Chris Mowbray meets the champion of the nation's distressed ferrets
As a campaigner against cruelty to animals, Yvonne Essex has a significant image problem. It is not that people question her activities, rather that they find them hopelessly comical.

Her difficulty is that once her day job as a farm worker is over, she dons checked shirt, waistcoat, knee breeches and walking boots and strides off into the countryside to champion the cause of distressed ferrets. Yvonne has been a ferret enthusiast for 20 years and owns five of the creatures herself. She also takes in abandoned, maimed and malnourished ferrets, nurses them back to health, then finds new homes for them with responsible owners. And she has kept the address of her refuge in Staffordshire a closely guarded secret ever since unscrupulous ferret-fanciers broke in and stole four of the inmates.

But running her convalescent home, which can look after 30 patients at a time, is not cheap. She relies on donations to her Ferret Fund to help pay for their food - a commercially produced compound rejoicing in the brand name of Ferret Complete.

In an effort to reduce the number of animals requiring care, she runs the Ferret Information Service, which disseminates fact sheets and advice. She is also compiling a National Ferret Register of every ferret welfare group in the country.

By the time she has explained all this to visitors to the various country shows and fetes where she takes a stand, her listeners have usually progressed beyond polite amusement to open laughter.

"Most people cannot resist at least a smile, and it becomes a bit frustrating," says Yvonne. Her viewpoint is understandable. Although the very mention of a ferret seems to be the cue for instant mirth, the fate awaiting thousands of them is far from funny. These bright little animals - members of the musteline family, which includes stoats, weasels and badgers - are often treated appallingly.

In the two years since the Ferret Information Service was launched, Yvonne has taken in countless starving and abandoned ferrets, and dozens whose teeth have been snapped off with pliers by incompetent owners afraid of getting bitten. There have also been cases of amazing ignorance. A vegetarian handed in a ferret she had bought at a pet shop when she discovered with revulsion that it was a carnivore. Another new owner inquired whether her ferret could live in the same hutch as her pet rabbit. Six young ones had to be put down because they had rickets after being fed only bread and milk.

The reason for such callous treatment appears to be that ferrets have had a bad press; they are too often viewed as smelly, vicious and treacherous. The reality is different.

They are thought to have been introduced into Britain by the Romans to act as miniature "sheepdogs" for the first British rabbits which were brought here at the same time and kept in controlled warrens as a supply of fresh meat. The Romans recognised the ferret's intelligence and learned how to use it.

Most modern ferrets are still kept for hunting rabbits, although some are family pets. But keeping a ferret requires commitment. A domesticated ferret has to be handled confidently every day and cannot be simply left in its hutch until its owner feels like playing with it. This means that if an owner goes away, a minder has to come in so that the animal's social contact with human beings remains unbroken.

Maintaining a ferret's health can also be difficult. A female (known as a jill) stays in season until she has mated and may become ill if she remains in season for too long. For this to be avoided without an unwanted pregnancy, the jill must go to the vet for a "jill jab", at pounds 4 to pounds 8 a time, or mate with a male (known as a hob) which has had a vasectomy, for around pounds 40.

Yvonne adds: "Ferrets are very clean and intelligent and we are trying to quash the myth about them. They do not bite people because they are vicious, but because they are short-sighted and strike out if startled. I have been bitten badly only twice in 20 years, and it was my fault.

"Ferrets return whatever care and affection you give them. They all have different characters, and are playful and mischievous, like cats. They will chase balls, play with string and climb up your bookcase."

They can also live for 12 years, and so, like dogs, they are for life. The message seems to be that ferrets are not funny - but fun.

Yvonne Essex and the Ferret Information Service can be contacted on 01782 326650.