Warmth provides a telltale patch

ONE of the advantages of ferreting in heavy frost or light snow is that every rabbit-hole is visible. The warmth from underground melts a telltale patch around the entrance, and the most cunningly hidden exit is indicated as obviously as if it had lights around it.

That is altogether better than my normal method of finding hidden pop-holes by accidentally losing my foot down them. Another advantage of the frozen ground is that you can hear much more clearly what is going on underground, for the deep sandy buries that we are working today tend to muffle sound so that rabbits exit suddenly, taking me by surprise if not the dog.

By watching the dog, whose hearing is infinitely superior to that of any human, I can follow much of what is happening, but I can still be taken by surprise, whereas she rarely if ever is. I love to see her treading lightly and softly over the bury, taking in the scents and sounds, ready for the bolt.

She will have to work harder today because the frozen ground will not enable me to peg the nets. I have a variety of pegs: hazel, beechwood, plastic and even some metal, but none will penetrate the earth today, not even if I reach into the rabbit hole for what is normally softer soil. Therefore I drape the nets over the rabbit-holes and hope that they will at least delay the rabbits’ escape long enough for the dog to catch.

I do not want her running on frozen ground either, for fear of injury, though this is at least smooth grassland, better for her feet than ruts and ridges.

I have taped protective bandaging over her front legs between wrist and paw, leaving her freedom of movement while still offering a thin layer over her vulnerable stopper-pads.

Feel behind your dog’s wrist joint and you will find the spongy pad that acts as a brake on the front feet. It rarely sustains injury unless the dog is a fast runner: this one is.

I cannot protect her hindlegs because anything on those will affect her movement; there are no stopper pads on hindlegs, but they can still take damage on a skidding turn.

Today, the rabbits have read the book, and they bolt decently in singles and twos, so that we can keep up with them, and the dog does not have to run, though she is kept lively by dashing across the bury to pin each rabbit until one of us can reach it.

The sun comes up and glitters against the frost; the day is beautiful, as clear winter light on winter cold can be. We hope that a ferret does not lie-up underground, for there will be no digging today.

My friend casts a long shadow, but even he would be pushed to make a dent in this ground, and I doubt that the graft could take it. It is one of my old farm-sale buys, with a good blade set in a well-worn wooden handle, and I have no wish to break it.

But the ferrets are lively in the cold, fur well fluffed-up, and they bounce and scamper through the bury, moving the rabbits like collies moving sheep. It is a large bury, full of rabbits, and they are good fat ones. Cold as it is, hats and scarves are cast aside, for we are warming up with movement.

At last the ferrets come out at the far end of the bury, and we pick them up and put them safely in their carrying-boxes. We hear the buzzard before we see it, wheeling sideways then upwards with lazy flaps of its wings, primary feathers spread like fingers to catch every eddy and drift of the air.

We shall leave a gift of rabbit-paunch for him, by and by: he knows we do, I’m sure, for he often appears while we are ferreting this ground.

The dog looks at me darkly, telling me with her eyes to get on with it. I wave an arm towards the next bury, for we have time for one more of the big ones, and she canters ahead of us, tail curved behind her, ready to do her task once more, though it is not work to her, but the greatest fun.