled.)

Unlike working dogs, ferrets aren’t trained. Ferrets simply follow their instincts to hunt, and rabbits follow theirs to run away. The ferreter's job is to set the nets and redirect the ferret when it emerges from a hole by popping it down the next nearest hole.

I spent most of my time in this position -

Face down under a bush setting nets. Or popping ferrets back into holes. There's not a lot of training required for the humans either. The ferret does all the work; the ferreter just adopts the laying down position. As far as vermin control goes, this is pretty low cardio.

We worked along the walled vegetable garden. There were so many rabbit burrows underneath the wall that I was surprised it hadn't fallen into a giant sinkhole long ago.

The ferreter and I worked the outside of the wall, and underkeeper Ian waited inside the wall. We set nets on both sides to block both ends of a tunnel. It's easy to hear when the ferret is on her prey: the rabbits make a rumbling noise stamping their feet and fleeing. Then, WHAM! out of the corner of your eye you catch sight of a rabbit bouncing about, the drawstring purse net pulled taut around it. The ferreter’s only other job is to despatch and gut the rabbit (and, in my case, make the curry later.)

When it works, it's magic. But the odds are in the rabbits' favour. No matter how many bushes you crawl under, there is always one hole left uncovered. Inevitably that’s the hole a fleeing rabbit will choose for its escape. No net = no rabbit = no rabbit curry for dinner. We caught 3 rabbits this time. We lost 5 more to an overlooked hole. 

Ferreting works best in winter, and by spring/summer we are back to shooting the odd rabbit when we see it. And rabbit salads instead of curry.

Monday, 13 June 2016


We stop collecting eggs from our pheasant hens this week – a welcome milestone in the keeper’s year as it frees up 2-3 hours every evening! There are still at least four more hatches to come out of the machines (one per week) but it means the hens can now be released from their pens, back to the freedom of the surrounding woods and fields. We still supplement their food with feeders dotted around the estate, which we top up as needed from our feed silos -

If you feed a lot of birds, these silos are a great system. Trucks pull up and “blow” food in by the ton, which we buy at much cheaper bulk rates.

Silo 1 has high protein pellet which we give to the pheasants while they are laying. Silo 2 has straight wheat, the pheasants’ staple diet. The birds prefer the pellet and protest the change to wheat by scratching the wheat out of the feeders and spreading it everywhere, looking for any hidden pellets. Sometimes birds will even chase the feed buggy. The guys make up funny bird voices:  “’Scuse me, Mister? You got any more of those pellets in there?”

You have to amuse yourself when you work long hours alone in the woods.

This season’s pheasant chicks are growing well. One rearing field is already full, and we’ve been preparing a second rearing field next to the house. To prevent disease build-up, we move the rearing sheds to a fresh area of the field. This is done using a telescopic handler -

The sheds have rings attached to their frames at all four corners so a strap can be fed through and picked up by machine.  The driver plops each shed in a line, one next to the other –

Then we add a plastic-covered shelter onto the front of the shed, like a little greenhouse for tender pheasant chicks so they can start to enjoy the outdoors and sun, without taking the full brunt of any drops in temperature or heavy rain showers.

The "used" half of the rearing field was ploughed last autumn, left open to winter weather, and reseeded in spring with a new ley of grass. This autumn, I’ll graze my ewes on the new ley to keep the grass down and flush them (ie give them a nutrient-rich diet) ready for the ram in November.

Our hatches have been good, but we’ve been watching the professionals all around the estate do a better job. The pair of swans nesting in the formal garden hatched a brood of 6 cygnets –

The swans look haughty and majestic gliding on the formal pond with the manor house as a backdrop. The more common Canada geese have been hatching broods on farm ponds.

Our rescued gosling and his (her?) 3 siblings are growing fast.  Geese broods usually graze grass; our goslings were raised in a house with pheasant chicks on a high protein diet. By their second week, they were so big that the pheasant chicks were trying to nest under them.

Goslings are pretty easy to foster. Their main role in life seems to be converting food into poop, but they are chatty and companionable. I like them better than pheasants, but don’t tell Mike I said that.

The swallow family in my porch is thriving too. Every year they occupy the nest above my chest freezers. This year I got smart and put old feed sacks on top of the freezers to catch the droppings. I didn’t really get smart: I saw our neighbour do it and stole her sensible idea.

There is even a nest of blackbird chicks I check on every day. The mum nested on the fence line at waist-height by the entrance to our pheasant chick shed. She’s hatched 5 chicks that both mum and Mike are very protective over. Mike parks his truck well back when he checks his own brood of pheasants every morning, so he doesn't disturb the blackbird family.

Once the laying hens are released from their pens, they can hatch some wild broods of their very own. 


n.b.- Dispatch from the Department of First World Problems 

Our internet supplier has closed down, which means we no longer have access to good internet. In fact, for the foreseeable future, we have NO internet. Eventually we will have slow internet, from the only remaining provider, but we don't know when. Our cell phone service is sporadic too. For now, I check my emails in the grocery store cafe once a week, when I've finished my shopping . If I don't post comments right away, or answer them quickly, I just wanted you to know why. 

Don't feel bad for me. It just means I can spend more time laying in my hammock with Tina the turkey and Dakota.

Monday, 23 May 2016

The Vermin Paradox

There are still more posts to come describing different methods of controlling vermin. This is a brief interlude to demonstrate the irrational behaviour of human beings.

We (farmers, fishermen, gamekeepers) consider the Canada goose a pest. Under General License Canada geese can be killed any time of year if they are destroying crops. It's spring and the vulnerable first shoots of maize and wheat crops are coming up. Later when barley and wheat are ready to harvest, 50 geese can eat up to an acre a day (so one on-line source says).

So why am I standing in my kitchen, typing this blog post, with a Canada goose gosling keeping warm in my armpit, in a makeshift baby sling?

Why am I caring for a bird that will grow up to become a "pest"?

Because babies are babies, I couldn't leave an orphan to die of cold and hunger, and because, well, just because. Everything, pest or not, deserves a chance to be, I guess.

Thursday, 19 May 2016

Vermin Patrol Part1: Snares and Traps

Snares and fenn traps hanging on the side of our barn

Mike and I are doing a skills swap. Last year our neighbour Bill taught me a better way to catch moles, and I was able to clear our orchard of the little furry devils. I'm going to teach Mike the BMM (Bill Mole-catching Method) and he is teaching me to set fox snares. I've used cage traps but never snares to catch a fox.

I like the idea of snares since there's no poison involved, and non-target species that get snared can easily be let go. Especially badgers which, when caught in a snare, curl up and go to sleep until you wake them and cut them free (at which point a badger is wide awake and pissed off). Only non-locking snares are legal, so when an animal relaxes, the snare relaxes too. Animals too small (pheasants) or too big (deer) just knock the snare and it won't catch anything until it's re-set. In the UK, snares have to be checked every 24 hours minimum.

Mike checks snares in the morning, Ian checks them in the evening. I accompany Mike to check his snare line so he can talk me through how and where to set snares. "Where" is usually obvious by looking at paths travelled under fences, where the ground is bare of weeds from use, or hairs are caught on barbed wire.

The snare has to blend in with its surroundings. New snares are shiny and have to be "weathered", which is why we leave ours hanging on the side of the barn (or treat them with baking soda if we need them right away). Animals distrust objects that stand out from their surroundings. Look closely at the photo below which shows a treated snare set in a run.

Gateways and tracks used by people and vehicles are regularly used by animals too. To set a snare on an open track or underneath a long gate requires patiently blocking off more and more of the gap with logs and rocks over a period of days. The fox gets used to seeing an obstruction and goes around. The obstruction, just logs and rocks to the fox, gets larger and longer and eventually guides the fox through the only remaining gap - and a snare.

On our last check together, we found a fox in one of the snares.

It was a dog fox, the second of a pair. Ian caught the vixen a few days earlier. I despatched the dog fox with a shotgun and set a new snare wire while Mike talked me through the process.

Mike tells me that fox skins used to be worth money and a gamekeeper was allowed to supplement his income by selling the fox skins. Now there is no commercial use for the animal but because of vulnerable farmed livestock like lambs and chickens, fox populations are still managed in the countryside. It's not my favourite job.

Many snares are set at the same time, along a length of fencing, as animals use lots of paths on their daily rounds. We check about 40 snares on our daily round. We can check rat/squirrel traps at the same time.

Rats and squirrels are trapped using fenn traps. These are what most people think of when imagining a trap: the animal steps on a plate and spring-loaded bars snap shut.

We use barrels with openings cut to allow squirrels inside, and bait the barrel with wheat. Two fenn traps nestle in the wheat on the bottom of the barrel. We can check our traps by unscrewing the lid from the barrel or, if one of the dogs is with me, she will circle the barrel and wag her tail which is a pretty good sign the trap is full.

There are many concerns over grey squirrels in the UK. Primarily grey squirrels are a non-native species, and they carry a squirrel pox that is killing native red squirrels where their territories overlap. (There are no red squirrels in our area, or we wouldn't be able to trap using the barrel method, as we couldn't guarantee not to catch red squirrels.)

Fenns can be used to catch rats too. The fenn sits inside a small tunnel, and two sticks are poked in the ground at the opening of the tunnel, in an "X" shape, to block curious pheasants wandering in

These traps are only for rats in the woods. Nearer to home, we shoot the ones we can see. There is a nest in the roots of a tree outside the back door. The rats make regular forays from their tree nest to the chicken feeder 25 feet away. The deal is when you're having your morning/evening cup of tea, you have to keep the .410 shotgun handy and the back door open. If a rat makes a run for it, shoot it. Mike has killed the most, I'm lagging way behind. My excuse is that I drink my tea in the car while running errands, not sat down by the back door.

We use a 4-wheel drive buggy to reach all the traps. And this is why.

Wednesday, 18 May 2016

It's why they're called "Springer" Spaniels


This is Gertie, now seven months old. We're going to our trainer Vic tomorrow for her first real training class.

Wednesday, 27 April 2016

Separating the Men from the Girls

The last lamb was born on Sunday, a single ewe lamb to Ewe 00025, with no intervention, just more dancing from the shepherdess. That's the way, uh huh uh huh, I like it.

We had a good lambing season overall. 29 surviving lambs in total, 16 ram lambs and 16 ewe lambs. 19 ewes were scanned pregnant; Ugly Sheep died giving birth (rest her woolly soul) and I finally culled Ewe 0005 who mis-mothered her only lamb in four attempts to conceive and give birth. Plus my two horned ewes had another 3 ram lambs between them in January. Even Ugly Sheep's son Buddy (23, with a dot to remind me he's adopted) is doing great -


(P)rick, our new ram, produced a strong crop of lambs overall, healthy and growing well. I will keep the best ewe lambs to replace my oldest and culled sheep.

Ewes and lambs on the spring grass

I've had worse seasons.

Lambing seem to get easier, possibly due to a combination of luck and more experience on my part. Unfortunately, like so many things, I learn most from my mistakes. I often play those mistakes over and over in my head, and they are hard to forget. And now I have goat kids to begin a whole new crop of mistakes.

Goat Kid Mistake # 1: Remember my last post, I thought both kids were does? The brown one is a buck. The white one is a doe.

How on earth could I not notice that?! Well, you're talking to the person who didn't realise her goat was even pregnant, so let's assume my powers of observation are questionable, especially after a month of lambing sleep-deprivation.

In my defence, the vet who came and disbudded the kids didn't notice either.

The kids are anaesthetised with Propofol - we call it getting "Michael Jacksoned"

A heated tool is used to cut away the growing point of the horns

I'm used to looking at lambs' testicles (who isn't, right?) and if you have never seen a lamb's scrotum..well, they are big and obvious. Heck, the purse I carry is smaller than a lamb's scrotum.  A cursory glance when I'm putting iodine on the lambs' navels is enough to tell the hims from the hers.

Not so much goats.

Goats testicles are discreet. I only noticed he was a boy when I caught him having a wee. It was not the girl "squat and wee behind" but the boy "stand and wee from the middle". I picked him up, and had to turn him over and search to find the testicles.

So now I know.

I spend time in the goat pen every day, letting the kids climb on me and get used to being handled. They are curious and far more personable than lambs. At least I know now to get the buck separated earlier, before he gets too "personable" with his mother. I may put him to the other unrelated nanny to keep her in milk. However, the end of the road for him is the freezer, and beaters' lunches this winter.

Our very basic goat milking station: a rope, a bucket of food, a jug & and milk churn

Lastly, the winner of the hot water bottle cover is Laura Orabone. Underkeeper Ian picked her name out of a pheasant feed bag this morning. Laura, please email me your mailing address, and whether you need the hot water bottle to come with it, and I will put it in the post for you. I hope you enjoy it!