Ferreting in the “old days.”
23rd December 2011: The rabbit warren I mentioned being ferreted in my earlier post, set me off down Memory Lane this afternoon. I think Pam (http://allmarsh.blogspot.com/) would call it retreating into her “other world.” I spent my early life surrounded by the seven hills of Abergavenny: Derri, Little Skirrid, Big Skirrid, Blorange, Rholben, Llanwenarth Breast, Sugar Loaf and Table Mountain. The Black Mountains are three miles to the north and the Brecon Beacons five miles to the west. As a lad, I knew these hills intimately; I wandered over them constantly.
I was pretty much a loner, even in those far-off days. I’m not sure what happened that sparked my interest in ferrets and polecats. I wasn’t a total loner; I did have a normal number of friends, but I was also quite comfortable with my own company. During the late fifties and sixties, the local library was the place one went for knowledge. If you were fortunate, another person might be encouraged to share their hard-earned experience with you. Being a farming county, there were plenty of people with ferreting experience in and around Monmouthshire; however, I was unable, or unwilling, to find a ferreting mentor – so I experimented on my own-some.
I owned a few ferrets, and I think one pole cat. I purchased these cuddly elastic, furry animals from Abergavenny market pet shop, where I worked in-between attending school ten miles away at Pontypool. I don’t think I went to school on Tuesdays: this was market day!
I made homes for the ferrets and the pole cat from tea chests, each with a small straw filled nesting box screwed to the rear and a hinged wire netting door at the front. I learnt to handle these weaselly creatures the hard way, and I was often to be found prising their teeth from my bloody fingers. When a ferret bites and tastes blood, it is very reluctant to let go. They are very quick, tenacious animals. I found out by accident that if I gave their tail a short, sharp yank, they would sometimes release their bite in order to attack the fingers of my other hand.
There is a definite knack to picking-up a ferret or a polecat: what you have to do is get their attention by tempting them with the juicy fingers of the left hand, whilst smartly grabbing them from behind with the right hand. This sounds simple, but in practice nothing could be further from the truth. The first and second fingers of the right hand are placed at either side of the ferret’s neck; they are then swivelled around until the second finger is against and under the throat, and the first finger is on top of the neck; the third finger and pinkie are used to hold the body, from behind its front legs. If the third finger is not positioned tightly behind the front legs, the little varmint will wriggle free and bite. The thumb is positioned to prevent the ferret’s head turning to the left. This ferret grabbing movement has to be fast and very precise. If you get it wrong, you will be resorting to tail pulling. The first and second fingers being placed under, and over the neck is very important; if you don’t do this correctly the ferret will stretch and turn its neck and is likely to sink its teeth into the soft and tender flesh between the thumb and forefinger.
Not all ferrets are nasty, allegedly. My ferrets and the polecat were very fierce animals. I am not sure if they were born this way, or if I was in some way responsible. I was the only person willing to go anywhere near them, let alone handle them. Initially, my friends were very eager to accompany me on rabbiting and ratting sorties; however, after being attacked and bitten a few times, they quickly lost interest.
I have a very vivid memory of ferreting up the Derri with my best friend, Barry Llewellyn. Barry would always give the ferrets a wide berth. I netted as many holes as I could find whilst Barry stood at a safe distance. I put the ferret down the hole and pegged a net over it. I lay with my ear to the ground listening. The first noise I heard was Barry screaming. He was hopping around on one leg, with both hands clamped around his trousers, just above the knee. I can see it in my mind’s eye, as if it was yesterday. He was swinging his right leg very vigorously and screaming at the top of his voice, “It’s gone up my trousers. It’s gone up my trousers! What do I do?” I was rolling about on the ground holding my sides in hysterics, totally incapable of offering him any help. Gasping for air, I saw the ferret flying through the air and Barry clambering up the nearest tree. Barry had a narrow escape, and I think that was the last time he came ferreting with me.
I carried my polecat inside my jacket in a hessian shoulder bag that I had made myself. It was really a small sack with a zip closure. Sauntering down the high street one day, I felt the polecat moving out of its sack. It squeezed up the back of my jacket, pushed its head out and bit me on the neck. I calmly, but quickly, turned and walked down White Horse Lane to the public toilet, where I locked myself in a cubicle, pulled the cat’s tail until it released my neck. Expertly, I have to say, I put my pet back in the sack and carried on with my journey to the local rubbish dump, for a spot of ratting.
In retrospect, I wonder how I survived all those bites without contracting a deadly, if not debilitating blood borne disease. If I were to handle ferrets today, I would wear gloves.
Those were the days!