'NO FERRETS,' I told my son. I have fed a cat and a dog in the belief that owning pets inspired a sense of responsibility in young humans, but the line draws itself at ferrets. A flexible and obedient child, my son deferred. Now I see his silence had less to do with compliance than with forward planning.

On his birthday, it was revealed that his friend Richard, a lad well versed in cunning country ways, was reserving a ferret for him as a gift. Some months earlier, Richard himself had gone out without telling his mother and bought a gill and a hob - and, inevitably, now had 30 creatures to dispose of. It would, I was told, be a most ungenerous, indeed shaming, breach of youthful etiquette to refuse the present.

So we went, I with images of flopsy bunnies, a la Beatrix Potter, being savaged, and my son with the scent of blood in his nostrils, to pick up the ferret. It was understood that if the ferret were not fed, it would die, because I would not do it.

Richard's ferrets, pink-eyed and honey-coloured, pawed welcomingly at the grills of their cages. He plunged in a fearless hand, pulling Snowball out by the scruff of his neck. Snowball's father was a champion, he told us, dangling the animal between forefinger and thumb. Snowball shut his eyes and yawned. 'You handle them like this,' Richard said, 'because they think it's their mother holding them and they never gyp their mother.' Pity I had learnt too late this useful child-raising technique.

Suspended there, lonely as a single sock in a load of washing, Snowball could not, with a clear conscience, be torn from his siblings. Richard delved in again and gave us Chalky, six weeks old and not yet ready to savage flopsies.

In supervised recreation sessions Snowball and Chalky gambolled on the lawn, arching their backs into horsehoe shapes like pale, hairy caterpillars. Apart from grudgingly admitting the charm of the creatures, I began to think that my son might be on to something. A neighbour told me that as a child, his father had paid him a farthing for every 1,000 cabbage whites he caught; with his butterfly money he bought some mole traps; with his mole money he bought a shotgun and hunted rabbits, and with his rabbit money, he bought the house he still lives in. Perhaps the ferrets would shield my son against the vagaries of the ERM and interest rates.

So we bought nets like string shopping bags, their mesh caught mysteriously into metal rings. A secure carrying box was made. We thought we could do without the electronic bleeper that can track an underground ferret. But the first expedition showed our optimism to have been premature. No rabbits, and Richard's newest ferret went missing on land owned by a kindly farmer who gave us permission to patrol his fields adjacent to the duck and hen runs. We spent an embarrassing couple of hours calling down rabbit holes until, happily, the escapee emerged. We learnt later, from the National Ferret Welfare Society, that to abandon an animal is a criminal offence.

Last Saturday, the hunter-gatherers of the family set out again, across the green waves of the Dorset hills, their slopes etched with shallow terraces where the Romans are said to have established vineyards, and which are now the arterial highways of rabbit warrens.

The hunting party was equipped with boxed ferrets, nets, lunch and a wealth of conflicting advice as it trudged through the pouring rain - ideal weather as the flopsies stay in their warm, dry burrows, waiting to be flushed out by slavering carnivores. The hunter-gatherers, favouring the most recently offered advice, draped their nets slackly over the rabbit holes, let loose the ferrets and sat down with a flask of tea.

Time and the rain went on; the hunters squabbled over the last sandwich until my husband, glancing over his shoulder, was astonished to see a huge Thumper cartwheeling away through the brambles, having deftly freed itself from the string bag. He should have pegged the net down through the rings when he set it, another expert told him.

It was a relief, really. The moment of truth had been postponed. There had been meaningful looks exchanged when it came to the question of how to kill a netted flopsy, and you never heard such self-denying courtesy as in the discussion about who would deliver the coup de grace. Whoever eventually strikes the blow will have made the transition from urban refugee to earthy countryman. Not countryperson, you understand.

Comments