14 September 2001

Nets beat gas for efficient way to clear rabbits

Gassing is not the only way

to control rabbits. Netting is

cheaper, more effective and

more environmentally

friendly, as Brian Lovelidge

discovered in Hants

MOST pest exterminators use poisonous gas to kill rabbits, mainly because it is simple to use and lethal once inhaled.

But the method is anathema to one Hampshire operator who has good reasons for preferring traditional netting.

Although qualified to use gas, Edward Cook, based at Whitchurch near Basingstoke, considers that netting, often with the help of ferrets and his lurcher bitch Fern, is more versatile, more effective and at £10/hour is cheaper too.

Gassing is very dependent on weather and site and is not a 100% solution. "Normally you can only gas when all the undergrowth around holes has died back. You have to find and block all the holes, because if you miss one the rabbits will go for it," says Mr Cook, who is assisted by Dean Hutchins.

Gassing can also miss rabbits in blind holes in the warren, as it tends to take the route of least resistance. Furthermore, it cannot be done in wet weather and gas can seep out of blocked holes to kill other wildlife and game birds.

The only reason netting has lost out to gassing is because it requires greater skill and knowledge and takes longer to learn, he reckons. "We are able to work all the year and we miss very few rabbits with the nets we use."

Although only 21, Mr Cook has long experience of rabbit catching. He grew up on a large shooting estate at Micheldever, near Whitchurch, where his father was gamekeeper. Most of his netting skills were learned from Mike Mansbridge, a rabbit catcher on a nearby estate.

For many years he caught rabbits for sport. But in May 2000 he went professional after realising farmers and landowners were willing to pay for his services despite his youth.

At first, prospective clients often questioned his ability to do a good job without gassing, particularly as he charged only about half the gassing price. But their doubts were quickly dispelled when they saw catches of 50 or more rabbits a day.

Mr Cook makes his own nets, mostly from hemp dyed with wood stain to preserve and camouflage them. Nets can be bought, but are usually nylon, which snags easily on twigs and plant stalks, and they tend to be too small, he says.

He makes and uses three types of net (see panel). Purse nets are used where rabbit holes are easily accessible. If they are not long nets are placed in strategic positions to catch bolters from non-netted holes.

For most jobs Mr Cook takes about 100 purse nets, six long nets and six ferrets (see panel right).

Long nets are also used at night, generally to reduce high rabbit populations before ferreting. They are set along the edge of the crop after rabbits come out to feed. When disturbed by Mr Cook and his helpers the rabbits run into and get entangled in the nets.

"The weather has to be right for this use of the long net and then it works brilliantly," says Mr Cook. "Ideally it should be windy and drizzly with the net downwind of the rabbits."

The drop net comes into its own in summer when holes are inaccessible or on land alongside a field being grazed by a neighbours rabbits. It is erected in late afternoon, about 3m (10ft) from the hedge, wood or waste land colonised by the rabbits, before they emerge to feed in the crop.

When all the rabbits have emerged the net is dropped. People out in the field, aided by the dog, make the rabbits bolt for their holes. They hit the net at speed and become entangled, the mesh size ensuring immature summer rabbits are caught as well as full grown ones.

"There is plenty of slack in all the nets so the rabbits get well and truly tangled. Although we usually get them all we might have to go back after one or two years, because rabbits come in from other places that have not been cleared." &#42

Above: Edward Cook with two of his 13 ferrets, bred for small size and hard working.

Right: The professional catchers and just a few of a typical days catch.

Below: This rabbit has just bolted into a long net being used as a back-up when not all holes in the area are accessible for purse netting.

Ferrets aid control

Ferrets are bred by Mr Cook for small size, so they can get through purse nets without disturbing them and do not hold rabbits and prevent them from bolting. "I keep 13 ferrets and take out six on each job, so the others are rested. Theyve got locators on their collars so we can keep track of them. I have not lost a ferret yet, but sometimes we have to dig one out." It may take 15 minutes after a ferret is placed in a hole before the rabbits bolt. But then many emerge at once, with some purse nets catching more than one.

&#8226 Purse net Draped across rabbit hole to catch bolting rabbits fleeing from a ferret. Mesh size 5cm (2in) square, net size 107 x 91cm (42 x 36in), with draw strings along longest sides.

&#8226 Long net Mesh size 5.7cm (2.25in) square, 114cm wide by anything from 5.5m (6yds) to 137m (150yds) long. Strings top and bottom are wound round 46cm (18in) hazel rods pushed into ground every 4.5m (5yd) to hold net vertical

&#8226 Drop net Twin vertical nets, one 23cm (9in) square mesh and the other standard 5cm (2in) square, touching each other. Combination is usually over 45m (50 yds) long, 60cm (2ft) high and attached to sections of tubular steel that slide up and down steel poles driven into ground every 2.4m (8ft). Net is anchored at both ends and drop sections supported by steel pins inserted into holes in poles. Pins are attached to a cord running the length of the net. When cord is tugged pins are pulled out and base of net drops to ground.