Although as enamoured of ferrets as anybody in the north of England, Sean Dooley, who lives in south London stops short of putting them down his trousers - which is just as well because, at the last count his fesnyng, or group of the animals, numbered more than 30.

Mr Dooley, a believer in the adage 'a ferret is not just for Christmas', runs the capital's only ferret rescue centre from the back yard of his Brixton home.

'We rescue ferrets from all over London,' says Mr Dooley who started the centre in 1990. Any strays left unclaimed for more than four weeks are offered for adoption to local ferret enthusiasts.

Mr Dooley first became interested in ferrets after visiting a ferret show in Bedfordshire. Later, he visited his local branch of the RSPCA where there were two lost ferrets waiting for their owner to turn up.

The owner never arrived, so he offered to take the pair, Ruff and Tumble, home with him instead - and has been hooked ever since.

'They have got a bad reputation,' Mr Dooley says. 'People think they smell and bite. But they don't. It is a question of handling them properly.'

Providing the male is neutred, the smell is no worse than a dog or cat, he says. But not all the animals he cares for have been 'done'. 'I suppose I probably go round smelling like one too,' he adds.

Years ago poachers used them for hunting - some people still do.

Poachers would put the ferrets inside their trousers, which would be tied at the ankle, and the animal would lie inside, asleep. Unsuspecting gamekeepers would have no idea the man was a poacher after rabbits.

'Personally I would not relish the idea of putting one down my trousers,' admits Mr Dooley. 'They might be frightened.'

The ferrets are kept in rabbit hutches which have been specially strengthened - a ferret could bite straight through normal chicken wire. They are carnivorous and like chicken wings, hearts and liver, although some owners prefer to give them cat food.

Some enthusiasts have been known to take their pet ferret for a walk, like a dog. Barrie Evans, who lives near Battersea Park, regularly walks his polecat ferret Taz on a lead in the park.

'I've had him for eight months,' says Mr Evans, a guitar technician with the Electric Light Orchestra. 'When we go to the park, he just wanders off and I

follow him. I think they make marvellous pets.'

The ferret rescue centre, which welcomes donations, can be contacted on 071-737 6999.

(Photograph omitted)