Lovely little nippers

The ferret, a sex-crazed carnivore, has become so popular as a pet that its numbers have doubled in four years. A ferret-lover reports
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I AM STANDING in a field on the southern edge of Dartmoor watching the ferrets being judged at the last South West Lurcher, Terrier and Ferret Show of the season. I haven't entered my three ferrets this time, because I have let them get too fat. At small country shows such as this one, people can be very disparaging about a fat ferret, because it is a sure sign that it is being kept exclusively as a pet, and a ferret is strictly a working animal. It is its willingness to go to earth, they say, and kill rabbits that makes a ferret what it is. "Pets!" they exclaim scornfully, as the judge gets your overweight ferret out of the show cage and holds it up to the light.

Unfortunately for the purists, I am not alone in preferring a plump, cuddly ferret to a lean killer. In the last four years alone, the ferret population has more than doubled - from 600,000 to 1.5 million. And, following the trend being set in the United States, the majority of these are being kept as indoor pets in flats and apartments, where the only rabbits they will ever see will be on the Bugs Bunny show. Pet ferret owners now even have their own bi-monthly magazine, GoFerret.

The judge is calmly taking the ferrets out of their cages one by one and examining them. Beyond a huge medieval hedge, the sky goes even blacker and it starts to rain. I fetch my waxed jacket from the car and return to the ferret cages. For the last five months my jacket has been lying at the bottom of the wardrobe. It has gone stiff.

"First time I've put a coat on for several months," I say to a fellow spectator and his wife as a conversational gambit. "I see you came prepared though," I add, nodding at the man's brown ankle-length woollen overcoat (circa 1947). "I only wore this to cover up the shit I've got on underneath," he says in a soft Devon accent. His wife corroborates this with a friendly nod and away we go, another idle conversation struck up at a country show.

Attending terrier, lurcher and ferret shows is a bit like watching cricket. Everyone present is fantastically knowledgeable, and instead of staying put and concentrating hard on the show ring or the field of play, you can wander around striking up conversations with all these fantastically knowledgeable people, who are perfectly friendly to you because they assume you are as fantastically knowledgeable as they are. Otherwise you wouldn't be there.

My neighbour and his wife, who both look ill and unusually humble, tell me they have a smallholding on Dartmoor, on which they keep about 50 goats. They were late arriving at the show, they say, because one of their goats was complaining of sore feet. And for a while they tell me about goats, and how they are prone to getting sore feet, and how different goats will react to sore feet in different ways. Apparently some will hobble about, looking sad and demoralised, and present themselves for treatment the moment the goatkeeper appears in the yard; while others will make light of it, and do their utmost to evade capture. Standing patiently between them is a truly magnificent rough-haired lurcher - a deerhound-collie cross by the look of it. "For rabbits?" I say, pointing to it (having heard enough about goats for 1998). "Butterflies mostly," says my new friend candidly, "but she's got it in for crane flies at the moment."

Meanwhile, a commotion has broken out among the ferret boxes. Urgent enquiries elicit the news that there has been a biting incident.

A family of holidaymakers had seen a poster advertising the show and had miraculously found their way here through the tortuously narrow lanes.

Gravitating towards the ferret judging, the mum had asked Jim if she could hold one of his ferrets while her husband took a photograph. No problem, said Jim, getting one out of its box. Jim, a ferret fanatic, is one of our regulars. He always brings lots of ferrets to the shows. He is also a wonderful ambassador for ferrets and likes nothing more than to pass his ferrets among the uncircumcised, in order to prove what essentially good-natured creatures they are.

"He won't bite, will he?" the mum had said, quite sensibly, before taking hold of it. "Madam," said Jim, in a tone of voice which suggested that he was now going to make a statement upon which he would stake his entire reputation as a ferreting man, "Madam, I have been keeping ferrets for 29 years, and in all that time I haven't been bitten yet."

And with that, the ferret he was holding bit him. It bit his hand right down to the bone, locked on, and had to be carefully choked off by a third party.

The ferret, Mustela putorius furo (smelly weasel thief), is generally agreed to be a domesticated Asiatic or Steppe polecat, although naturalists have not always agreed on this. One asserted for years that a ferret is in fact a small stoat; while another now long-discredited Victorian naturalist suggested that it is a type of human being. What is certain, however, is that it is a member of the mustelid family, and is therefore related to the weasel, the otter, and the badger - rather than to the common rat, as is supposed by my mother and others.

Aristotle was the first to describe the ferret, and ferrets feature in the King James translation of the Bible as one of the creatures that the Hebrews were forbidden to eat - though modern Bible translators now substitute "land-lizard" for ferret. It is said that the Normans were the first to introduce ferrets to this country, using them to bolt rabbits from the managed warrens of the new aristocracy, though again, the unfancy yet resonant Anglo-Saxon names for the different sexes - "jill" for a female and "hob" for the much larger male - make even this straightforward assertion questionable. At any rate, it is probably safe to say that for a thousand years at least ferrets have been kept and used in Britain, largely by warreners, farmers, rat-catchers, and independent artisan hunters - poachers if you like - for flushing rabbits or rats from their underground fastnesses.

Within the last 10 years, however, three innovations - one technical, one medical and one nutritional - have radically transformed ferret-keeping in Britain. The technical innovation is the invention of the electronic ferret locator. This is a device about the size of a box of cooking matches, which picks up signals from a tiny transmitter attached to the ferret's collar, thus enabling the ferreter to locate and dig out a working ferret should it "lie up".

In the past, the dreaded "lie up" was the bane of the ferreter's life. A lie up is when a ferret is put down a rabbit hole, and after running up and down for a bit, and perhaps killing and partially eating a rabbit, she simply curls up and goes to sleep. Like all carnivorous predators, ferrets are big sleepers, especially after a meal.

Before the invention of the locator, the ferreter faced with a laid-up ferret had several options - all of them incredibly time- consuming. One was to put his head as far down the rabbit hole as possible and try calling his ferret out. A potentially embarrassing method this, if attempted on or near a public right of way. Another was to paunch a rabbit and try to entice the ferret to the surface with the smell of rabbit's innards. And failing these, the ferreter had to nip home and get his nastiest, most anti-social hob ferret, tie a length of string to it, and send it down the hole to give the sleeping ferret a wake-up call.

And failing that, the ferreter had to sit there all night, or until the ferret decided to come out of its own accord. It has been argued that over the years the "lie up" has contributed more to the countryman's reputation for surliness than anything else.

But these days all a ferreter with pounds 69. 50 to spend on a ferret locator has to do is wave it about until it picks up the signal, turn the dial until he gets a depth reading in feet, then dig down to the ferret, trying not to decapitate it with the spade as he gets in close. No fuss, no mess, no time wasted. The improvement in the quality of life of the average locator-owning ferreter has been immeasurable. If, for example, a ferret lies up just as the ferreter is thinking about packing up for the day (normally enough to induce apoplexy in all but the most phlegmatic of ferreters in the bad old pre-locator days), with any luck our man can locate his ferret, dig it out, fold his nets, paunch his rabbits, whittle a stick, and still be back at the caravan in time for the first reading of the football results.

One might have imagined that new-fangled electrickery such as this would be slow to catch on with country people practising a hunting technique unchanged from that depicted by early medieval tapestries. Not so. Once they were in the shops, news of the ferret locators spread through country districts like myxomatosis. And elderly ferreters who had never before set foot inside a pet shop were queuing on the step to buy one. In no time at all, the popularity of the little-understood ferret locator made it the countryman's equivalent of the mobile phone.

The second innovation to revolutionise ferret-keeping was the perfection of a surgical technique for vasectomising hobs (male ferrets). One of the many curiosities of the ferret is that unless the jill (female) is served by a hob once she has come into season, she may die. (When a jill is in season, her vulva swells up like a football, so this should be fairly obvious, even to a novice ferret-keeper.)

In effect this meant that ferret jills were constantly producing litters, which needed to be fed, and if a litter came late in the year, the mother was temporarily unavailable for work. With two litters per year at, say, seven kittens per litter and a full-time ferreter only needing three or four hard-working ferrets, the majority of kits were surplus to requirement. Of course, rather than raise these unwanted litters, the normal practice was to knock the youngsters on the head - or "make sailors out of them", to use a country euphemism - maybe leaving two to suckle the milk.

But now that British veterinary practices are able and willing to vasectomise hob ferrets for as little as pounds 20 a time, everyone concerned is a lot better off than they were. The ferret-keeper's life has been simplified because he no longer has to anxiously study his jill's vaginas or commit infanticide; the jills are satis- fied; and once the vasectomised hob gets over the shock of the operation and finds himself being lent out all over the district, he can't believe his luck.

I had my own hob, His Royal Highness King Suleiman the Magnificent, done this year, and come May, once he had taken my two jills out of season, he became a sex tourist and travelled all over the district, continuously, for about three weeks, serving a succession of jills. When he finally came home, exhausted, underweight and slightly delirious, his hormone levels were so high that all his hair fell out as well.

The third, and in many ways the most crucial, advance in ferret welfare came four years ago, when a pet food company called James Wellbeloved began marketing a dry, "complete" ferret food. Ferrets require a high- protein diet, and this has meant that, in the past, ferret-keepers had to keep their charges supplied with meat, ideally in the form of paunched rabbits. But as ferrets will eat any meat, in any condition, no matter what the live animal has died of, they were given anything from butchers' offal to frozen day-old chicks to fallen livestock to long-dead road-casualty badgers. It wasn't that long ago that if you saw a car stopped in the middle of the road and the driver out and busily scraping a dead crow off the tarmac, you could put money on it that she or he was a ferret fancier trying to save themselves a few bob.

In his book on ferrets, the field-sports writer D Brian Plummer (whose ferret famously bit TV interviewer Richard Whitely, as seen many times on out-take shows), says he once killed more than three tons of rats in a year among the bone piles of a maggot factory in Mexborough, Yorkshire, using a combination of terriers, ferret jills and a 2ft 6in stick cut from a hazel bush. During that year (he describes it as the happiest of his life) he fed his business of ferrets exclusively on a diet of dead rats. They thrived on it, he says - although they drew the line at eating the tails for some reason. He also claims to have fed his ferrets, at one time or another, on frozen myxomatosised rabbit heads, seagulls ("surprisingly light and fleshless"), rooks, roe deer and pollack. All this could have been washed down with human spittle apparently, because, says Plummer, "ferrets will drink human saliva with relish."

Feeding decomposing flesh to ferrets is OK in the winter, but in summer the flies are terrible. On the whole, therefore, what with the imperative to feed ferrets on flesh, and the attendant flies, and the smells, and the reputation of the ferret as a psycho killer, ferret-keeping was never an attractive proposition for the squeamish, the fastidious, or anybody who wanted to remain on speaking terms with their immediate neighbours.

The advent of a dry, odourless, complete ferret food has changed everything. Suddenly ferrets are coming to live indoors as housepets. A damp draughty hutch as far away from the house as possible, with a week's droppings piled up in one corner, and a paunched rabbit slung in every once in a while, is now the exception rather than the rule.

People are beginning to realise that a ferret is more than just a huge pair of carnassial teeth. That if it is well-handled it doesn't bite, well not much anyway. That it is an exceptionally clean animal and will go out of its way to use a litter tray. That although it has the heart of a lion when put to work, normally it is quiet, intelligent, playful, affectionate, and sleeps a lot. In other words it makes the perfect pet for a small flat. The only thing to watch out for is that you don't accidentally tread on it.

The more money the new type of ferret-owners spend on their pet, the wider the range of ferret toys and accessories on the market. This afternoon, for example, I could go out and buy each of my ferrets a tuxedo, a Batman outfit and a hammock. In GoFerret's first issue, which came out last month, there are articles called "Meet the Vet", "Is Your Ferret Psychic?", "Ferrets on the Web", and "The Ferret That Came in From the Cold." It appears to have an extremely high "Aaaah isn't he sweet!" quotient that some of those who regularly work their ferrets may scoff at. But the latter ought to stifle their sneers, for it is largely due to the sudden popularity of ferrets with people who would rather cuddle them than send them down rabbit holes that the maligned and often abused ferret has been brought, blinking, out of the dark ages. !