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Ferreting: A soil flush with an ace of spades

Once the shooting season finishes, a short window of opportunity opens for the rabbiting community. As spring begins, the sporting ferreter winds down, but the rabbit controllers crank up the heat.

I was ferreting around a meadow when I received a stark and sobering reminder of just how dangerous it can be, especially when retrieving wayward ferrets. My friend Sooty was helping out, as the land was on the edge of a quarry with which I wasn?t familiar, and which looked as if it might be deep and expansive. I required an extra pair of eyes and ears, as we anticipated a good day. After casting my eye over the belt of woodland at one end of the meadow, I mentally assessed the pros and cons of such an operation. I completely surrounded the wood with several hundred yards of long-netting and dissected the warrens with several stop nets while Sooty laid a scattering of purse-nets over the tasty-looking holes.

I am always careful when ferreting warrens for the first time, taking time to assess their depth, gauge where they start and finish, and identify any hidden bolt-holes. Expansive warrens need a good unit of ferrets, so eight were collared up, with fresh ones waiting in the wings.

The ferrets were entered slowly into one side of the woodland. Rabbits reluctantly started to bolt; their favoured escape route seemed to be to the quarry behind us, but a strategically placed net stopped them, and the game carriers began to fill up. After an hour or so they started to sit tight, so I entered their world and removed them instead. In my trade, the spade-shy fail and the rabbits accounted for by digging make the difference between an average and a great day.

After a time, I noticed that the flint and stone in the earth were starting to handicap the signals of my ferret-finder, as sparks flew from my spade when it hit them. I had to use every ounce of my knowledge of these devices to get a signal reliable enough to dig to. When I reached the ferret and rabbit, 4ft down, both were completely covered in a dusting of fine sand. What must it be like to work with this sand clinging to your body and invading every orifice, but still be able to work with such passion and gusto? Ferrets are truly amazing creatures.

Then I noticed that one of my ferrets was missing. Not unduly flustered, we carried on, but I was still having trouble getting a signal. Deep warrens, flint, stone, radio transmitters and wire fencing were all conspiring against my quest to relieve the ground of its mustelid visitor. The sandy soil is easy to dig in but, of course, it is twice as easy for the rabbits to do the same. Easy digging equates to deep warrens, so they have a huge fortress to run around in rather than bolt. This is why the ferret-finder is a must for every ferret worked.

Finding the ferret

Both of my dogs, Millie and Bella, enjoyed spells in the warren, forcing the rabbits into the back netting or the long-nets that blocked their escape. The rabbits kept coming and the daylight was now waning. At the back of my mind was my missing ferret. This was completely out of character, so she had to be trapped, either blocked in between two dead rabbits or at the bottom of a chasm eroded over time by the rabbits? bigger bodies, and unable to climb out ? and too deep for me to gain a signal.

I wasn?t too worried, as I have complete faith in my digging skills, but Sooty needed to get home. I squinted at the reading on my bright orange ferret-finder ? 10ft, it said. After much headscratching, tea-drinking and trying the old routine of ?fishing them out?, the light was beginning to fail. The truck and trailer were loaded up with freshly paunched and hung rabbits, but one of the ferret boxes was one worker short.

Now was the time to rectify this by playing the last, and possibly most dangerous, card in my pack, namely to put in a fresh ferret in order to push the stuck ferret off, if it was on a rabbit, or locate it if trapped. Would fortune favour the brave or would it be foolhardy to risk having two ferrets stuck in the dark? I wasn?t in a position to barter ? I had to go for it.

I put in the fresh jill and waited with bated breath. I followed it on my ferret-finder, but there was nothing, not a murmur. A minute had barely passed when my missing ferret emerged from the abyss. The plan had worked: the fresh ferret had moved the missing one on, but now the second one was eager to work, and it was dark. Luckily, the golf-course lights illuminated proceedings a bit, so this didn?t faze me as much as the ferret-finder indicating the now stationary second ferret at 8ft!

After scratching my head a dozen times, I got three spades out and began to dig. The large terrier spade made serious inroads before my normal spade neatened up the hole. Once down a few feet, I had to use the small spade in order to extract the sandy soil. Unfortunately, the deeper I went, the wider and longer the hole needed to be. I was up to my shoulders and feeling slightly claustrophobic, but still a few feet from my ferret. As I bent down to gain a mark and dig further, some of the sand fell down my neck. Suddenly I wasn?t so cocky about digging, unsure of the stability of the sandy walls. I felt more awkward with each scoop of fresh earth. I was grateful for the boys watching over me but now, in hindsight, I wonder how much assistance they would have been if the sides had caved in.

As I stood, the hole was just under 6ft. I bent down with the probe, pushed it into the floor of my potential tomb and fell forward. I was in. As the probe broke through, my heart missed a beat as I waited to see if the neat sand would cave in like an egg timer, risking my ferret?s life in the process. It didn?t and, as the final spit of silty yellow sand was removed, the ferret squinted into my torchlight, but she wasn?t out just yet. The tube was still another 12in below my feet and, although I had dug down to her, I wasn?t too keen on bending double and risking a landslide of sand. Picking up a rabbit, I dangled it into the tube and, luckily, the ferret gripped it. Like a fisherman landing a salmon, I lifted my prize, dusted her down and boxed her up.

A dangerous sport

Relieved but exhausted, I now had the job of filling in this huge void and was glad of an offer of help with the spadework. In hindsight, doing this on my own would have been reckless. We read every year about people jumping into icy ponds after dogs ? well, for me, this is on a par with that. I will think a little harder and more seriously in future before endangering not just myself and my animals but also those we may leave behind if the unthinkable happens. It?s a subject that I thought I would never touch on when writing about rabbiting.