26 November 2003

Milnthorpe Kidside Rabbits and Ferrets

Not long after we arrived at Kidside, one day Dad was talking to Uncle John Brough and he was complaining about the infestation of rabbits on the farm. They were eating the grass and damaging the hedgerow banks with their warrens. Dad said that he would cull them out and John Brough said the carcases would be Dad's to sell. Wild rabbit meat was popular for stews and pies in England, also rationing was still in force from the recently finished WW2 and so was popular to eke out the weekly meat ration.

Dad asked if I would be interested and I jumped at the chance to earn some pocket money. So Dad bought a creamy yellow female ferret and later a polecat cross ferret, a much larger dark coloured male. Then some 2nd hand and new nets to cover the rabbit holes. Dad also made a carry box with 2 compartments for the ferrets, which could be slung over a shoulder. We were in the rabbit business.

The first weekend out we caught 34 rabbits and it took all of our time, Dad, John and I to carry them back across the paddocks. Dad had phoned to make arrangements for a van to call on Sunday night to pick up the rabbits. The van came from Blackpool on a regular circuit of the area and paid out on the spot. That first weekend, I remember calculating was more than the average man's weekly wage.

I had never been rabbiting before but Dad taught us all the tricks. When putting a net over a hole to weigh down the edges of the net with only enough tension to pull the drawstring tight as the rabbit hits the net. Another trick was to be able to recognize boltholes. These were secret exit holes from the warren in case of invaders, stoats, weasels flooding and... ferrets. All the regular holes had mounds of dug out earth but boltholes were clear and the hole entrances were only large enough in diameter for a rabbit to squeeze through. When the hole was constructed the rabbit would push and weave the undergrowth over the hole to camouflage the hole entrance. The holes would be difficult to find sometimes especially on flat ground where the hole came up vertically and grasses were woven over, just a clump of grass to the eye.

A companion during rabbiting was our dog Gyp our Lakeland terrier. He loved rabbiting and used to shiver with excitement when we put the ferret down into the warren and he could hear the rabbits using their alarm signal by thumping the ground with their back paws to warn the rest of the rabbits that danger was at hand. But Gyp is worth a story or two of his own.

Occasionally a ferret would get trapped down a hole especially if the ferret had made a kill down in the warren, listening by an ear to the ground we would, hopefully locate the ferret and have to dig it out. Sometimes we could not locate the ferret because after the kill and hungry it would have a feed and go to sleep. All we could do was to leave the open box at the hole entrance and block up as many holes as possible and hope the ferret would come out at the selected hole and go into the warm hay covered interior. To tempt the ferret we would leave food in the box. Usually the ferret would be in the box next morning curled up asleep.

Eventually we cleaned out the rabbit population and John Brough was pleased with our progress. We were down to getting only 6 or 7 rabbits during the weekend and as those numbers dwindled even further we called it a day. Of the few rabbits left they will continue to again multiply but their breeding will be slowed as with the dearth of rabbits the local predators will be hungry and will keep the rabbit population in check. Kidside Farm was between the junction of 2 small rivers, which then formed the River Bela. Thus there was only one boundary on the farm for rabbits to migrate from other areas, rabbits can swim if need be but with the rich pastures of the area they would not be tempted to swim across to Kidside Farm fields.

So our rabbit enterprise faded out but we had more than covered our expenses and earned us a good income. John Brough cleaned up his hedgerow damage and open warrens in the fields and resowed the damaged areas with grass seed.

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