Feisty ferrets go to work, keeping Devon farmland free of rabbits and providing meat for the butchers
There is a bountiful, delicious and healthy form of meat prevalent in the British countryside which, for some mysterious reason, we don't consume nearly enough.
It would certainly help farmers if more of us did eat rabbit meat, because the cute and cuddly creatures are a considerable pest.
Indeed, in a really bad farming year like this in which crops have struggled through flood and frost, rabbits (and their pals the pigeons) can wreak havoc on the few plants that do come through.
The Western Morning News was shown evidence of this recently when we were invited to join a group of rabbiters on their very last foray of the season. On land high above the River Exe in Mid Devon we saw how the sheer scarcity of tiny rape plants had lured rabbits far from their normal hedge-hugging zone out into the middle of fields where they'd nibbled every single sprouting leaf.
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Talk about a double-whammy for the farmer – he'd lost 90% of his crop to the vile weather, now he was seeing the rest go into the bellies of an increasing number of hungry rabbits. Hence the invitation to the rabbiting team and their box of ferrets…
And the good news is that not an ounce of dead rabbit would go to waste – the man in charge of the rabbiters was a Wellington butcher who told me he can sell every coney he ever catches.
But before having a chat to 28-year-old Chris Potter to find out how ferreting on a professional scale works, I talked to Chris Noble, the gamekeeper at Fursdon Estates who had invited the team in to help with the rabbit problem.
"Part of my job is control of vermin and agricultural pests on the estate," said Chris. "As far as I'm concerned that's predators – foxes, crows and magpies – but the rabbits are also a problem to me as a gamekeeper because here we are on one of the main pheasant drives and it is planted up with crops for the birds, but the rabbits eat it all at this time of year.
"Also here in this field we have oil seed rape, but it has failed – most of it never grew. What has grown, the rabbits will devastate." And if we don't control them, well… Rabbits do actually "breed like rabbits". They can reproduce another litter in six or eight weeks and they will have anything up to six, seven, eight, kits at a time. Exponentially – in ideal conditions – they are away. Especially once it warms up.
"If we simply left them, the bottom line would be that the food crops would be devastated and the rabbit population would actually be self-defeating in that they would starve themselves out," said Chris.
"But rabbits are also a good food source – if you went back to the Second World War you'd find rabbits were a major part of the both the rural and urban British diet," the gamekeeper went on.
"Of course the myxomatosis that came in 1953 put a lot of people off – and understandably so – but myxomatosis is not the thing it was in those days by a long chalk. You do get the odd outbreak, but over the course of 60 years they've developed an immunity to it and they don't succumb.
"So yes, we have more rabbits than ever and it seems they're more in demand…"
And the man who knows all about that demand is Chris the ferreter whose day job is working in the family butcher business, Tim Potter, Son and Daughter Ltd, in Wellington.
"There is a good market for rabbits nowadays," he told me during a break in proceedings. "If I have 25 to 30 in the shop each week, we sell them quite happily. There's wide spectrum of customers – there's a lot of young people asking for them now. At first we thought maybe they were feeding their pets with rabbit, but actually we are finding people want it as a cheaper meal alternative during this recession – plus you get the foodie types who want to try it.
"I started rabbiting when I was about four years old, so I could say I've been rabbiting for over 20 years," Chris said. "It's a tradition which was brought down from my granddad and it's something I've always done with my dad. I've always been involved with ferrets – always.
"When I was younger, rabbiting was a lot different, the long nets weren't around, it was just the little purse nets. They're a four foot net which you put over the holes," Chris explained.
Perhaps I'd better explain the basics of ferreting for any reader who has not seen it in action. As everyone will know, the ferret is a rabbit's most fearsome foe – larger predators like foxes or hawks won't go down the rabbit's ultimate refuge, which is of course his burrow. A ferret will.
Once the ferret is inside the complex of tunnels, the rabbits sound alarms by thumping their paws on the ground – and the result is that many members of the extended family will bolt for it through escape holes elsewhere in the burrow.
The rabbiter's main job is to have covered all these with nets which simply catch the escaping animals – but in some cases Chris and his team will have a back-up in the form of "L"-shaped nets placed at intervals along a hedge, or even a 100-yard-long super-net placed further back.
"The long net is a sort of back-up, but it can be used on its own," Chris explained. "It all depends – say, for instance, you are on a blackcurrant farm – nine times out of ten the rabbit will run straight for the blackcurrants because that's where it thinks it's safe. So we use the long net there because, if we do miss a hole, the rabbit will just run straight across and escape into the bushes."
This shows Chris's determination when it comes to catching his prey – proper pest control. He knows if you leave a handful of rabbits in a colony and you'll soon see the return of an entire tribe. So how many ferrets does he use?
"It all depends on the size of the warrens. If we are ferreting large warrens that are deep, we will use four ferrets," he replied. "But if we're just doing small places, we'd just use the one." In some places he also uses fast lurchers to catch escaping rabbits.
"I make all the nets myself. I expect I've got a couple of hundred of them now and I've got about 60 ferrets."
He can catch 20 rabbits in an average morning and has also caught as many as 40 in a few hours. "This year, though, has been a funny one," he admitted. "We've never known such a poor population. We think there was so much rain and water last year the young ones drowned in the holes.
"We caught 58 in one day last year – and we have caught plenty this year, but not like that," shrugged Chris who stops ferreting when rabbits are having their young. "We will be selling fresh rabbit again in September – but if people have got a problem with too many rabbits they can ring my mobile on 07792 781099."