IN the following elementary treatise for the use of public schools, I propose following exactly the same plan as my parson (a good fellow not afraid of a ferret or a rat) does with his sermons—that is, divide it into different heads, and then jumble up all the heads with the body, till it becomes as difficult to follow as a rat's hole in a soft bank; and, to begin with, I am going to talk about ferrets, for without them rat-catching won't pay.
Where ferrets first came from I am not sure, but somewhere I have read that they were imported from Morocco, and that they are not natives of Great Britain any more than the ordinary rat is. If they were imported, then that importer ranks in my mind with, but before, Christopher Columbus and all such travellers. Anyhow it is quite clear that nowhere in Great Britain are there wild ferrets, for they are as distinct from the stoat, the mouse-hunter, the pole-cat, etc., as I am from a Red Indian; and yet all belong to the same family, so much so that I have known of a marriage taking place between the ferret and pole-cat, the offspring of which have again married ferrets and in their turn have multiplied and increased, which is a proof that they are not mules, for the children of mules, either in birds or beasts, do not have young ones.
There are two distinct colours in ferrets—one is a rich dark brown and tan, and the other white with pink eyes; and in my opinion one is just as good as the other for work, though by preference I always keep the white ferret, as it is sooner seen if it comes out of a hole and works away down a fence or ditch bottom. I have never known a dark-coloured ferret coming among a litter of white ones or a white among the dark; but there is a cross between the two which produces a grizzly beast, generally bigger than its mother, which I have for many years avoided, though it is much thought of in some parts of the Midlands. I fancy (though I may be wrong) that the cross is a dull slow ferret, wanting in dash and courage, and not so friendly and affectionate as the others, and therefore apt to stick with just its nose out of a hole so that you can't pick it up, or else it will "lay up" and give a lot of trouble digging it out.
For rat-catching the female ferret should always be used, as it is not half the size of the male, and can therefore follow a rat faster and better in narrow holes; in fact, an ordinary female ferret should be able to follow a full-grown rat anywhere. The male ferret should be kept entirely for rabbiting, as he has not to follow down small holes, and being stronger than the female can stand the rough knocking about he often gets from a rabbit better than his wife can.
In buying a ferret for work, get one from nine to fifteen months old, as young ferrets I find usually have more courage and dash than an old one. They have not been so often punished and therefore do not think discretion the better part of valour. However this will not be found to be an invariable rule. I have known old ferrets that would have faced a lion and seemed to care nothing about being badly bitten; whereas I have known a young ferret turn out good-for-nothing from having one sharp nip from a rat. Such beasts had better be parted with, for a bad, slow, or cowardly ferret is vexation of spirit and not profitable.
If I am buying brown ferrets I always pick the darkest, as I fancy they have most dash. This may be only fancy, or it may be the original ferret was white and that the brown is the cross between it and the polecat, and that therefore the darker the ferret, the more like it is in temper as well as colour to its big, strong, wild ancestor. Anyhow I buy the dark ones.
If I am buying female ferrets, I like big long ones, as a small ferret has not weight enough to tackle a big rat, and therefore often gets desperately punished. I like to see the ferrets in a tub, end up, looking well-nourished and strong; and directly I touch the tub I like to see them dash out of their hidden beds in the straw and rush to spring up the sides like a lot of furies. When I put my hand in to take one, I prefer not to be bitten; but yet I have often known a ferret turn out very well that has begun by making its teeth meet through my finger. When I have the ferret in hand, I first look at its tail and then at its feet, and if these are clean it will do. If, on the other hand, I find a thin appearance about the hairs of its tail and a black-looking dust at the roots, the ferret goes back into the tub; or if the underside of the feet are black and the claws encrusted with dirt, I will have nothing to say to it, as it has the mange and will be troublesome to cure. All this done, I put the ferret on the ground and keep picking it up and letting it go; if when I do this it sets up the hairs of its tail, arches its back and hisses at me, I may buy it; but I know, if I do, I shall have to handle it much to get it tame. If, on the other hand, when I play with it the ferret begins to dance sideways and play, I pay down my money and take it at once, for I have never known a playful ferret to prove a bad one.
If when you get the ferret it is wild and savage, it should be constantly handled till it is quite tamed before it is used. Little brothers and sisters will be found useful at this. Give them the ferret to play with in an empty or nearly empty barn or shed where it cannot escape. Put into the shed with them some long drain pipes, and tell them to ferret rats out of them. The chances are they will put the ferret through them and pick it up so often, that it will learn there is nothing to fear when it comes out of a real rat's hole, and will ever after "come to hand" readily. You had better not be in the way when the children return to their mother or nurse. I have had disagreeable moments on such occasions.
Having got all your ferrets, the next question is how to keep them. I have tried scores of different houses for them. I have kept them in a big roomy shed, in tubs, in boxes, and in pits in the ground; but now I always use a box with three compartments. The left-hand compartment should be the smallest and filled with wheat-straw well packed in, with a small round hole a little way up the division, for the ferrets to use as a door. The middle compartment should be empty and have the floor and front made of wire netting, to allow light, ventilation and drainage. The third compartment should be entered from the middle one by a hole in the division, but should have a strong tin tray fitting over the floor of it covered with sand, which can be drawn out and cleaned; the front of this compartment, too, should be wire netting. The sand tray should be removed and cleaned every day, even Sundays. The house should stand on legs about a foot high. Each compartment should have a separate lid, and the little entrance holes through the divisions should have a slide to shut them, so that any one division can be opened without all the ferrets rushing out. The bed should be changed once a week. Such a box as I have shown is large enough for ten ferrets. For a mother with a family a much smaller box will suffice, but it should be made on the same plan. For bedding use only wheat-straw. Either barley-straw or hay will give ferrets mange in a few days.
After housing the ferrets, they will require feeding. I have always given my ferrets bread and milk once or twice a week, which was placed in flat tins in the middle compartment; but care should be taken to clean out the tins each time, as any old sour milk in them will turn the fresh milk and make the ferrets ill. The natural food of ferrets is flesh—the flesh of small animals—and therefore it should be the chief food given. Small birds, rats and mice are to them dainty morsels, but the ferrets will be sure to drag these into their beds to eat and will leave the skins untouched; these should be removed each day. When my ferrets are not in regular work they are fed just before sunset; if they are fed in the morning they are no good for work all day, and one can never tell (except on Sundays) that one of the dogs may not find a rat that wants killing. The day before real work, I give the ferrets bread and milk in the morning, and nothing on the day they go out until their work is over. This makes them keen. Remember ferrets work hard in a big day's ratting, and therefore should be well nourished and strong; a ferret that is not will not have the courage to face a rat.
I have listened to all sorts of theories from old hands about feeding ferrets, but have followed the advice of few. For instance, I have been told that if you give flesh, such as rats and birds, to a ferret that has young ones, it will drag it into the straw among the little ones, who will get the blood on them, and then the mother will eat them by mistake. All I can say is, I have reared hundreds of young ferrets and have always given the mothers flesh. It is true that ferrets will eat their young, and the way to bring this about is to disturb the babies in the nest. If you leave them quite alone till they begin to creep about I believe there is no danger.
Then many old rat-catchers never give a ferret a rat with its tail on, as they believe there is poison in it. I remember one old fellow saying to me as he cut off the tail before putting the rat into the ferrets' box, "Bar the tail—I allus bars the tail—there's wenom in the tail." There may be "wenom" in it; but, if there is, it won't hurt the ferrets, for they never eat it or the skin.
If ferrets are properly cared for they are rarely ill, and the only trouble I have ever had is with mange, which, as I have said before, attacks the tail and feet. Most rat-catchers keep a bottle of spirits of tar, with which they dress the affected parts. It cures the mange, but, by the way the poor little beasts hop about after being dressed, I fear it stings dreadfully. I have always used sulphur and lard, and after rubbing it well in a few times I have always found it worked a cure. The objection to sulphur and lard is that it does not hurt, for I have noticed that sort of man generally prefers using a remedy that hurts a lot—that is, where the patient is not himself, but an animal.
No big day's ratting ever takes place without a ferret getting badly bitten. When this is so, the ferret should never be used again until it is quite well. It should be sent home and put in a quiet box, apart from the others, and the bites gently touched with a little sweet oil from time to time; or, if it festers much, it should be sponged with warm water.
I have often had ferrets die of their wounds, and these have usually been the best I had. Again, with wounds the old rat-catcher uses the tar-bottle, chiefly, I think, because it hurts the ferret, and therefore must have "a power of wirtue."
Before going further I should point out to all students of this ennobling profession that the very first thing they have to learn is to pick up a ferret. Don't grab it by its tail, or hold it by its head as you would a mad bulldog; but take hold of it lightly round the shoulders, with its front legs falling gracefully out below from between your fingers. Then when you go to the box for your ferrets, and they come clambering up the side like a pack of hungry wolves, put your hand straight in among them without a glove, and pick up which one you require. Don't hesitate a moment. Don't dangle your hand over their heads till you can make a dash and catch one. The ferrets will only think your hand is their supper coming and will grab it, with no ill intent; but if you put it down steadily and slowly, they will soon learn you only do so to take them out, and your hand will become as welcome to them as flowers in spring.
True, at first, with strange ferrets you may be bitten; but it is not a very serious thing if you are, as ferrets' bites are never venomous, as the bites of rats often are. I have in my time been bitten by ferrets many dozens of times and have never suffered any ill effects. There, I think that is enough for your first lesson, so I will send it off at once and get it printed for you.