Bump, bump, Bump… the lurcher’s head is cocking from side to side. Her body is like a taught spring. Mine is too as anticipation builds. Bump, bump, bump… the ferret is clearly moving a rabbit about below ground in this small open warren, but it’s not been persuaded to bolt yet. This is what first did it for me; the underground rumblings of a ferret working through a rabbit warren. It all goes quiet then suddenly the rabbit explodes from a hole. It is beautifully entangled and bouncing about in my purse net. This got me hooked as a schoolboy. No doubt it did many other readers too. I am still hooked now over forty years later and am getting another fix at 8.15a.m. on my day off. It was a nice start to my day, with a quick first rabbit apprehended.
I am having a mooch around my lamping ground today but during daylight hours. It’s a Sunday morning. The first shoot of the season here was yesterday so I am free to wander where I like today. I don’t often get to see this beautiful place during daylight hours. It’s great ground for lamping on but not that good (or easy) for ferreting. This is because most of the rabbits live in the dense banks of gorse rather than in workable holes. There are some great looking open warrens up on the high ground. They tend to have rabbits in during the spring and summer but they move out to the safer and possibly more sheltered gorse banks come the autumn. Rabbits do of course use the ones in the open as escape holes when being lamped but they are seldom found in residence during an autumn or winter’s morning.
This morning I was travelling light with just the lurcher, a couple of ferrets and some nets in a game bag. Spade and locator are close at hand in the car. Whilst there are loads of rabbits to be had here by night it’s hard to get a big bag during the day. They are very safe in their dense gorse sanctuaries. If I get half a dozen during the course of my walk this morning I’ll have done OK. Numbers aren’t on my mind; I’m happy just to be out in the beautiful Welsh countryside. I’ve got nothing much local to go at this year due to myxomatosis as I told of in my last article. I was also practicing what I advised any young hunters to do in that same article and ‘spreading my wings’. I was glad I did as it proved to be a very interesting morning.
There is only a small window of opportunity to work this high ground with the luxury of four wheel drive transport. The land is still fairly dry now. It’s only possible to get right up to the best spots in a vehicle early on in the season. Once the autumn gets wet the higher fields are only reachable on foot or in an all-terrain vehicle. It’s hard work hiking up on foot with ferreting kit and spade, especially if you are working alone. This morning I drove right up and, apart from one wheel-spinning moment as I passed through a gate, I made it without getting stuck (why do farmers always put gates in the muddiest part of the field?). The weather which was fine when I left home at 7a.m. was now turning a bit rough but I was here so I pressed on.
I had my first rabbit in the bag and was now checking out a steep bank that had been recently cleared of gorse. Quite a few small buries had been exposed and some looked quite well used. Hazel the lurcher was casting up and down working into the wind but not showing any interest. Suddenly she slammed the brakes on, head turned and stood in that solid marking stance. I scrambled up the bank to what turned out to be a small three hole burrow. The dog was moving between two of the holes and staring intently into the ground. I slipped nets on the first two holes and as I moved to the third, net in hand, a rabbit bolted out of it! It shot up the bank and out of my sight with Hazel on its tail. I shook my head in amazement. I’ve seen this before and wrote of it before too (ED-RD, no. 255). I thought, perhaps a bit optimistically, there may have been another rabbit in residence? When Hazel returned, empty mouthed, I ran the ferret through but drew blank. I’d guess it was fairly shallow and the rabbit didn’t feel safe. The ferret was certainly in and out quickly.
Although there were plenty more holes now exposed on this bank with the gorse gone, there were no further marks. I reckon most are just small breeding holes. We moved on to check a nearby grassy open warren of about twenty holes. Hazel gave a positive mark, so down went the nets. With the last net set I walked back to the ferret box which I’d placed about 20 yards away and down wind. I’d done this as the young ferret who was accompanying the hob was scratching away noisily at the lid of the box. I looked back and Hazel was laying down on the warren surrounded by nets. It was an exact replica of a scene I photographed on her first ever ferreting session. Same venue, same warren, same position. The picture I took that day is on page 38 of ED-RD, no. 257. My camera is on the front seat of the car today or I’d have taken another photo to compare. It was in the car as I had enough to carry and as the weather was showery too. If the rain clears I was planning to get the camera out and perhaps bolt a few for the dog. Hopefully I’d try and get some pictures then. As I was bending down to open the ferret box I heard a rabbit squealing. I quickly looked around and one was neatly netted with Hazel covering it! Two in a day both bolting before a ferret had been entered! This one unlike the first didn’t escape. I ran the ferrets through the warren and netted another two from it. This warren is not a shallow spot either so why one bolted before a ferret went in, I don’t know. Any ideas?
I picked up my nets just as the heavens opened again and the wind picked up. I was contemplating sitting in the car until the rain passed but then something caught my eye. I was still stood on the warren, dog at heel. It was on an inclined bit of an otherwise flattish area of field. It was rough pasture that was fairly well cropped by the rabbits and grazing sheep. A rabbit was coming towards us from the far side of the field. It was about 75 yards away. I had a clear view of it as did the dog. The wind was directly in our faces so the lurcher will have been getting its scent too. Something didn’t look quite right about this rabbit and at first I thought it may have myxy (it didn’t). It was definitely heading for this warren we were stood by. It looked rather shaky and laboured but carried on running towards us. As it came closer I heard its pitiful screams carrying on the wind. I clicked at that very second exactly what was happening. Before I could do anything Hazel galvanised into action. I was too late to stop here. The rabbit was about thirty yards away now with a lurcher on a collision course with it. Just before she reached it, the rabbit squatted down and continued to scream. Hazel on reaching the rabbit hesitated for a second, perhaps confused by it behaviour? She probably wondered why it wasn’t running. She hesitated only for a second before scooping it up. It was at that moment that I spotted the stoat. It was where I’d first seen the rabbit, about 75 yards away but coming in fast and gracefully. I was very interested as to what was going to happen next! One of Nature’s finest spectacles was being unveiled before my eyes. Hazel was halfway back to me now gently carrying the live and still screaming rabbit (she is very soft mouthed). She must have picked up the scent of the fast approaching stoat and to my amazement dropped the rabbit and switched quarry. The stoat had got to within about 25 yards of her and was now in no man’s land with a long way back to safety. She closed with it and after a few twists and turns her head came up with it in her jaws. A quick shake and it was all over. Did I just say she was soft mouthed? Well not with critters that bite! The pungent whiff of mustelid scent gland filled the air. Hazel dropped the now dead stoat and for some unknown reason barked at it twice! Perhaps she wanted it to run again! Meanwhile the rabbit remained in its squatting position nearby and continued to scream pitifully, its eyes still bulging with terror. I walked over to pick it up but Hazel suddenly remembered it and beat me to it.
What an amazing sight to witness. The rabbit clearly feared its enemy the stoat more than the dog and human. It’s something I’ve been lucky enough to see before but not for a while and certainly not with a lurcher involved. I like stoats and don’t go out of my way to kill them. This, however, is keepered land and the stoat is one of nature’s most ruthless killers. Game birds stand little chance. If Hazel hadn’t caught it one of the many tunnel traps would have. Funnily enough she and my terrier have hunted one out of the same thick cover close to my house twice lately. The first time I wasn’t sure what they were hunting as both were very fired up and exhibiting different body language to that when hunting a rabbit, pheasant or rat. The scent of a stoat certainly fires up dogs. I’ll recognise that body language in my own dogs now. A stoat in the open like this one this morning is no match for a lurcher so one was unlucky and paid with its life. I placed it in the game bag to show my host and we moved on. Another one for the taxidermist.
Hazel marked another open warren and I netted another rabbit. The ferret didn’t show. More bumping told me another was at home. The rabbit cautiously appeared at a net before backing away down the tunnel. It was unlucky as the hob ferret must have been right behind it. He soon had a front hold and the rabbit’s backside then appeared at the net. It was trying to back out and the ferret was trying to pull it back in. Four times its backside appeared in the net, half in and half out of the hole. I was pleased with Hazel as she stood there, froze to the spot watching and not diving in. Last season she’d have probably dived in. Suddenly the hob let go and the rabbit was perfectly pursed up in the net with lurcher covering it. It takes a few seasons and much work to make a ferreting dog and get them steady. This incident made me feel I was finally getting there.
I mentioned at the start of this article how the underground rumblings of rabbit and ferret got me hooked on country sports. The sight of a stoat hunting was another thing that made an early impression on me. This morning I experienced both yet again and as it always does, it made me glad to have discovered the countryside, country pursuits and the secrets of nature. I’d like to conclude by asking what was the sight or sound that got you hooked on what you do? Answers please in next month’s magazine.