Not very big (30 to 60 cm long), not very heavy (400g to 2kg), this hunter’s companion is very efficient at flushing out rodents – and especially rabbits – from their burrows. They are enthusiastic sleepers, especially when their stomachs are full. For several decades now, ferrets have been considered as quirky pets: their appearance and behaviour are not without a certain charm. However, it just needs to pick up the scent of its favourite prey’s trail and this member of the Mustelidae family puts all its natural abilities on the alert, regaining its predatory instincts and efficiency.
The origins of ferreting, as a form of hunting, are difficult to discern. The Ancient Greeks and Roman used ferrets to cull mice and rats and for hunting – in the same ways as we do today. This little carnivore is descended from the polecat, which was itself domesticated some 3,000 years ago, but unlike the polecat, the ferret does not exist in the wild.
There are two main varieties: the sable and the albino. Some hunters prefer the albino because it’s more visible. The sex of the animal does not have much importance when ferreting, although males can have more stamina than females. What is important is the size of the ferret, and this will determine the choice of hunting companion.
Slim, light animals are preferred, and those which do not bite: this is the biggest drawback you can be faced with, because firstly, it’s never very pleasant to handle a ferret that might nip you at any time, but also because, quite simply, this type of ferret is quite likely to attack and kill the rabbit cornered in its burrow. This is not what you want! A full ferret is a ferret which is ready for a siesta – and when you realise that the animal can sleep for up to 18 out of 24 hours, waiting for it to return might take a long time – and is particularly annoying.
The theory of ferreting
In theory, the principle of ferreting is simple: first you identify warrens, burrows and other places where there are rabbits, which is relatively easy.
Then, at the mouth of each exit, a net or specially adapted cage is positioned, into which the prey will run all by itself if you are lucky, and completely quietly. Putting out these traps is strictly controlled: consideration must be given to the force of the impact of the leporid in full flight, and also to avoiding gaps below or at the sides where they might get out. (It might seem simplistic, but not all terrain is naturally favourable!)
Once nets or cages have been placed over all the exits, one or more ferrets are introduced into the galleries (depending on their extent): generally speaking, the predatory instinct of the mustelid is aroused, and the animal which at first sight seems so passive, suddenly becomes very restless.
The ferret then flushes out the rabbits, who are instinctively terrified. The morning is the best time to hunt, in dry weather, and the ferret should not be fed before going into battle (hunger will keep it alert, just like dogs going out coursing, or birds of prey going hunting). If you have efficient companions, they don’t take long to clear a burrow. If they come out quickly, this indicates that it is no longer inhabited.
Ferreting is intended to take live rabbits (for restocking, for example), but this technique is also used for hunting with guns. Obviously, good reflexes are essential in this case, as a rabbit on the run, having been pursued in its own burrow, is very, very fast!
It is not difficult to look after a ferret – or several: they are very sociable. If they are kept in a cage, it must be large – it could even be a … rabbit hutch! It must be kept clean, with fresh straw for litter, for instance. Note that in France, ferrets must be microchipped and vaccinated against rabies.
In addition, for it to be a good hunter, you should frequently take your animal out of its cage to play with it, so it gets to know its owner, and even ends up recognising its name. This also helps to make it less likely to bite. Finally, we would like to point out that in certain French départements, ferreting for rabbits in warrens is only permitted subject to prior individual authorisation from the préfet. About thirty départements are concerned, so it is a good idea to contact your association for more details.
Have you ever been hunting with a ferret?
Tell us about your experience in the comment section.
Find out also about falconry, another form of hunting with an animal.