In August 2015 I buried my eldest bitch, she was close to 15 and as I left the patch I buried her in with her daughter trotting along at my side I could only smile when I looked back at all the sport we had together. She was nothing to look at, a sort of light grey dusty colour which told perhaps of Merle ancestry or maybe, and probably more correctly, that there was so many bits and pieces in her blood over the years. I have never seen another dog that colour, it was quite unique, but then she was quite a unique bitch.
She came to me slightly older, under the premise of a ferreting bitch and that’s exactly what she was, we spent many, many days together roaming through the countryside ferreting here and there. I did an awful lot of ferreting then and she loved it every bit as much as I did. We were great partners. She marked the hole, I dropped the ferret and she stood back, waited or crept across the warren with her head cocked to the side and her ears upright, almost as if she could see what we couldn’t. She really had a knack for the ferreting game and never seemed to sicken of it and if anyone could have sickened a dog of ferreting then I could have! Ferreting is a skill of its own dog and requires much patience; small bursts of action with sometimes long periods of inactivity is really what it comes down to, but she took it all in her stride and would stick at her job literally from dawn till dusk, go home and get fed, rest up and be bouncing to go in the morning again.
I went on holidays for two weeks the day after I buried her and it was just as well as it took my mind off things. It was the first holiday I had been on in a few years as I am not that keen on them, I prefer a couple of days away here and there. I am lucky with the dogs in that I have a very good and trustworthy friend, John, who kept lurchers most of his life and will look after them no problem and I quite happily leave him with my keys and dogs and let him do as he pleases. I often return to find the dogs don’t even notice I have gone, however, when I received a call from my friend during the first week of my holiday I thought something was wrong as he wouldn’t be the type to call me at all when I was away. The daughter of my old bitch who I have written about in a previous article had become quite unusual since I had left; she refused to leave her kennel, wouldn’t eat and would barely look at him at all. He had considered taking her to the vet but called me first. Do dogs mourn? I’m not sure but it seemed that this is what the little bitch was doing as her and her dam had never been apart a day since she was born. Eventually she came round and John took her for a little exercise across the fields on her own for a day or two but even when I returned she still was not herself and it took some weeks before she had the spring back in her step.
I kept forgetting the old bitch was gone when I got home. A few times I set out three food bowls and had them filled before I realised; old habits die hard. I have an old photo pinned up in the shed of her with a big haul of rabbits we took together on a weekend rabbiting some years ago, and I stood there for a few minutes one morning looking at it and mulling the time over in my head. A young girl I worked with years ago told me her family were from an Island that is just off the west coast of Ireland and the last time she visited it was full of rabbits. Teeming with them she said, running back and forth across the road as they drove to the house. With my ears now cocked I questioned her further and within a couple of weeks found myself and my old bitch loaded onto a boat with 6 ferrets, 2 long nets and a bag of purse nets on a wet and wild October morning. The crossing was so bad I had to belt the bitch into a seat as I threw up over the side. The lads on the boat were fishermen and pissed themselves laughing at me, but I couldn’t help it! My dad had boats all his life and we always went Mackerel fishing in summer, but this was different! One minute I was up, then down and back up. It felt like the Deadliest Catch, and the fry up I had beforehand didn’t help either.
“Are you out for a few rabbits?” One of the lads asked.
“Hopefully” I replied.
“You’ll have too many to bring home if that greyhound is any use”!
And so with my head still spinning and my clothes soaked full of salt water spray I arrived in a small thatched cottage just off the harbour as the light closed in and wondered what the hell I was doing here. I rung my missus as I unpacked and told her that we’d arrived safely and that I had decided to go lamping for a few hours and then get a good day’s ferreting tomorrow. As I talked on the phone a rabbit shot past the front window quickly followed by a collie who snaffled it and walked calmly back past the window with it in his mouth, through a gateway and up a garden path. As I looked out in the dim light there were rabbits everywhere! They were in the front garden, up the road and even around the harbour. It was surreal! I wasted no time in getting my gear on and getting out.
The girl I knew from work had put me in touch with her uncle who lived on the island permanently and he gave me a call and said it might be an idea for him to take me out lamping as someone unfamiliar with the island could drop off an edge very quickly in the dark! He wasn’t wrong, it was a rugged place. Rough pasture fields which appeared to go on for miles in the dark very quickly turned into cliffs which disappeared into the sea with drops of 300ft or more so it was a sensible idea to have him come along.
Just after 7 o’clock a big old rusty transit, which had no windscreen or doors pulled up outside the house. In the back was a collie and in the front was a lad called Colm who gave me a firm handshake and asked me to put my “greyhound” in the back. The van started up and off we went sounding like one of those big Russian Military trucks, one headlight and the wind almost numbing my nose as we drove. After a couple of minutes we ground to a halt near a lighthouse and I put the slip on the dog and give one to my guide to do the same.
“Do you lamp with him?” I asked.
“Oh yes,” he replied, “he catches well and usually brings one back to the house now and again as well”
The first thing I noticed was how dark it was. Lamping around home now we are usually never far from that familiar orange glow, but here there was nothing, just complete inky blackness. My lamp pierced the night all the more and lit up a field that ran up to a steep cliff that was fenced off and it was littered with rabbits. The collie took off and spun a rabbit along a fence line until he eventually struck it and returned it right back. Watching him run I got the impression it wasn’t so much the catch he enjoyed but the chase.
We set off up the field and the dogs took turns; my old bitch caught well over a dozen in a short time and ran only a few, lifting them right out of the seat every time. My pal was amazed by my bitch, he thought I had a genuine super dog, but the truth was that the terrain and the rabbits made it easy for her. Those new spots we come across where the rabbits aren’t lamp shy are great but this was crazy, the lamp did not bother them in the slightest and they sat in huge numbers grazing away in the beam. They made my old pinned up antique lurcher look very good, of course I wasn’t going to tell him any different, I revelled in it!
We lamped well on into the night and by the time the old Russian transit was taking the rough track back to my lodgings for the weekend it had a good few rabbits loaded in the back, I honestly don’t remember how many but it was definitely the most I had ever caught on a night’s lamping. I gutted a couple and gave some liver to the ferrets who had been in their carry box since the morning, I then skinned two rabbits for the dog and we threw a turf on the fire while she chewed away in front of it and I got my head down for an early start the next day.
I woke just after 7 and got a quick cup of tea. There were rabbits at the living room window, the bedroom window and as far as I could see out the back. We hadn’t far to go; a small gate from the back garden took us into a rear field and within a few steps we were at the first burrow and as I run out the nets Ruby run off down into a large reed bed that lay below, a rabbit shot out the far side and she turned it at a fence, scooped it up and returned back with it. By this stage I was making plans to move here! I got the nets down and the ferrets in and with the holes being so active and seeing several rabbits run in as we approached I awaited the explosion into the nets… but it didn’t come. After some minutes there was a bit of screaming and with seemingly shallow ground the dog ripped and tore at the earth until she opened it; the rabbits and ferret were just below, she caught one, another bolted and the ferret had another couple bottled up. The same thing happened again further along and continued right across the warren. It seemed the rabbits didn’t want to bolt and took their chances below ground. The reasons for this would become apparent later but for now, every burrow we entered ferrets into the lurcher would scrape and sometimes open onto the rabbits or a quick jab with the spade after some screaming only a few inches below would do the same.
It was quite strange in two ways with the rabbits not keen on bolting and the burrows being very shallow.
I worked my way onto a hill and with burrows dotted here and there across it we swapped to purse nets though we needn’t have bothered as we only netted the odd one and the digging continued throughout the morning. I stopped for a cup of tea and as I did someone approached from the bottom of the hill.
“I had been watching you all morning and was keen to join you but I didn’t want to intrude on you” A young, soft spoken lad I came to know as Patrick and have stayed in touch with since.
“You seem to have caught a few” he said. I replied that I had but it was quite strange as the rabbits didn’t bolt.
“That is because there are no predators here; no foxes, stoats, weasels or anything else and there never has been, all we have are released pheasants and rabbits and they don’t know any fear”.
A strange theory, not one I am sure I agree with but I suppose there could be some sense to it. I asked him to tag along and we spent the remainder of the sunny autumn day among many burrows and catching many, many more rabbits. It was quite surreal ferreting near the cliff tops, the birds flew very high from the sea but were level with us. Patrick told me that some years before some falconry lads had gone out and ferreted along the cliff tops, flying the birds at the rabbits along the edge, but had not been keen for him to join them which made him a little weary of approaching me.
During the day I noticed two Ravens now and again, never one or three or more but always two and Patrick informed me that there had always been two, as far back in history as you could go there was two together and one alone foretold the fall of the island. There is much history to the island. History of warriors, kings and giants, battles and fairies abound amongst much folklore. It is a wild, rugged, beaten coast which only a few miles from the mainland is about as far from modern society as it is possible to get in some ways.
The ferreting continued and Patrick left early in the evening as I gathered in my nets, fed the ferrets their liver and legged the days catch. We returned home once again to a turf fire and ironically a good old frozen pizza! I had run out of supplies and the local shop which looked like the one from the League of Gentlemen only kept frozen goods so that was as good as it was going to get. I sat on the wall at the front of house as the light went down, the waves smashed against the rocks at the front and sea birds of all kinds swooped and dived among them. I felt a satisfaction at that time which I would like to feel again in my life in some ways, when things seemed a whole simpler.
I lamped again that night on the north side of the Island; a little rougher in terrain but as many rabbits as you could shake a stick at and we caught a few more but the wind was getting dangerously rough after a few hours and we called it a night early with a plan to get a few hours ferreting again in the morning before the boat. I waited on the quay the next afternoon for the boat with the lurcher and well over 150 rabbits on slings. The area is a big draw for birdwatchers and as they trickled off other small boats here and there with expensive cameras and even more expensive Goretex clothing they gave me odd looks. I managed to make the mainland without being sick and it was a tight climb up the ladder on the quay at the far side with the rabbit slings. The driver passed up the lurcher, ferrets and nets and we loaded up the van and headed for home. A good couple of days it had been, and writing this has stirred me to go back.
Many people question the inhabitants of the island on their reasons for doing so. Why travel on a boat for supplies weekly? Why have no technology, no expensive multinational coffee chains and no supermarkets? Why do you live the way you do? My answer would be to spend a few days there, you would soon understand why.