Ferreting with Russell Summers

There’s a sharp frost this morning, and that’s just how Russell Summers likes it. So long as we can push the long net poles into the ground, the rabbits should bolt well in these conditions. Judging by the signs on the ground, it looks like there are plenty of rabbits about too. This could be a good day.

The size of the bag isn’t the main point of the day, however. Sporting Shooter’s game cookery guru, Mark Gilchrist, wants to learn about ferreting. In his part of Kent, Russell is widely regarded as the master, so Mark has invited Russell to come ferreting on his permission – a farm on the edge of Romney Marsh – to show him how it’s done.

Russell is more than happy to pass on his knowledge. He’s passionate about ferreting, and he’s equally passionate about encouraging others, especially youngsters.

He’s a colourful character, with a vocabulary to match, and as the excitement mounts, and rabbits start bolting, the expletives start to fly.

“I first had ferrets when I was 11,” he tells me. “It’s a great outdoor sport. Everyone should have a crack at it. I’ve never lost the buzz I get from it,

I absolutely love it.”

Much of his ferreting is along hedgerows, so he uses long nets a lot of the time. Purse nets would be difficult to use among the brambles, he explains and, being bigger, the hobs tend to drag the net when they leave the hole, rather than slipping through like a jill.

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Guns? He’s not keen. “I think it’s irresponsible to shoot rabbits when there are dogs and ferrets around,” he explains. Watching the ruthless efficiency of the nets, you have to wonder why he’d need a gun anyway.

Russell has adopted the ‘quick set’ long net system with enthusiasm. You may have seen these demonstrated at game fairs. The net comes with poles attached, and it’s carried in a metal-framed basket, open at the top, with a neck strap.

To set the net, you begin by pegging down one end. Then you simply walk backwards, allowing the net to pay out of the basket, until you reach the first pole. Bend down, push the pole into the ground, stand up and walk backwards again until you reach the next pole, and so on. With practice, you can set a 100-yard net in little more than a minute.

When it comes to picking up the net again, it’s a simple job to reverse the process – walking forwards this time, and bundling the net into the basket in front of you. Each pole lays across the top of the basket, which has vertical spikes to keep the poles in place. When it’s all in, a couple of bungee cords prevent the poles from slipping about.

It’s a simple and efficient system, and Russell has lost count of the number of times he’s set a long net this way. Watching him net up at the first burrow,

it’s obviously become second nature to him.

This first burrow isn’t in a hedgerow at all. It’s a large rough patch in the middle of a grass field, circular in shape and about 30 yards across. The rabbits here are feeding on the adjacent oilseed rape crop, and a quick glance shows the damage they’ve done already. No wonder the farmer wants them killed. The rough patch is riddled with holes; it would take ages to purse-net every one. Fortunately, using Russell’s long nets, we’re able to surround the patch in under five minutes. Then he turns for his ferrets.

If Russell is a rabbiting legend in Kent, his ferrets are something else. He’s been breeding them for years, with the same dedication and care as any pedigree sheep or cattle. He even goes to extraordinary lengths to bring true wild polecats into the mix. “The best worker is three-quarters domestic ferret and one-quarter wild European polecat,” he says.

He has upwards of 50 ferrets at any one time, and there’s always a strong demand for his kits. He supplies some of the biggest names in the business – and now he’s provided Mark with the ferrets he needs to get started.

Today Russell has brought no fewer than 11 ferrets, in a huge carrying box with four separate compartments. There’s a mixture of colours, from a pure white jill with black eyes, through light sandy colours and mid shades of brown, to a really dark hob with an eye-stripe that’s almost black. That’s what most people would call a ‘polecat’ – but the genuine article is several shades darker and too wild to handle.

Why so many ferrets? Well, Russell explains, if you put just two or three down a hole the rabbits can give them the runaround. They can dodge the ferrets all day long, either underground or by ‘hole-hopping’. He prefers the shock-and-awe tactics, dropping in six or eight ferrets at one end of the bury and letting them work through. It’s like a beating line, with the beaters close together so nothing slips back.

“The other thing is, you’ll always have one or two get tired, or that just don’t want to work,” he adds. “You need enough to leave one or two in the box and still have a good team.”

The first bury holds fewer rabbits than we expected, but three bolt well into the net and are quickly caught up. Russell is sprinting towards them before they even hit the net. Even with his very baggy nets, a rabbit can slip out if you aren’t on it quickly.

After a while, his ‘marker’ ferrets are showing above ground. Russell knows these two are experienced workers, and they will stay down if there are any rabbits left. If they’ve given up on the hole, it’s empty. Time to move on.

The ferrets are counted back into the box, and Russell packs up the long nets. He doesn’t use ferret finders, but he can’t remember the last time he lost a ferret. If one stays down, he says, there’ll be a good reason. And if you care enough about your ferrets, you wait as long as it takes.

So far, however, his practice of keeping the ferrets well fed is paying off. They’re working well, and showing no sign of laying up. How will it go as the day wears on and we tackle some of the tougher hedges and thick cover?

You’ll have to read all about it in next month’s magazine to find out!