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Ferreting Rabbits on the Dales

This trip wasn’t about catching rabbits. Nor was it about admiring the breathtaking scenery. It was all about the people on the warren — namely Bob Merrin and Ian “Torchie” Clayton. As a collective, these exponents of rabbiting have seen momentous changes during their lifetime. It had been a decade since I had last walked out among the hills with Bob, his award-winning hemp nets and a boxful of ferrets. I finally grasped the opportunity to get me, my friend Richard, Bob and Torchie on the same warren.

After an evening of proper Yorkshire hospitality, the day dawned. I had little need to set my alarm as the anticipation and excitement ensured I was awake well before breakfast. With my new puppy, Tawny, walked and breakfast eaten, the gang started to assemble in the small village of West Witton.

Though we were in the Dales, the warrens weren’t the stereotypical shallow scrapes we were usually accustomed to clearing when we visit. The warrens we were set to ferret suited our ethos perfectly. They may have been a lot deeper, but whatever the depth and size, you still need to find and catch the rabbits.
I had brought Tawny to see her father, Torchie’s dog, Dan. Tawny is a bundle of mischief. Longevity isn’t often spoken about in working dogs, but it is essential in a ferreting companion. Speed isn’t everything, and while Dan may be losing his physical abilities, he will never lose his nose for rabbits, and that will always bag more bunnies than sheer athleticism alone.

As usual, our job could be the easiest in the world or akin to finding hen’s teeth. Honouring the mark by producing the rabbits shouldn’t be hard, as the one thing we didn’t lack was experience. Between them Torchie and Bob share nearly 135 years on Earth. Every purse-net laid was made by the weathered and worn hands of those laying them. Bob, a keen advocate of hemp nets, makes the most of his with a 2¼in mesh. These were a match made in heaven for the sizeable rabbits roaming these fields. Torchie, on the other hand, likes his synthetic twines.
Though there is no right or wrong way to ferret, the individual styles of ferreting on show couldn’t have been more contrasting. Once the dog had marked the warren, the nets went down and the ferret went in: catch, despatch, nets up and move on. Timeless, yet as effective now as it was 50 years ago. The only major changes in Bob and Torchie’s ferreting has been the invention of the ferret-finder and the availability of suitable synthetic twines.

Torchie started the day off with his usual dogged determination, bagging a solo bunny from a steep incline even before we could get off the farm track. We then gravitated towards a stone wall where a few holes united the band of merry men like a golden thread. Like-minded souls worked as one almost telepathically. While one laid a net, when a rabbit bolted, without a word, one of us instinctively despatched the rabbit as another one of us simultaneously relaid a fresh net.

Bob’s weathered face was a joy to watch. He’s nearly 70 years old, yet has an enthusiasm and drive that, at times, put us all to shame. He has seen it all and nothing fazes him. Under his deerstalker hat, his brown eyes stared intently at his motionless hemp nets. Time appeared to stand still as the large polecat dog ferret worked under our feet. We waited patiently. The net bulged in a blink of an eye with a rabbit. With swiftness and dexterity of hand, the quick despatch was classy and experienced. As Bob stood beyond the re-netted hole with a motionless rabbit inside his hemp net, there was an air of authority about him. This was going to be one of those special day’s ferreting.