PLENTY of mud about here today, and the rain has lately gone from pouring to ‘Irish mist’, dense silvery sweeps of moisture that soak you through without your realising, until you touch your coat or hat. We have six novice ferrets out to learn their trade, and it will be a stiff test for them. On the plus side, we are not using nets, so they can slide from hole to hole without restriction; on the minus side it is very wet, and some of the rabbit buries are partly under water.
We also have two dogs, very different and thus compatible for this game. One is small, mostly terrier, with a little bit of running dog, and the other is large, mostly running dog, with a tiny bit of terrier.
The small dog has fast take-off and acceleration from the dash of whippet in her, and if she does catch a rabbit, it will be in the first five strides of it leaving the bury. The larger dog takes three or four strides to get to top speed and after that takes some evading.
Because they are so different, and because they are each very well trained, they make a formidable team. It is essential that if one dog catches, the other leaves it alone to retrieve that rabbit, for retrieving is a skill quickly ruined.
Dogs that catch rabbits are fairly easily found, but dogs that leave on command when another has caught something are far less common.
One or two rabbits head for the buries as we approach, which shows they are still habitable despite the wet. The novice ferrets fret at their collars and squirm in our hands until gently released at the entrances to the first bury.
They sniff the rabbit scent, puff themselves up, give a little shake of their fur and down they go. Our first rabbit bolts almost at once, but both dogs miss and it is back underground in a flash. But then one dashes out of a pop-hole some twenty feet out in the field, and the larger dog has it, just as another breaks on the far side of the hedge and the smaller one snaps it up.
These hedges are hollow in the middle, and rabbits often bolt up the centre. A small dog can stand in the middle and pick them up on the run, or else send them out where a large dog is waiting.
When it works, it works well, but from time to time the rabbits beat the dogs and get back underground before they can be caught. Normally our nets would foil that, but today we are working without them.
One hedgerow leads to another, and we work our way along, catching rabbits and missing some, the ferrets appearing and then going back underground again as their confidence grows.
We rotate them in pairs, so that they have a chance to dry themselves and warm each other up in their well-bedded carrying boxes, before going out in the wet again.
It has turned cold: the mist is thinning but the wind is getting up, slapping wetly into our faces. The rabbits are wet, the ferrets’ coats are pointed with mud, and even the dogs are beginning to look cold.
As this trip is for the ferrets, we do not want them to get dispirited from being cold, wet and muddy, for so far they have worked eagerly.
Therefore we agree to do one more long hedgerow, after first covering over the barbed wire that lies on the ground along part of it, for we do not want a dog injured.
As I stand by the wire, very still and quiet as you have to be when ferreting, I see a rabbit hopping slowly along the previous hedge, heading for where I am. Obviously it does not care for the scent of ferret in its home, and is planning to stay in the bury opposite for a while.
It comes almost up to me before the larger dog sees it and is off in pursuit, sending up a torrent of mud and standing water in her wake.
She does not catch the rabbit, but she came very close, and is not disgraced.
Meanwhile a rabbit squeak from the other side tells us that the small dog has picked up another one, and the ferrets come out singly, slathered in mud and beginning to look cold. Into their box they go, and we start to walk up the field to where we have left the vehicle.
Six wet ferrets seem a lot heavier than six dry ones, but by the time they get home, they will be warm and snug.
Each dog gets a towelling coat on for the journey back; you have to be careful that dogs neither chill nor overheat, so a light absorbent coat is best. As for the two of us, we are wet enough as well, but very pleased at the way the morning of training has gone.