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Ferrets – A tale of two litters

With a battleship-grey sky balancing precariously over the sea, rain lashing down and wind whipping over the cliffs, it could have been winter.

I scurried towards the sanctuary of my ferret shed, where the high-pitched squeals echoing from within told me it was summer. My shed is a hive of activity.

Ferrets of all shapes, sizes and colours climb around like monkeys, clinging on to their mesh doors eager to come out and play.

Unfortunately for them, my focus was with the litter of kits in the top hutch, the result of a union between two hard-as-nails ferrets.

A difficult time for breeding
Over the past few summers my breeding programme has been dire. I have been trying to replicate the calibre and quality of ferret that I have had the privilege to work with in the past.

These ferrets were acquired from around the UK and have worked to the edge and back for me.

Even from tried-and-tested working stock, not every ferret born has the physical and mental capacity to work consistently in our unforgiving environment.

I try hard to get the right ferret, producing workers that not only match my current stable but also improve on their qualities.

The whole point of my breeding programme is to improve on what I have already and to make my squad larger so that I can work fresh ferrets, especially at the tail end of a long and arduous season.

To prove themselves worthy of breeding from, they are worked and tested for two seasons, after which they may have only a few years to breed.

If one of my best working jills doesn?t fall pregnant as planned, there is only a small window of opportunity to mate her again.

Phantom pregnancies
Last year, two of the three jills I had mated with proven sires dropped nothing but weight ? after their 42-day gestation period both had phantom pregnancies.

The third jill gave birth to a good-sized litter of nine kits but, as I discovered, nothing can be as cruel as Nature.

My daughter, Grace, always checks the ferrets when I am away and ensures they have ample food and water until my return. One morning her routine was abruptly interrupted by the unusual behaviour of the mothering jill.

Young Grace knew instinctively that something was wrong. The jill was lying down beside the drinking bottle, mouth wide open and gasping for air.

With pale gums and warmer than usual body, she tried lethargically to cool herself down. A foot away were her kits, crying out for milk, warmth and security.

Barely a fortnight old, these kits couldn?t go for too long without feeding. I decided that the jill needed professional help, quickly.

It was a Sunday morning and I knew the vet?s till would start ticking once I entered the surgery, but what else could I do?

These ferrets were an amalgamation of some of the finest stock from around the country and impossible to replace.

The vet gave us some Cimicat (cat milk replacement) which we would have to feed to the kits every two hours for the next 14 days.

Luckily, we still had the sterilising equipment from when Grace was a baby and once we got a small feeding bottle with a long rubber teat we were in business.

We mixed up the formula as instructed but because ferret milk is high in fats, we added an egg yolk to raise the fat levels. The mixture was warmed in Grace?s old bottle warmer.

Constant feeding
The back bedroom now looked (and smelt) a little different. The litter was snuggled up on an old towel inside a washing-up bowl (to prevent any wandering) and kept warm under a heat lamp.

While I was away travelling around the country demonstrating ferreting at shows, Jules and Grace kept up the feeding through day and night, and in the first week lost only one kit.

It was a steep learning curve for all of us, as this was the first time we have had to hand-rear a litter of young kits.

Young kits lack the necessary muscle control to urinate or defecate, so the mother normally licks these regions to stimulate the action.

Once fed, we had to replicate what their natural mother would have done using a wet cloth to clean and stimulate their genital area. Not the most glamorous of jobs, but an essential one!

Grace had been telling her teacher and classmates all about this drama, so when the kits were strong enough at four weeks old, we took them in to show to the class.

The children (and their parents) loved this, most of them never having seen, or touched, a ferret until then.

As the days turned into weeks, the kits became bigger, noisier and stronger. Unfortunately, a little hob died at five weeks due to deformed internal organs, which involved another trip to the vet.

Now fed every four hours and with meat mixed in with their milk, week five saw the kits? eyes opening and at six weeks they were good enough to go inside a hutch and nibble on some raw rabbit.

We supplemented their diet with some vitamin mixture to promote strong bones in an attempt to avoid any rickety kits.

Hard work, but worth it
Raising an orphaned litter in the complete absence of a mother is time-consuming but rewarding. The whole litter of four jills and three hobs was kept back and they all worked well over the last season, especially as it was a long and arduous one for an experienced ferret, never mind this pampered, mollycoddled bunch!

A straightforward year
Luckily, this year has been more straightforward. The union was marked on the calendar, the litter was born on time and the jill has been a fantastic mother, as are the vast majority of ferrets.

Because of last year?s misfortunes, I hedged my bets.

A few of my hobs have sired distant relatives that are with friends around the country and I am now about to pick up these to expand my overworked squad.

This year?s kits are starting to open their eyes and I?m feeding them rabbit, especially with a bit of fur left on it, so they become accustomed to what a rabbit smells, tastes and feels like.

Even before they realise it, I am reinforcing an instinct to detect rabbits in darkness and cement the important prey drive.

I also start to talk to them while feeding and handle them, and they have quickly become used to my presence.

When feeding a ferret biscuit to kits, I mix it with water so it is more digestible, and add a bit of fatty mince to make it appetising.

Once their eyes have opened they start to explore the world and before long these ferrets are as mad as a box of frogs.

Grace loves having the ferret kits to play with and nothing better accustoms ferrets to being handled by children.

Unfortunately, once they are mature and ready for work, especially after all this effort, you never really know how they are going to turn out. Some need nurturing, while others are naturals.

The reality is that, like dogs, not all ferrets, however well bred, will work the way you want them to.