It that a ferret in your trousers?

Hopefully not. It's an indignity to them, as Daniel Butler finds out

Throughout the summer, thousands of onlookers will watch a succession of lithe brown and albino bodies pouring through drainpipes. Amid whoops of encouragement, every now and again there is a glimpse of a furry back or a pink nose until suddenly the victor emerges, some 20 yards from the start.

It is then that the amusement turns to confusion as owners affectionately clasp the animals to their chests. "But aren't ferrets smelly, vicious beasts?" comes the inevitable cry at every country-fair ferret race.

I should know. Although I don't race my pets, I can't count how often I have met this reaction to Mrs Peel, Purdy and Steed. Equally predictable is the follow-up: "I suppose you put them down your trousers?"

No of course I don't - I have far too much respect for ferrets to submit them to that indignity. Having shared the last three decades with these domesticated members of the weasel family, my admiration knows no bounds. They are loyal, friendly, clean and endlessly amusing.

The charge of viciousness is unjustified. True, they are carnivores with teeth to match, but in 22 years I have only been seriously nipped twice and both times it was my fault. Normally they are calm and friendly: the other day, for example, I found that my two-year old son had unlocked a hutch and was gripping Purdy in a neck-lock while his other hand clutched a tiny kit. Disturbing the maternal instinct of any creature is unwise, but I was more concerned for my pets than the toddler. Fortunately both were unharmed and Jack's fingers are still intact.

This is typical: far from vicious, ferrets are friendly and playful. After all, they are closely related to otters, and - like Mij in Ring of Bright Water - love games. This frivolity is common to most carnivores. Play is nature's way of honing skills for short, nutritionally-rewarding hunts (in contrast, herbivores spend their waking hours eating or fleeing). And it is this playful nature that makes ferrets much better pets for children than timid rabbits or guinea pigs.

Smell, that other criticism, is more difficult to counter. Ferrets certainly have a musty odour which many find unpleasant, but I prefer to label it "distinctive". This has nothing to do with poor hygiene (ferrets are scrupulously clean and always use the same latrine), but is characteristic of all weasels - most famously in skunks.

I do have to confess to one hidden drawback, however: reproduction. Ferrets are extremely prolific and, given the general conviction that a fondness for ferrets requires baggy trousers and a carefree attitude towards one's wedding tackle, disposing of my two current litters is proving tricky. There's no problem persuading children of their appeal - it's prejudiced adults who are the problem. So far I have located just one teenager whose parents are reluctantly allowing the experiment. That leaves 18 to go.

Ferret racing this summer:

Today: Cockermouth Agricultural Show, Cumbria (01946 692798)

10-11 August. Sussex Game & Country Fair, Petworth, W Sussex (01243 544181)

15 August: Denbighshire and Flintshire Show, Denbigh (01352 712131)

18 August: BFSS (Cheshire) County Sports Fair, Knutsford, Cheshire (01565- 733847)

25 August: Cornish Game and Country Fair, Truro, Cornwall (01872-73366)

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