In my youth the manufacturers calculated that more Eley Grand Prix cartridges the favourite brand of the day were fired at rabbits than at any other fur or feather. The popular pellet size was No 5, the only one stocked by most ironmongers, which was frustrating to us budding ballisticians who knew enough to prefer a smaller size in our .410s and other small bores.
In those days, the rabbit was everywhere and out of control, shaving the headlands of corn and grass fields, eating green crops, undermining hedges, infiltrating stone hedgebanks till they tumbled, dangerously tunnelling on railway embankments and gallops, and generally making itself an expensive nuisance to those who tried to make a living from the land. Then rabbit trapping was good business, rabbit meat was marketable and felt hatters used the fur. Many a tenant farmer paid his rent with the proceeds from letting rabbiting. And to those of us embarking on a sporting career, the rabbit was a cornerstone of our education. We pursued it whenever or wherever we could and it was not hard to find those who welcomed our presence in its pursuit.
We stalked grazers along the field edges on summer evenings, first with air rifles and .410s, later with .22s. We ran rabbits and ourselves ragged into the sheaves while the horse-drawn binder felled the corn in ever-decreasing circles. With a bobbery pack we ran them down in deep snow where they had not the legs of their pursuers. There were lamping nights with one on the rifle while the other humped a clumsy motorbike battery wired to a lorry headlight, and woodland rabbit drives to forward Guns or long-nets set in the rides. We trapped them inhumanely but effectively in gins, learning how to angle the jaws depending on the burys entrance. We soon acquired the skill of setting wires on field runs between the take-off and landing point. But it was the ferreting that we enjoyed the most and which proved the most effective.
In more than 40 years of keeping ferrets I have only bought one, for ten shillings (50p), from a reprobate neighbour who acquired it over several pints at Newbury Market and thought I would like it. Complete with carrying box, it seemed a bargain when I examined it next morning and found it was in young. Otherwise stock was swapped among friends and I bred my own. This was the background against which, in 1974, with one or two kindred spirits in the Burghfield Gun Club, I dreamed up the idea of putting on a ferreting and rabbiting display at the Game Fair.
Gameshooting was becoming increasingly sophisticated and some of us thought that it was in danger of losing sight of the elementals of country sports on which the whole structure was based. You dont have to be a countryman to shoot driven pheasants, a fact which is sadly becoming increasingly obvious. However, it is a prerequisite of the rabbiter, who must notice natures signs and the movement of animals other than his quarry if he is to succeed. So in 1974, at Stratfield Sayes first Game Fair, Pugs and Drummers (P & D) was born. Its birthplace was convenient, for I lived down the road from the Duke of Wellingtons house.
I sold the idea to Brigadier Dick Keenlyside, then in charge, who kindly agreed that the CLA would sponsor us. Rabbit clearance societies were in vogue and there was one across the Thames at Woodcote, so we asked them on board and met in the pub to hatch plans. We took our name from our netmaker Ernie Eaststaff and his Romany brother-in-law Jackos advice that, when planning ferreting operations on the wrong side of the fence, pugs and drummers were code names for ferrets and rabbits, in case the law was listening. Catchy, with an air of mystery, it was great for publicity. Our aim during the 10 years of our attendance was to amuse and instruct in all manner of rabbit catching with a heavy accent on ferrets certain punter-pullers.
The emphasis was on their proper care and attention, since for years these engaging little beasts had suffered in this respect. For a decade, our ferret ring showed pugs cavorting through see-through and secret tunnels. The ferret exchange and mart was run with military precision and a great spiel by ex-Welsh Guardsman Bill Taffy Williams, who still lives within catapult range of our HQ, the Six Bells, Burghfield, and keeps in touch.
Electronic ferret and terrier detectors had not then reached todays high-tech heights, but we were able to demonstrate their predecessor, the Bleeper, developed by Kent gamekeeper John Lawrence from a gizmo for finding lost golf balls. These were a useful innovation but reliability was not their strongest suit until about 1987 we still ran a repair service from Cornwall. Other memories of that Stratfield Saye initiation include the squadrons of snorts, or horseflies, that clung to the inside walls of our tent on the first morning until zapped by Ron New who fetched a special spray from his pest control firm in Reading. At one point I found myself caged inside a fox trap that was advertised as simple to assemble.
That we were on to a winner was in no doubt. The stand was thronged throughout. That year, disappointingly, we were not on the Queens itinerary. We had to wait until Bowood for royal approval. As the Game Fair developed we grew with it. The aim was to include something new each year. Like a travelling circus, we collected acts as we went along. Soon tiring of stuffy tents, on the walls of which it was difficult to display photographs and gear, we arranged a wooden buildings firm to sell us a field shelter at a knockdown price. This gave more room and a better ambience. It also opened the way for further expansion. Firms were very willing to lend kennels to house terriers and lurchers if their name was prominently displayed on the structure.
Stalwart supporters were Youngs of Misterton, Somerset, who made all sorts of trapping gadgetry and let us have it wholesale. Everything from ferret wormers to sparrow traps found a ready market at the right price. There were no horseflies on us! Over the years our repertoire increased. We had demonstrations of how to make and use long-nets, drop-nets, snare pegs and leather cartridge bags. Taxidermy and bronze wildlife sculpture were on show and we demonstrated how to skin and cure pelts and work lurchers and terriers. We exhibited tame stoats, polecats, a fox and a catapult range at which the Prince of Wales took instruction at Bowood. Our Pugs and Drummers T-shirt was a best-seller. The motif of a ferret chasing a rabbit by cartoonist Ronald Green created a moving picture on the embonpoint of many a lady customer at the fair.
A few moments are best forgotten, such as when the fox met its end at the teeth of an underkeepers insistent terriers as he was on his early-morning rounds at Chatsworth. On another occasion, Lady De LIsle was not best pleased when the pony pulling the historic trap she had lent us bolted at a bee sting, causing damage to the vehicle. Perhaps oblivious of this, the Duchess of Devonshire lent us another ensemble at Chatsworth, which paraded safely hung with rabbiting gear and fresh dead rabbits.
There was an awkward moment at Welbeck when some schoolboy helpers from Stowe were caught by an underkeeper ferreting in the park after hours. They were paraded the next morning and dressed down by the head, who threatened them with going straight in the nick at Worksop if it happens again. The lurcher team, with two hares in their van, lay low. They came under official scrutiny at Kinmount when the name of the Game Fair contractors was discovered on the wood of the tables they had used to build their kennels. It was the 1984 Game Fair that saw our last appearance. Now, not before time, P & D has been resurrected by STs ferret man Simon Whitehead, who is a worthy successor. I wish him as much fun as we had.
The rest of this article appears in 24 January issue of Shooting Times.
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