Out on the trail of rabbits with a professional pest controller in the South Cotswolds
Two of the three ferrets had returned to the surface, content that the warren of burrows under the collapsed dyke had been cleared of rabbits.
Both were wearing rabbit fur gloves as evidence of their success. They had already chased seven inhabitants out into the sunlight, where six had become ensnared by a purse-net or gripped by the jaws of a lurcher. One little squeaker had evaded both the nets and dogs to disappear into the undergrowth of the woods beyond the wheat field. But what was that third ferret up to?
You can see the rabbit damage in these fields on Google Earth, explained James Linari-Linholm, a professional pest controller in the south Cotswolds, as he swung his ferret finder up and down the tumbled stones like a metal detector. Look at the mess theyve made of the wheat shoots round here. Its no wonder the farmer called us in.
There are not many 27-year-olds like James. He looks more suited to the set of The Darling Buds of May than the 21st century, proudly sporting mutton chop whiskers that teeter bushily over the edge of his ruddy jowls. His knowledge of flora and fauna is impressive, born from a desire to learn the behaviour of his quarry and their environment. He gets cross with himself when he cannot immediately remember the Latin name of the hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna), though it quickly comes back to him.
The strapline on his website is wildlife management without toxins, which necessitates traditional countryman techniques such as netting, Fenn trapping, running dogs and shotgunning in the winter months. He chooses to make all of his equipment wherever possible, such as tying his purse- and gap-nets.
Im too tight or too skint to buy kit, he admitted, honing in on a rapid series of pips that indicated the third ferret was somewhere beneath his feet. I wont poison or gas rabbits its a horrible job, expensive and less effective, in my opinion.
Besides James and his three ferrets, the rabbits were up against Matt Whittaker and Ros White, who lend a hand whenever possible. James and Matt first met in playgroup at the age of two, and grew up on the same street in Cheltenham. At six years old, they were given their first taste of shooting behind the sights of an air rifle. It was from one thing to another after that, Matt had said earlier that morning, as they rigged up the warren with nets. But once you get into country sports, you cant get out. They become part of your make-up.
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The two friends did find themselves at loggerheads, however, in the final ofthe junior national archery championships at the age of 17. Matt broke the national record, only for James to edge him out and take the title. I think it has since been beaten, James said. I am still an avid longbow archer. I instruct in Cheltenham and make my own bows too out of hickory and lemonwood laminates.
This creativity allows James to tie his own purse-nets, as well as longer gap-nets made from spun polyester string. The netting measures four yards, hung on fibreglass poles set two yards apart to give plenty of sag to bag a bolting bunny. The corners were tied with yellow string to avoid tangles. James positioned it in the rearguard of the direction he was heading. I dont mind rabbits escaping to burrows further up the field, as well catch up with them later on. But the last thing we want to be doing is retracing our steps.
The pips on the ferret finder tailed off, but they were soon replaced by three loud thumps from beneath the surface. I think were still in business, said Ros, as she returned the other two ferrets to the lair. In 2008, Ros won Shooting Timess Young Writer of the Year competition for an inspired article on the future of firearms legislation, and she hopes touse the award as a springboard for her writing career. I am still a relative newcomer to shooting, though I go beating throughout the season and learn as much as I can from the pages of Shooting Times, said the 23-year-old. I find every
aspect of country sports fascinating, but it saddens me that there is so much opposition to shooting. The sport needs as many young people as possible to put forward an intelligent and robust defence to safeguard its future.
Every hole had been covered, to avoid the Sods Law scenario of the rabbit bolting out of the only unnetted opening. Unfortunately for the trio, this meant pushing their hands and faces into clumps of stinging nettles. At times, they winced with pain, rubbing their cheeks and foreheads as though they were on fire. These stingers are atrocious at this time of year! Matt exclaimed, through gritted teeth. Just evil. They are young and packed with venom. Perhaps its because theyre the only veg on the menu at this time of year. You just have to wait for the skin to go numb and then carry on. Beside the purse-nets and gap-nets, Matt had also unwound a long-net, staked with hazel shanks, that would form a third line of defence.
If that failed, then the rabbits would have to run the gauntlet past two brindle lurchers, Fenn and Zorro. Chalk and Cheese would have been more appropriate names. Fenn, an eight-year-old saluki-whippet bitch, was a bundle of nervous energy, skipping from hole to hole, making everything her business. Zorro, on the other hand, was a heavy-built three-year-old lurcher with more than a passing resemblance to a German shepherd dog. He had a noble face, but rather a perplexed expression, as though he was still getting his head round this rabbiting lark. Fenn was independent, determined and flighty, with her mind fixed on catching cottontails; Zorro just wanted a cuddle.
Occasionally, Fenn would catch her paw in a net and dislodge it, causing Matt to grumble at her as he replaced it. But she received no such admonishment from the other two. To them, Fenn was irreproachable. We can excuse her bad netiquette, said James. I rescued her from this gypsy fellow when she was a puppy. She was cowering in the back of a shed, full of worms, covered with fleas and had conjunctivitis I just couldnt leave her there. Im so glad that I did take her, as she has been a brilliant worker.
The bond was strengthened further two seasons ago during a shoot day, while Fenn was proving her ability as a beating dog. Ros took up the story: She was running across a stubble field and suddenly bowled over with a squeal. It looked so innocuous, but when we arrived, we could see the bone sticking through her skin. The joint had snapped clean through, just like when you cut a deer leg in the larder.
The dog was in such discomfort that James’s first thoughts were to borrow a shotgun, but the estate owner advised that he take her to a vet. Two local practices refused to see her, as she was not registered there, and the prognosis looked grim. Eventually, James found a surgeon who was prepared to operate and the leg was cast in plaster for several months.
The joint was fused, so she had to undergo lengthy physiotherapy to generate movement in her toes, said James, stroking her ears. All the time, I was afraid that I had taken the wrong decision, because she is a dog that has to work. It would drive her crazy otherwise. Zorro, he would be fine! She was insured, but the payout only covered a fraction of the costs. Slowly, she showed signs of improvement, until she was able to run almost as well as before. I dont care who knows that I became very emotional indeed when she caught her first rabbit after the operation. The relationship between a handler and a working dog is so intense. Sadly, I dont think shell live to be an old dog, given her rough start in life, but Im grateful for all the time well have had together.
The trio are supporters of Lurcher Link (www.lurcher.org), a voluntary organisation that helps to rehome lurchers from stray pounds. The team effectively rescues dogs from death row and uses its network of supporters to find new homes, said James. Sometimes, the dog will travel in a relay, from supporter to supporter, across the country to reach a new owner. Unlike some dog rescue homes, Lurcher Link understands that working dogs need to work, so they ensure that the dog goes to a working family where possible.
A tireless inspection
Ten minutes later, all had gone quiet beneath us. Zorro had long since lost interest, collapsing on his side in the sunshine. James scratched at his sideburns, searching for inspiration; Matt tested the tension on his long-net; while Ros handed round home-made orange marmalade and poppy seed muffins. Only Fenn kept up her tireless inspection of each hole for signs of movement. With an awkward leap to one side, she investigated a burrow, cocking her head to one side.
“”Come here, girl”, said James. ”There’s nothing there.” But Fenn stayed at her post. You stubborn old thing, lets have a …” But he didnt finish the sentence. The lurcher had cracked the riddle of the missing ferret.
Pushing his hand into the hole, James fished out not one or two rabbits, but five of them in total, all herded into a stop end by the ferret. Eventually, the musty hunter appeared, wearing furry gloves and boots.
Well, I’ve never seen anything like that. Just goes to show how useful a good lurcher is when rabbiting. And I swear that ferret is part collie dog.
For more information on James Linari-Linholms pest control services, visit www.JLLpestcontrol.co.uk.