I simply cannot help myself. Like a ferreting King Canute, I try to halt the tide of nature, so that my season gets longer as each year passes. My friends think I?m mad, but if the ferrets are willing and able and the temperature is suitable, I?m game.
This outing on an Essex farm was one such occasion. I was accompanied by Peter Davison-White, whom I have known since he was a boy ? Peter was ferreting when he was no taller than a spade. The site was a ditch line with a mature holly tree at one end and wheat and grass on either side. A sea of nettles around the sides obliterated our view of the warrens, but I was not going to let that stop us.
Recently, while spraying, the farm manager had spied fleeing rabbits of all shapes, sizes and colours. He wanted them gone before they had time to grow and breed. Unfortunately, the recent glut of rain had worked its way down through the land?s substratum, the water table had risen dramatically and the ditches were now full. What had been little streams or dry drainage ditches now resembled white-water rides in places, forcing many rabbits to move to drier ground.
Those that had stayed would have to contend with us determined ferreters dressed in waterproof jackets, wellies and leggings. I surrounded the area with long-nets, straddling the beck to place the netting, which would ensure that even if the bolted rabbits decided to swim for it, they would be netted like a spring salmon. Once surrounded, I cleared the holes for Peter to lay a scattering of purse-nets. I collared up the ferrets, placing bright-red tape on the collars to differentiate between the two trios of albinos. These warrens were fairly small compared with those that we have been working recently, so, though it seemed it wouldn?t be too taxing, I couldn?t afford to become complacent.
Due to the dirty water, the albino ferrets that entered into the abyss resurfaced a light-brown colour, as the mud had discoloured their usually pristine white fur. Half-grown rabbits wriggled through the mesh of the purse-nets but were unable to outrun the ferrets once back underground. These youngsters weren?t what I was after; I wanted their parents. Staying submerged, the adults tried to divert attention by running around underground, but to no avail. There was no hiding place ? today?s intruders weren?t the customary stoat or weasel, but fervent hunters fitted with the best in 21st century technology: the electronic ferret finder. When the rabbit stopped in a dead end, we located the ferret and employed the spade. The digs were only a couple of feet deep.
The rabbits started to bolt, intimidated by the ferrets? presence. One in particular caught my attention, and I lunged instinctively across the water to deal with it in a net. This was no ordinary rabbit. Light-beige in colour, this eccentricity highlighted the shift in genetics among this tight-knit community. I have caught a number of blacks and rabbits with blazes and even once an albino, but this was unusual. I?m not prejudiced, however. It joined its friends on the bank side.
The next few warrens contained only a few holes. Nests were dug, too, but the glazed occupants were still and cold to the touch. They had succumbed to the weather. A lot of rabbits? nests have been destroyed as a result of the lethal cocktail of cold temperatures, dissipating water and the rising water table ? not something you would necessarily associate with May?s weather. Twelve months ago we would have welcomed the rain, as our region was as dry as a desert, causing a different type of problem.
Bella was by my side, and is starting to get to grips with the strange situations I place her in. For a while I just left the nets in the bag and bolted some rabbits to give her some experience. One or two rabbits obliged and bolted into the barley field. The barley was of good height and yield, making it difficult for a young and inexperienced dog to cope with and so masked a fleeing rabbit, from Bella?s eye level. Unable to see it accurately, she followed the moving crop and marshalled it into the waiting long-net. With the rabbit stuck fast in the net?s belly, Bella stood back and watched intently as one of us sprinted down to take care of the catch. All the other bolted rabbits headed to the sanctuary of the holly tree.
Even the smallest of rabbits, once bolted, instantly swam across and apparently disappeared into thin air. A lesser man would have probably scratched his head and cracked on, but Peter jumped into the swollen ditch and stuck his arm up the tiniest of holes in the bank. With water inside his boots, his face showed his struggle to get a purchase on the tightly bottled-up rabbit. Out it came, but, as we marched on with the ferrets, Peter stood still, pouring the water out of his boots from the dry sanctuary of the bank.
Training is vital
Ferreting at this time of the year can be both exhilarating and hard work, especially with a young dog in tow. Bella was starting to get to grips with a few hole-hopping rabbits, reinforcing the importance of a good clean mark, a reliable retrieve, positional sense and peripheral vision around the warren.
It was pleasing to see how Bella has adapted a positional awareness, so as not to let bolting rabbits see her until they are too far out, but finding the right rabbits for her to course and catch is sometimes easier said than done ? and this winter has been a long training session for her. Working with the ferrets, her body informed us of the whereabouts of the action, as she instinctively knew what to do. After another season, I will see if I can truly be able to call her a ferreter?s dog.
The impact of myxomatosis
The action soon petered out, as the warrens were becoming more and more waterlogged lower down the ditch. As we dried out and prepared for the journey home, I had another important task to carry out. I had been contacted by Joel Alves from the University of Cambridge with a view to helping him with his PhD on myxomatosis. Joel required some liver samples from a doe rabbit and, as a bonus, he collected a few rabbit fleas. The main objective of his study is to evaluate the impact of myxomatosis on the populations of the European rabbit and, ultimately, to understand how they have become increasingly resistant to the disease.
Though the myxoma virus is currently present in rabbit populations worldwide, it originated in South America. Due to its lethal impact on the European rabbit, the virus was used to control invasive populations worldwide. In 1950 it was deliberately released for the first time in Australia, causing massive declines in the rabbit population. Then, in 1952 it was released in France and soon spread across Europe, reaching the UK in 1953, where it caused a similar outcome to that which it had in Australia. In all of these regions, the mortality rates began to decrease after the first impact of myxomatosis, and when wild rabbits were tested in laboratories they were found to be more resistant to the disease.
Using this extraordinary example of co-evolution, Joel will obtain DNA from museum samples that were collected before the release of the virus (and were therefore never exposed to myxomatosis) and compare them with the DNA of modern samples that are the result of 60 years of co-evolution with the virus. By performing a genetic comparison between these two distinct temporal sets, he expects to understand not only what changes have occurred in the rabbit DNA since its exposure to the virus, but also to identify which genes are responsible for resistance to myxomatosis.
With gloves on and knife sharpened, I presented Joel with the liver samples, which were then put in a tube of alcohol, labelled and placed inside a box of dry ice. Watching from afar, Peter was probably wondering if every day?s ferreting is as bizarre as this. Of course it is!