Undercover trap set to solve mystery of disappearing ferrets: Peter Dunn on an unusual outbreak of thieving which is puzzling West Country animal-lovers

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FERRETS, the sharp-fanged, pink-eyed albino polecats which have been used to hunt rabbits in Britain since Roman times, are being stolen in droves in the West Country.

At least 70 have disappeared in the past three months from locked hutches and garden sheds in Dorset and Hampshire. Members of the National Ferret Welfare Society, launched five years ago to clean up the ferret's image as an odiferous serial killer, are baffled. So are the rural bobbies of two counties.

Suspicious ferret welfare society fingers are being pointed at three possible culprits: animal rights activists; pharmaceutical laboratories, who pay up to pounds 60 for a healthy ferret to use in respiratory drug tests; and unscrupulous white ferret traders exporting the stolen animals to Europe to fight plagues of rats.

Anti-blood sports activists who want ferreting banned - a lone warrener out netting rabbits in north Cornwall was beaten up by hunt saboteurs three months ago - deny any complicity. Robin Webb, of the Animal Liberation Front, said: 'It's the type of animal we'd rescue and re-home but I haven't heard of this type of action taking place on any major scale, regretfully.'

The pharmaceutical industry also insists that its hands are clean. A spokeswoman for Glaxo, which uses ferrets for experiments at its research station near Bishops Stortford, Hertfordshire, said: 'Most of us either do our own in-house breeding or buy from reputable suppliers. I could say, hand on heart, I'd be gob-smacked if any reputable company was buying ferrets from nefarious dealers.'

English ferreters are now switching their attention to the Continent where hordes of rats are infesting large areas of France and southern Italy. Ferrets make good ratters.

Wessex Ferret Club has even got an undercover agent, posing as a stereotyped village idiot, investigating the murky world of the international white ferret racket. Tom Sturgess, who combines the duties of Wessex club secretary and society treasurer, thinks their man might be on to something. 'We're currently watching someone who's buying up ferrets in the Bournemouth area,' Mr Sturgess said. 'All I have at present is a name and telephone number. He claims he's sending them over to France. He says they want a lot over there for racing but we don't believe him. Well, what would you believe?'

Mr Sturgess accepts the ALF's disclaimer. 'The evidence suggests it's not the animal rights people, who always call ferrets a wild animal and not the domesticated animal it really is,' he said. 'If it was just them releasing ferrets you'd find dead ones where a dog had mangled them or you'd even recover one or two. As it is, they're just disappearing. We've had locks broken off garden sheds. There's someone had six ferrets and the lot's gone. Sometimes it's selective. We've had cases at the start of the breeding season they were taking the jills (females) and leaving the hobs behind. Not advertising the fact that they keep ferrets would be a good idea.

'There again you want to promote the image of the ferret. Ten years ago, before the formation of the national society, it was a vicious, evil, small, obnoxious creature that bites everything in sight. People have done it for years but it's actually cruel to put ferrets down your trousers . . . they don't realise ferrets don't like the heat down there.'

Mr Sturgess, a railwayman who works for Hampshire County Council keeping the verges of the A34 and A303 clear of rabbits, said the popularity of the breed is spreading because people see them racing along pipes at shows or trotting around in little harnesses as fashion accessories. Middle-class townies are beginning to realise that the ferret is as much a pet as underground predator.

Members of the society have developed a macho response to the breed's nervous scoffers. 'We were showing at Hyde Park last year,' Mr Sturgess said. 'Someone's been in the beer tent and he comes rolling up and says: 'Ho, ho, ho. So these are the jolly little creatures you put down your trouser leg'. And you say 'Well, sir, if you've room in your trousers for a ferret you should zip the lip . . .' It's better when a lady says: 'If you've room in your trousers for a ferret you're no use to me'. That usually shuts them up.'

(Photograph omitted)