Ferrets & Ferreting
Irish Field Sports Home Page
Ferrets - Their History
The domesticated ferret now used in Ireland is descended from the European polecat. It has been used as a working animal here for a number of centuries, with its main function historically being the control of pest species such as rats and rabbits.
It is thought that the Romans introduced rabbits to Britain, perhaps to supplement their rations. The probability of a domesticated polecat being used to hunt rabbit burrows shortly after that time is highly likely.
In North Africa there are records of a ferret like animal being used to hunt rabbits circa 60 BC So the ferret, whilst a newcomer to the British Isles, is a very old working animal.
The art of ferreting in Ireland is something that is handed down from generation to generation. Many Irish sportsmen and women owe their introduction to field and country sports to that first ferret that was given to them as a boy or girl.
Rabbits - The Main Quarry
Rabbits are undoubtedly the main quarry of the Irish ferreter and, indeed, have been for as long as memories go back. During the years between the First and Second World Wars, most country boys owned a ferret or two and supplemented the family income by netting rabbits for the local butcher. Land laws in Ireland were never been as draconian as on the British mainland, so the farmer or estate owner loosing a few rabbits a week to a local lad was not a major issue.
The 1950s brought myxomatosis and ended for a generation of sportsmen, the traditional field sport of ferreting. Happily the rabbit population in Ireland has recovered, although not to the extent of those inter-war years. Today, ferreting is a very popular field sport, be it shooting rabbits bolting from their warrens after the introduction of a ferret, or netting for re-distribution or for the pot.
Greyhound or Polecat?
The colour of ferrets is not a reflection on their hunting ability. Some ferreters prefer the greyhound or albino ferrets that are a light cream colour. In undergrowth they are easier for some to see and for that reason are their choice. The darker, polecat ferret can be a distinct advantage when there is snow on the ground, making it easier to see. The preference is really down to the ferreter.
Whatever the choice, ferreters tend their little hunting partners with affection. Transporting ferrets to and from the shooting field and, indeed, in the shooting field, needs care too. For most ferreters the preferred container is a stout, wooden box with a carrying strap and hinged lid. This offers protection and comfortable quarters.
Two Main Techniques
The two most popular methods of taking rabbits in Ireland are shooting over ferrets with a shotgun and the use of purse nets. With ferrets entered into a warren and the ferreter retired to a suitable distance, the bolting rabbit is a testing shot for the shotgunner. Retrievers are always on hand to retrieve the rabbits when necessary.
The second method is the use of purse nets. Usually home made, these nets are placed over a likely rabbit bolt holes and pegged into the ground with a wooden peg. When the bolting rabbit hits the net the purse closes, trapping the animal securely.
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