20 February 1998

Trousering it is no way to treat

a good ferret…

fgydhusftagysiki

Owning ferrets was once the

prerogative of the royal, the

religious and the rich.

Today anyone can own them

and Tessa Gates met a

man who teaches everything

you need to know about

keeping and hunting with

these agile creatures

QUITE where the ferret originated, nobody knows. They are mentioned in the Bible – in Leviticus it states that they must not be eaten by man – and in the Middle Ages only the highest strata of society was allowed to keep them. Queen Elizabeth I even had her pet ferret included when her portrait was painted.

"I think ferret legging must have come from this time when the commoner was not supposed to keep them," says James McKay, who runs the National Ferret School based in Ashover, Derbyshire. "I think it was possibly a pocket in the tunic – not trousers – they were hidden in."

Today ferret legging is one of those odd pastimes that make an entry in the Guinness Book of Records. A 72-year-old man from Barnsley is the current title holder, having kept two ferrets down his trousers for five-and-a-half hours. "This is a pastime for men only. They cannot wear underpants and must wear baggy trousers tied at the ankles. The ferrets must not have been fed for 24 hours beforehand," says James, who has no admiration for the men risking a nasty bite. "Poor ferrets, I say. I have more respect for mine."

James has around 100 ferrets, the culmination of a lifelong interest. "I was knee high to a grasshopper when I saw my first ferret. I was out with my father and we saw a gamekeeper ferreting and the chap came over and thrust a ferret at me, put my finger in its mouth and it didnt bite me. I have been into them ever since."

His father was more appalled than impressed and the six-year-old James had to keep his first ferrets at a friends house. The interest stayed to adulthood and through his time in the Marines, his subsequent animal studies at college and a spell in PR and marketing. He is zoo-ology consultant to several television series and is a lecturer in animal care at Broomfield College, Morley, Derbyshire, in addition to running the National Ferret School.

His ferrets span a range of 15 colours from albino through blues, cinnamons, and mahogany reds to some with markings like Siamese cats. "I kept seeing odd ones so would buy them up and progress the gene. I am very interested in genetics and keep family trees of all my animals," says James, who does not show his ferrets, wary of the way showing has reduced the working ability of many other breeds of animals.

"A good ferret shouldnt be too big. It should have a heavy coat, bright eyes and even jaws – not over- or under-shot. They must be handleable. If you cant handle the parents you wont handle the kits," he warns. "A half-kilo Jill can kill a 2kg rabbit – they bloody well hurt when they bite. You must handle them from young."

The courses he runs attract people who want to keep ferrets as pets, to breed show animals, for pest control – or want to experience practical ferreting. He can even offer the chance to work ferrets with Harris hawks.

"All sorts of people attend the courses from farmers sons, vets and veterinary nurses to office workers on team-building corporate days. We get a lot of greens and good lifers too. They see ferreting as a natural and healthy way of catching food," explains James. "We also had a glut of people last year believing that they can make a living from pest control. I dont believe ferreting is enough on its own but you can make some money out of it. Three years ago the estimated rabbit population was 37.5m but I estimate now there are 50m and rising."

Most of his one- and two-day courses are run at the smallholding he owns in Derbyshire but some are held at other venues throughout the country. The courses* cost £35 a day and cover all aspects of ferret keeping, working, equipment, and the law.

His one-day animal husbandry course is a good start for the would-be ferret owner, for with the right care a ferret can have a long and active life. "Our oldest ferret was 15 when she died – they average 10 years," says James. "When people say theirs die after a couple of years it is usually because of the way they have been fed. Bread and milk is the worst thing, this gives soft, smelly droppings. A good diet produces firm dark droppings which should be almost odourless.

&#42 Complete food

"In the past few years a complete ferret food has been available from Wellbeloveds, Somerset. We feed ours on it and it suits them very well. It contains an extract of yucca which reduces odour. Less smell means less flies – and with 100 ferrets that makes life easier."

On the practical ferreting courses everyone learns how to despatch and prepare the rabbits they have been shown how to catch, and they go home with a brace of rabbits apiece. Participants on all courses get a Course Handbook and a certificate to take home, too.

The courses are run on two weekends a month through the winter and one weekend a month in the summer. The summer months mean extra work for James when he gives displays with his ferrets, hawks and dogs at country shows including the Royal Show and the Game Fair. "I have been doing it for about 18 years and people kept coming up and asking if they could visit me to learn more about ferrets. That is how the courses started," explains James.

He is interested in and has tried all country sports and has a young son who seems set to follow in his dads country ways. "He ferreted his first rabbit when he was four," James says proudly, glad to encourage the boy in keeping the animal that has been a pet of royalty, and a sporting partner and larder filler of people right across society.

*For details write to the National Ferret School, PO Box 61, Chesterfield, Derbyshire S45 OJS. (01246-591590).

James McKay has been fascinated by ferrets since his first childhood encounter with them. He passes on his expertise in handling, working and caring for them through courses at the National Ferret School.