Indignation and tears down among the ferrets: Women who are succeeding in a sport once seen as a male preserve have faced hostility from traditionalists. Peter Dunn reports

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The Independent Online
ON A COLD, crisp winter's morning, Sadie Roberts, 19, takes her three ferrets, Fitch, Flash and Ferris and heads for the teeming burrows of Warren Hill near her village home in west Dorset.

Since the hunting season opened on 1 October she has caught hundreds of rabbits. 'Farmer Buckler's got sheep there so he's glad someone keeps down the rabbit population,' she said. 'And Wells, the butcher in Bridport, buys them eight at a time at pounds 1.50 each.'

Apart from bell-ringing and occasional work as a milk maid, Ms Roberts devotes her waking hours to her ferrets which live, incongruously, among cages of pet rabbits in the garden of her council house.

Ms Roberts is one of many female ferret keepers and is angry over a feud sparked by sexism. She is a member of the National Ferret Welfare Society, known as 'the National', set up nearly a decade ago to counteract the ferret's image as a killer that does awful things up trouser legs. It has 1,200 members and most of its officers are women.

The feud came to a head at last year's annual meeting. Kim Lathaen, the National's president, secretary and newsletter editor, said she was fed up with being called 'that bloody woman', offered her resignation and burst into tears. Stunned officials persuaded her to stay but women ferreters around the country are still indignant about her treatment. Ms Roberts, for one, fired off a letter of support to the newsletter. 'I am only a young lady at 19 years old and living in a little pocket of rabbit-ridden Dorset,' she wrote. 'I've been looked upon as a saviour these last two years by farmers and landowners alike for mounting my own 'rabbit control'. Not once have I been frowned on by the aforesaid for being female . . .'

'Hedgerow moochers, I call them,' she said of Mrs Lathaen's critics last week. 'I met one at a game fair this year, an absolute know-all . . . He'd say things like 'Don't eat Indian curry and handle ferrets because they'll bite you on the nose'.'

Mary Neale, the National's membership secretary, who runs a ferret sanctuary in Bedford, is equally dismissive of hedgerow moochers. 'A lot of them put about this nonsense that ferrets don't work so well if they're castrated and this is definitely another attitude of male chauvinist piggery,' she says.

'One man very sanctimoniously said to me, 'I think everything was put on this earth to multiply' and I just glared at him and said, 'Oh, come on, this is 1993'. They're the kind of man in sleeveless vests, with horrible beer bellies and a can of ale in one hand. They hang around show tents saying 'Do you work your ferrets, mate?' '

Mrs Lathaen, from Henley-on-Thames, says she has suffered years of prejudice inside and outside the National, even though she has wide experience as a ferreter, handles birds of prey and is often called upon to give expert evidence in court cases involving dangerous dogs. Her latest coup has been an invitation to act as adviser to a new ferret club set up at Eton College, with access to Lord Napier's estate, Windsor Great Park. Old ferreters have found her to be disconcertingly steely. She makes them look foolish by publishing their spluttering letters with the spelling mistakes and wayward punctuation.

She is pessimistic about a change in attitudes. 'I changed my mind about resigning because it's my baby and couldn't bear to lose it,' she said. 'We aren't going to change those dyed-in-the-wool ferreters who've had it handed down for generations that ferrets should be kept in the world of men.'

(Photograph omitted)