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Ferreting in Suffolk: The return of the Jolly boys

Back in November, large, pastel-blue skies presented themselves as precursors to grey and gloomy horizons. I was on a warren battling against a green sea of angelica but my spirits were lifted by the arrival of the “Jolly Boys” for a feast of ferreting fun. They were here to take part in what could be the last celebration of ferreting as a collective here in Suffolk.

Dave “Romford” Jones, Ian “Torchie” Clayton and Shaun Grace from “t’north” joined local rabbiters Sooty and Digger at Steve and Marie Taylor’s base camp. While they were enjoying fine food and drink, I was trying to sort out a new venue due to a problem with the original.

Contrary to popular belief, these days don’t just magically materialise. First, there’s the issue of finding a space on the calendar to suit everybody. Next, I have to find a spot where I can ensure that there are more than enough rabbits — but it isn’t just about the rabbits. These days also have to be enjoyable, and ensuring that they run smoothly is a task in itself. I know the boys love the camaraderie, company and food, but I aim to provide a day to remember among people with whom it is a privilege to rabbit.

My terrain is quite different from what the boys are used to. The ferreting on the sand-saturated eastern coastline isn’t for the spade-shy or ferret-box sitter. The sand offers easy digging and, because generations of burrowers have been digging away, the boys know when I say deep, I mean deep.

Trying to organise this collective after a night at Steve and Marie’s isn’t conducive to an early start. So, eager to make use of the limited sunlight, I tried a bit of reverse psychology. I told them what time I would be ferreting and that I would see them when they turned up. This worked a treat: they were early.

Vehicles parked, gear unloaded and ferrets collared-up, the chatter flowed as freely as the cappuccinos. I planned to work a fair few albinos, so I marked the separate clans with blue livestock marker. This guards against putting a ferret back into the wrong carrying box, which can be a noisy and smelly experience. The hedgerow was a few hundred metres long and had been flailed recently by the farmer. Unfortunately, the angelica was still growing and this mantled the hedgerow bottom, providing a perfect illustration of why I use white or light-coloured ferrets. Though the rabbits didn’t know it, this would be their downfall because they love to sneak out of an unseen hole and sit tight under its canopy. Luckily, I have two canine helpers that know every trick these lagomorphal magicians like to play.

A waiting game

After the boys had laid the nets, we sent in the ferrets at strategic intervals. It was now a game of patience. Pre-warned about the ambient noise on the warren, the eager gang of ferreters stood and watched silently. Though to our guests this was a relaxing jolly, to me it was another day in the office and I had to show the farmer a good harvest, especially with so many hands on deck.

The scene was set. Plenty of bodies, stop-nets between warrens and a few purse-nets over the well-worn holes. Hovering nearby was Bella, who is maturing nicely into a warrening dog.

The rabbits started to bolt evenly. Eager ferrets were forcing them out along the length of this typical deep Suffolk sandy hedgerow — this is why it is stop-net country. The rabbits were unable to outsmart us and the nets proved their worth time and time again as the quarry ran through the hedge-line or along the margins. Though time passed deceptively slowly, the rabbits started to accumulate.

Running to and from nets, digging and carrying the catch meant that we worked up an appetite. Luckily, Steve was on hand to cook up some fresh sausage sandwiches, to be washed down with tea. In the afternoon, the revitalised group split. Millie, my lurcher, and I splintered off with Shaun, who likes to watch the dog work, while the others continued down the hedge we had ferreted in the morning.

Shaun and I netted the gaps between the warrens I knew harboured rabbits. They had been undisturbed all summer and were surrounded by maize, which is grown here primarily as a bio fuel rather than as gamecover or for animal feed. Millie marked each deep set, and straight away her work was honoured. We ferreted in my favourite fashion: with no pursenets, just a few stop-nets and a good dog.

Once the ferret was in, we could stand back and enjoy the show. As the rabbits started to bolt, Millie made catching them look effortless. Her experience shone through as she snapped up one after another as they prepared to flee or tried to hide in the angelica. Seasons of work and injuries may have taken their toll on Millie, but my style of ferreting rarely leaves anything to chance. Because I knew where and when they were going to bolt, the majority were caught within feet of their exit. Those that got the better of Millie met with the waiting stop-nets for Shaun or me to deal with.

A rich hedge fund

We had our fair share of digs and I knew we were doing well when Shaun disappeared to collect another rabbit carrier, but I didn’t realise quite how well. We finished the hedge with 19 large rabbits hanging from our weary shoulders. Spaced out behind our trucks, 48 large Suffolk rabbits, with plenty of fat around their kidneys, illustrated the worth of a good ferreting team. But we weren’t finished just yet. Being so close to the magical 50, it would have been downright rude not to catch at least another brace.

As Torchie and Shaun inspected, graded and removed the innards of the day’s catch inside one of our excavations, we surrounded the area where the trucks were parked and placed every ferret with a collar on inside a deep, dingy warren. The dogs and ferrets gained a second wind and ensured we finished the day with 26 brace of rabbits. It was a fantastic tally for this area and all were caught in a timeless manner and a jovial atmosphere.

The second day

The following morning was a more relaxed affair. The warrens were deeper and demanded more respect and more ferrets. Steve worked his nine-year-old lurcher, Maze, between the more experienced duo of Bella and Millie, proving that ferreting can give a new lease of life to an old dog. It was a good job that Shaun, Torchie, Romford and Sooty all demonstrated their skills with a spade as the rabbits in these complexes knew instinctively that it was safer to sit tight. This wasn’t the day for too many deep digs into unknown warrens, so we kept to the periphery and played safe. As the ferrets were counted back into their boxes, the sun dropped and the once blue and grey sky turned to a warm reddish sunset — a red sky at night is a ferreter’s delight.

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