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.