Proper countrymen are becoming a rare breed, but hopefully the versatile lurcher will not go the same way, says Nick Ridley
When I was growing up I used to spend a lot of my school holidays with my grandparents in a small rural village in Kent. Next door lived an old man called Bert, he was a cowman on a local farm, but what he didn’t know about the countryside just simply wasn’t worth knowing. Bert taught me how to find bird nests, look for slowworms underneath pieces of corrugated sheeting and he introduced me to the world of “chasing rabbits” with dogs.
Now I say chasing rather than catching, because at the time he had a German shepherd dog, and although she was a really keen rabbiter she never managed to catch anything, but in my mind she was the best running dog ever, and I always lived in hope that one day she would catch one of the fleeing bunnies.
I guess the influence of Bert and his dog and his love for the countryside has really influenced my whole life and it got me interested in working dogs of all types, but especially those breeds that can be used in the pursuit of rabbits whether it is a gundog or lurcher.
As well as my three working cocker spaniels, I also have a collie-cross-lurcher and I have spent many happy hours ferreting with her. Although she is now too old to accompany me on any ferreting expeditions, I did recently have the chance to have a day out with some chaps that have a pack of experienced ferreting dogs and I was really looking forward to seeing them working with the ferrets. It was a miserable day, cold and damp, but everyone was hopeful that the ferrets and dogs would still manage to bag a few rabbits, the team consisted of a whippet, three very fit looking lurchers and a tough-looking Patterdale terrier.
The lurchers were all collie x greyhound types with rough coats, which would prove invaluable in the inclement weather. This particular type of cross is perfect for this kind of work as its collie ancestry gives the dog the intelligence to be able to “run cunning” and a superb sense of smell and the greyhound adds the speed.
Although the main aim of the day was to reduce the number of rabbits, it was decided to not use purse nets, but to use the dogs and a couple of quick-set long- nets to divide the field into a couple of sections.
To the uninitiated, whippets can come across as being wimpy, nervous and fragile little dogs, but in truth they are as tough as a pair of old boots, especially if they come from working or racing lines. They are perfect for the close quartered action of ferreting. The little fawn dog started marking a set of holes that ran alongside a grass bank and as one of the lads set up the long-net, a couple of ferrets were prepared for their subterranean work. It was good to see the lads using electronic finder collars, although I could remember when I was a lad we used a large hob ferret as a “liner ferret”, which would carry a line on a harness to where another ferret had laid up. The only way we could tell how far down the ferret had gone was by the knots tied in the string,
It wasn’t long before a rabbit bolted from the warren and the whippet was on it like a shot. The rabbit made for the hedge line but the lads had already anticipated that route of escape and the long-net did its job. As we moved on to the next set of holes, the discussion turned to the use of a dog when ferreting and the fact that it is the most natural way of reducing the rabbit population, the dog will “mark” the occupied holes, the ferret will work its way through the underground sanctuary the same way a stoat or any other natural predator would and then the rabbit will bolt and the waiting dog will, hopefully, be in a position to catch the fleeing bunny – admittedly it may not be the most effective way to catch rabbits but it is really good fun!
Heart in mouth
As the weather deteriorated, the rabbits refused to bolt and the lads had to resort to digging them out, although this was a pain it certainly added a few rabbits to the bag. We moved to a more sheltered area and worked a ditch line covered in bramble patches and the ferrets really did produce the goods.
The technique was to let the ferrets “free hunt” the thick bramble as the rabbits tended to lie up and the dogs would follow the questing ferret from the outside and sure enough after a couple of minutes a couple of rabbits burst out of the bushes and ran up the ditch. Three of the lurchers took off in hot pursuit, and the dogs were unseen as they went in to a small group of trees.
To everyone’s surprise, two of them came back with a rabbit each, quite how they had managed to catch them in such difficult cover we will never know, but it certainly lifted some very damp spirits. As we moved along the ditch, another rabbit bolted out of a well-used hole and one of the bigger lurchers was on it like a shot, he caught up with the fleeing rabbit within a few strides and just as he struck the rabbit made it to a stick pile and the dog hit the logs and up ended up flying through the air.
Everyone took a sharp intake of breath and I was convinced the dog had really hurt himself, but in no time at all he jumped back up and started hunting for the now long-gone rabbit. I couldn’t believe the dog had come out of such a collision and survived without a scratch. It really was heart in the mouth stuff.
The lurcher is a rare breed
It was a truly impressive display of team work, most of the rabbits were retrieved live to hand and one of the older dogs even had the sense to take his rabbits to the ever growing pile and wait until his owner came and took it off him. Eventually the weather got the best of us and it was decided to call it a day and retire for a well earned lunch of bacon and sausage rolls with steaming cups of tea. As I drove home my thoughts wandered back some 40 years ago and to Bert. I have a lot to thank him for and it is a shame that countrymen like him are becoming a rare breed and hopefully the very versatile lurcher will not go the same way!