EVERYONE gets involved in pest control at the Clarke family”s 8ha (19-acre) smallholding, just outside Harrogate in North Yorkshire. Alice, aged 13, sets moletraps on two neighbouring farms. She also looks after Stitch and Tigger, two working jill ferrets, with help from her 10-year old brother, Jake.
“Both children handle their ferrets every day and take the responsibility for looking after them,” says their proud father, Dan. He is a former farm stockman who set up a pest and weed control business over a decade ago. As well as having contracts with local farmers, he also runs a team who manage private gardens and land belonging to local councils.
“When I pick the ferrets up, they usually nip my ears, but they are very gentle with Alice and Jake,” says Dan. “They are so tame that they will come when they are called, even when they are down a rabbit hole, which is very useful.”
Myxomatosis has kept rabbit numbers down over the years, but Dan believes that without targeted pest control, there would soon be a population explosion. It has been estimated that four rabbits eat as much grass as one sheep in a year.
“People are always saying rabbits are on the increase,” he says. “I”m not sure about that, but their numbers are certainly not declining – the mild winters may have something to do with it. The warmer weather means not all rabbits live down burrows any more. Some spend their lives above ground, hiding in thick undergrowth.”
One of the main ways of dealing with rabbits is to treat burrows with poisonous gas. However, one product currently on the market will be banned by the end of this year, and it is possible others will follow.
There is usually no single effective method for tackling rabbit numbers on farmland, says Dan.
“A combination usually works best – it all depends on the terrain. In a heavily infested field where rabbits are damaging the crop, a rabbit-proof fence and a drop box can be very successful.
“The box is used to catch live rabbits as they pass through on their way to feed, but it must be checked every day on welfare grounds, so the animals aren”t left to suffer. The fencing can be expensive, but the cost can be offset if the field is also used for grazing livestock.”
Shooting is also another useful control method, he adds. “Shooting can achieve a rapid knock-down and it is relatively cheap. However, overshooting will eventually make the rabbits wary, and harder to hit.”
Live traps are mostly used in private gardens. Dan says rabbits can”t resist carrots. He baited six live traps in a garden recently, and caught more than 50 rabbits in two months. This method can also be helpful in newly-sown crops. But he does not recommend the use of snares.
“I have never mastered them myself,” he says. “Snaring is an old skill that is gradually dying out. You have to be very careful to avoid trapping non-target species, and there is the danger that cows will get their tongues caught in them.”
The traditional pastime of ferreting has been enjoying something of a revival lately, says Dan. He feels ferrets still have a role to play in a commercial pest-control business, especially where rabbits have burrowed under a building, for example.
But he stresses ferrets must be handled regularly if they are to remain effective workers. Females not wanted for breeding should be neutered because they can become ill and even die if they are not mated when they come into season.
“I use purse nets placed over the burrows to trap the rabbits as the ferrets flush them out,” he says. “Other people use the older method, where a lurcher dog chases the rabbits into a long net.
“Pest control is a bit like farming – it becomes a way of life. I am out in the countryside in all weathers, and the returns aren”t huge, but it is an enjoyable way to earn a living, and I like being my own boss. It is nice that my children are showing an interest too.”