Silhouettes broke up the skyline of a beautiful East Anglian landscape in the dying light of a November day. The wind whipped up, blowing falling oak leaves into the long-nets, which were being gathered and cleaned. Enjoying the craic was a band of men stood beside a thinning hedgerow, placing the fruit of their labour on to carriers, in preparation for their journey home. Having travelled from far and wide, they were exhausted from two days? ferreting ? a pilgrimage that brought them from all parts of Britain. They were individuals united by one passion ? ferreting, and its customs and traditions. They all partook in this ancient pursuit because they love it and all that it encompasses.
At some time or other, myth, art and religion have all touched the hand of ferreting. Unfortunately, when it comes to celebrating this tradition in the field, whether for the camaraderie, the occasion or the harvest, our efforts are often eclipsed by those of our Continental counterparts.
The Jolly Boys? tradition is relatively new ? since the re-birth of the legendary Pugs and Drummers stand at The CLA Game Fair in 2008. We were continuing the celebration of the relationship between rabbit, ferret and ferreter not in the palatial venue of the summer event, but at the wintertime venue of East Anglian warrens.
This perennial event is a merry get-together ? the Jolly Boys had taken leave from their daily lives to travel to Suffolk, where base camp was at the home of Steve Taylor and his wife Marie. The hosts? fine food, drink and fireside chat was of such quality that I did once wonder what it was the boys enjoyed the most. But their appetites were catered for in both the kitchen and the field, and on the eve of the first day, they toasted their hunger for ferreting. The following day, it would be my job to provide the sport that would satisfy that hunger.
This year, we were to spend the two days on the same tract of land, among deep, sandy warrens that offer the rabbits unparalleled protection, and then on to a broadleaf copse. This would be more sedate ferreting and to the liking of the boys. Small warrens littered the leaf-covered floor, in direct contrast to the large, deep workings that are the bane of the sportsman, but which are my bread and butter.
The challenge of sand
We started the first day with a talk, outlining how I would like to work the warrens. Jovial chatter flowed, but the day had a serious undertone. It may have been a day out for the boys, but it was another day in ?the office? for me, and so there was still the small matter of actually catching the rabbits. Once deployed, the gang netted the entire hedge, before surrounding the area with long- and stop-nets. There would be no escape. These hedges and deep tunnels were a challenging place to work ferrets. Sand can transmit the slightest noise or vibration from above, and can be problematic to dig in.
The ferrets were divided into teams with coloured tape placed on their collars for ease of detection. Each box housed different coloured teams and everyone knew which ferrets were down and which ones weren?t. There could be no room for mistakes. The boys were amused by my collection of spades. Contrary to belief, if the rabbit doesn?t want to come out, it won?t, and so we might have to go in. This isn?t the trade for sitting on a ferret box and just waiting for them to return. As I pointed out to Torchy, ?This ain?t the Dales.? His home ground offers little challenge in comparison with this East Anglian ferreting.
As we leapfrogged warrens, some rabbits bolted, while others stayed and faced the ferrets. White ferrets disappeared down warrens, only to resurface a sandy orange colour with a tinge of ?rose?. This bore testimony to their work rate and prey drive in conditions that would see off lesser ferrets. On several occasions, our digs were 5ft deep. Sometimes the ferrets stuck fast, but at other times they would move on. Most of the rabbits wanted to be rid of their mustelid intruders and bolted cleanly.
Torchy, short and slim, grimaced as he struggled to retrieve a large rabbit from a purse-net crafted by his old-before-time hands. This was a timeless scene that could have inspired George Morland?s 1792 painting Ferreting. Torchy is no youngster, but over the decades, his enthusiasm for ferreting has never waned, and the quality of the nets he makes keeps on improving. Romford Dave is young and tall, but robustly built. Cropped hair hidden by his flat cap, he sports an accent akin to a character in an East End gangster film.
He, Digger and Torchy were ferreting under some trees, when their locator found a lost ferret 5ft down. After a difficult dig to remove the sand, tree roots and flint, they broke through. A rabbit lay there as dead as a dodo ? ferrets seem to abide by the motto fulmen aut mercedem consequuntur (bolt or pay the consequences). Unbeknown to the trio of rescuers as they dug, another ferret was trapped to the rear of the rabbit. This problem can be quite common when working multiple ferrets. The one at the front can easily trap the one at the back by killing the rabbit mid-pipe. It?s unintentional ? the ferrets are just doing what comes naturally. This demonstrates why any responsible ferreter should always uses a ferret finder. Whether they are inches or feet deep, we owe it to our ferrets to possess the means of retrieval.
As the tally of rabbits steadily rose, the troupe enjoyed the action more and more. Halfway through the day, we stopped for sustenance in the form of rabbit pies, and then it was on to our last port of call, a disused pit. Here we used Digger?s petite lurcher, Blue, which wouldn?t be everyone?s method of choice, but a lurcher can be a good tool when used in the right environment. Blue was small enough to gain entry to the thorny bushes, and could provide enough pressure on the rabbits to force them into the waiting nets.
It was at this point that Torchy, who was pilfering among the hedgerow, became entangled in the trailing strap of the ferret box. Performing the ferreter?s haka, Mark and I were in fits of laughter. These boys definitely put the fun into ferreting.
The day finished with a respectable score and we left the fields under a failing light to enjoy an evening of repartee, good food and plenty of drink. We mulled over the day?s escapades and looked forward to the next day?s shenanigans in equal measure.
True sporting ethos
The following morning, the boys were surprisingly sprightly and punctual, and we made for the small spinney, where the earths lent themselves to using Digger?s dog again. Digger is a local who comes out with me a lot and is so keen that he almost gets overwhelmed by certain ferreting situations. Steve was not only busy taking the photographs, but he was also the one person who completely embraced the true sporting ethos of ferreting. As for me, I am far from sporting, and it was business as usual.
Placing the team in strategic positions, it felt more akin to a game of 20/20 cricket than ferreting. I moved both people and ferrets, and altered tactics to achieve the right result. In the middle of the spinney were Mark and Shaun. Mark has experience with both dog and ferret and he earns his crust from the land in Yorkshire. Shaun is a diminutive Welshman, whose jovial approach to life brightens the darkest days, but he?s no fool.
A woodpile represented a rabbit?s fort, and buried deep within the seasoned timber, the rabbits felt safe. As Digger and Torchy looked on, Romford Dave removed the wood piece by piece and the atmosphere became drenched with suspense. Here in seasons past, rabbits have scrabbled, bobbed their scuts and bolted. Amid the scratchy fingers of the ferreters, a rabbit was retrieved, but as Dave bore dangerously deeper, I intervened. No rabbit is worth risking the safety of a good friend, so instead I offered him another rabbit pie, washed down with a hot drink.
The rabbits, hanging from the back of my truck, were growing in number. The door of it was wide open and a whiff of rabbit instantly sparked a déjà vu moment. Two days, stacks of rabbits and a cocktail of ferreting, good food and first-class company ? I cannot think of a better bunch with whom to while away the hours ferreting. As the boys made their way homewards, I hoped that they would all return home satisfied, and that their thirst for ferreting thrills had been well and truly quenched.