On rabbits and the chase of the ferrets

Story by Jim Walliss

Rabbits and My Youth
In the late 1940’s, while in high school I had ferrets which I used to catch rabbits. In the country rabbits was both a food supply for many families as well as providing an income from the sale of skins. It was often referred to as “underground mutton” particularly during the Great Depression of the 1930’s.
My ferrets were the white variety, sometimes referred to being albino polecats. Each weekend I would take my ferrets and head into the local farmland and hills. When I found a warren I placed nets across each entrance. I made these nets from twine using a special needle, after having been taught the stitch by a neighbour who had used the technique to make camouflage nets as part of the voluntary war effort.
After making sure I had not missed an entrance the ferrets, usually two, were released into the burrows that made up the warren. It was amazing how often the rabbits, when hunted by the ferrets, would come out a hole you had missed. If they emerged into the nets they were quickly killed and the net reset. If rabbits escaped the nets they were chased by my two
Sometimes the ferrets came across a goanna or snake in the burrows. This developed a frenzy in the ferrets’ attitude. To them it was an exciting experience but not to their owner who waited helplessly by listening to the underground reptile hissing. Frequently the ferrets would emerge with fluffed up fur and arched backs and dance around before racing back underground to enjoy the contest between animal and reptile. They were extremely difficult to catch when in this mood. Later, when I read “ Rikki Tikki Tavi” by Rudyard Kipling describing how the mongoose killed the cobra, I could understand what instinctively drove my ferrets’ behaviour. But it was not a happy experience for their young owner.
When exhausted with their “fun” they were happy to be caught and placed in their box for the journey home.

Sometimes, after a busy weekend, they would become tired; particularly if they had killed a rabbit they would stay in the burrow and go to sleep. As it was usually impossible to dig the burrow because of its size and the rocky nature of the soil the only course of action was to close the burrow up with soil and return next weekend as I had to attend school during the week. The burrow was too far from home to visit on week afternoon and I was required to help with the milking.
When I returned to the burrow the following weekend I would hope that the ferret had not dug itself out and wandered off. On opening the burrow the ferret would emerge, usually smelling strongly of dead rabbit. I was so glad to see my ferret I wouldquickly picked it and hugged it like a long lost friend despite its odour. Some ferrets were muzzled at times so that could not kill the rabbits before chasing them out of the burrow. Occasionally they would find a litter of young in the lined nest that the mother had made and go sleep in it after eating a young bunny. This did not happen often as the female rabbits usually dug a small burrow away from the warren to have their litter ; the entrance being closed with soil while the mother was absent. Foxes could smell out the location of the nest and often dug straight down to help themselves to the young rabbit kittens.
After working with the ferrets for a number of years and rearing some of them as off spring of your own ferrets you became attached to them. You also acquired a number of scars from bites. These stay with you into your old age.
Once when digging out a burrow with a pick I accidently cut a ferret. When I arrived home I successfully sewed the wound up with needle and cotton although the wound did smell for a period of time..
The ferrets were housed in a box which had a sleeping compartment and an enclosed run over bird netting where they could exercise and deposit their droppings in one corner. Despite the cage being well made they sometimes found or made a hole through which they could escape. The ferret escapades became apparent to me when I was woken from my sleep by the startled cackling of fowls in their roosting shed. Of my family I was the first and only one to hear the rumpus as my room was in a sleep-out on the closed in verandah. Quickly climbing out of bed I located the ferrets and returned them to their box after finding and plugging their escape hole. And then back to bed.
It was usually at breakfast that my father would announce that there were a number of dead “chooks” in the fowl-yard showing no evidence of how they died. (Ferrets usually killed by grabbing the fowls by the throat and sucking blood out). The ferrets were not suspected as the culprits. Sometimes they went through the rat holes in the wheat shed – the rats often spent the next day up in the rafters before they considered it was safe to return to ground level.
After the war years rabbit skins prices were at record high; from memory they were about 14 shillings a pound for good winter pelts. Sales of skins provided me with a good bank balance. Some sellers sprinkled sand into pelts to increase their weight.
At other periods there was good money in selling the carcasses for meat. Trucks would come around to pick up the rabbits which had been gutted and cleaned.
We did enjoy rabbits as meals as many large families did in those times. They were eaten curried, in stews or just fried – no elaborate recipes. We were very selective in the rabbits that we used; usually three-quarter grown rabbits being the tenderest .

Myxomatosis was introduced into Australia in 1950 in the Albury area as a biological control agent for the European rabbit. The rabbit is one of Australia’s most significant vertebrate pests, with an estimated economic impact of $200 million p.a. Rabbits cause significant environmental, agricultural and pastoral damage.
Myxomatosis occurs throughout the rabbit’s distribution in Australia.
Myxomatosis is a highly infectious disease. It is transmitted by mosquitoes and rabbit fleas.
Not everyone was happy with its introduction as the following article in a newspaper in 1952 shows:
Introduction of Myxomatosis is a crime. Apart from ruining a big export industry, the
Government has deprived the people of thousands of freemeals. How will the dead rabbits, mainly along waterways, affect public health? The rabbits will fall into the streams and pollute them. The Government should . have employed trappers. The next cry will be shortage of meat.


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