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Fostering ferrets of the future

It?s sad to say, but it seems that the percentage of ferrets that are capable of doing a hard day?s graft in the warren is fast-diminishing. Perhaps five or 10 ? and certainly 20 ? years ago, one could take any ferret and it would be likely to work like a demon, but those days appear to be long gone.

The generations of rabbiters that bred such fine specimens are becoming irreplaceable rarities ? a fixation with wild polecats, colour and size, plus the pursuit of money, has diluted the blood of many established lines across the UK. There are now strains of ferrets whose DNA is toxic with genes that have a detrimental effect on the quest for a conformable working ferret.

Over the past few decades, I have been privileged to have owned, worked with and observed some outstanding specimens of ferrets from all around the UK. This year, my breeding programme has taken on extra importance, as a lot of my ferrets are only a season away from slowing down, so I need new stock of a similar calibre to the ferrets that I currently work.

Many of the new ferrets I have brought in have failed to live up to expectations due to their lacklustre performance, so I am now trying to get back on track. I realise it may be difficult for some people to comprehend how highly I rate a good ferret, but without reliable and committed workers, my business will suffer. I am only as good as the ferrets I work, but like many of my peers I have been guilty of failing to breed out of my best mustelids enough. Hindsight is a wonderful thing, but I?m wondering if it is too late to correct this trend.

Some of the finest ferrets I have owned, worked and bred from have originated in the North-West, from my good friend and rabbiting aficionado Bob Merrin. Over the years, Bob has supplied the starting point of my lines, and last year he provided me with BB, a yearling hob of impeccable bloodlines. My own hobs would have been too close to breed, so I needed a good outcross. My plan was to work BB hard and if he thrived, he would be bred from. It was never in doubt, and he is now relaxing after siring two litters, with a third imminent. Unfortunately, as many in the world of gundog field trials will confirm, just because you breed the best sire with the best dam, it doesn?t necessarily mean you will produce the best offspring.

Breeding season

As the hours of daylight finally began to outnumber the hours of darkness, my jills started to come into season. Unfortunately, the ones I wanted to breed from did so later than usual due to the amount of work they had carried out late last season. This year I picked three: one ginger one that I got from my friend Russ, in Kent, and two ?Tasmanian devils? whose lines originate with animals of Bob?s. After a 42-day pregnancy, the squeaks coming from my green breeding cages heralded the arrival of my long-awaited ferret kits.

After they mate, I usually give the expectant mothers plenty of food and rest, and then separate them two weeks before birth. They then make a nest and, around day 42, the litter is born. I say ?usually? because this year I made the mistake of leaving my jills together longer than planned, and one gave birth to a litter while still accompanied by her siblings. Fortunately, due to their close relationship, the other two ferrets mothered the young and soon came into milk, helping the mother to feed her kits. Strong, healthy and large, these kits have had the best start in life and the presence of the two other jills hasn?t caused them any problems.

Ferret kits are tiny (small enough to fit into a teaspoon), blind, deaf and covered in a fine dusting of fur. I don?t interfere with them for the first 14 days other than to give them a quick check. Their eyes start to open at around week four, about a week after they start to eat (or at least nibble on) meat, but at this point they are still reliant on their mother?s milk for survival. Once their eyes open fully they become a lot more active, and they eat more solid food, until at week six they are ready to be weaned off their mother. By the time they are eight weeks old, they are ready to go to their new homes or to be separated into new living quarters.

Kits grow quickly, and there are few sights more comical than a hutch full of them. Their naivety, youthful exuberance and energy cause them to spend large amounts of time mimicking their hunting skills on each other. This looks far worse than it is, and is a vital stage in their upbringing. However, using their teeth on each other while playfighting is one thing, but using them on my hands is quite another. I am a firm believer in embedding the smell, taste, touch and texture of rabbit into the core instincts of my ferrets as soon as possible, and it is when the kits are eating rabbit that I start to handle them, to get them accustomed to my hands.

What to look for

Any ferret that I deem worthy of breeding from must be in the right proportion, physically. I prefer them to be lean, with a good temperament and preferably light in colour, but essentially from a tested working stock with no history of crossing with wild polecats or small ferrets.

It must have been put through at least one tough season and still want more, as prey drive is of the utmost importance. However, not every ferreter seeks this level of intensity in a ferret?s instinctive behaviour to seek out and capture its prey. Sporting purists tend to be a bit spade-shy and don?t want a ferret that adheres to my motto of ?bolt or pay the consequences?. Any ferret that won?t stay for a long period of time on a rabbit doesn?t have the same depth of prey drive as one that takes satisfaction from staying and trying to make a rabbit bolt or trying to kill it before moving on.

I am no sporting purist, but I am a rabbit controller who absolutely relies on his ferrets to provide for his family. To compare ferrets with gundogs again, there is a great chasm between what looks the part and what actually does the business in the field day-in, day-out.