RAT-CATCHING and rabbit-catching are two distinct professions, but the greater part of the stock-in-trade that serves for one will answer for the other, and it is as well for the professional to be master of what I think I may call both branches of his business. A rat-catcher who did nothing but kill rats and refused a day's work with the rabbits would be like a medical man who would cut off limbs but would not give a pill, or a captain of a sailing-vessel who would not go to sea in a steamer; besides in these days it is the fashion to jumble up half a dozen businesses under one head and name. Just look at what the engineer does. Why, he is nowhere if he is not (besides being ready, as the engineer of the old school, to make railways, etc.) a chemist, an electrician, a diplomat, a lawyer, a financier and a contractor, and even sometimes an honest man. If you are not in the fashion you are left behind as an old fogey, and so in this chapter we will discuss the art of rabbit-catching; and I trust all schoolmasters will furnish you, their students, with the opportunity of putting in practice in the field what you learn from this book at your desks.
Well, now for the requirements. We have got the dogs, we have got the ferrets, spade, bag, etc.; but for rabbiting we must have a much more costly stock-in-trade if we are to do a big business. We shall require an ordinary gardener's spade for digging in soft sandy ground, where the rabbit burrows sometimes go in for yards, and as much as ten feet deep down; also another spade, longer in the blade than our ratting one, the sides more turned in, and with a handle ten feet long, with a steel hook at the end instead of a spike. With this spade we can sink down many feet after the hole is too deep for the ordinary spade, and the turned in sides will hold the soft earth and allow you to bring it to the surface. If you dig down on the top of a rabbit—as you will do when you know your work—the hook at the end will enable you to draw first it and then the ferret up by the string. We must have a piece of strong light supple cord, marked by a piece of red cloth drawn through the strands at every yard, so that one can tell exactly how far in the ferret is; and it is as well to have a second shorter cord for work in stiff heavy ground, where the holes are never deep. Next, we must have two or three dozen purse-nets, which are circular, about two feet in diameter, with a string rove round the outside mesh fastened to a peg. These are for covering over bolt holes to bag a rabbit when driven out by the ferrets. The nets should be made of the very best string, so as to be as light and fine as possible. The mesh should be just large enough to allow a rabbit's head to pass through.
Like the postscript to a lady's letter, the chief item I have saved till the last, and I fear it will be some time before the ordinary rabbit-catcher will be able to afford it. I refer to long nets, which are used for running round or across a piece of covert to catch the rabbits as they are bustled about by the dogs. A rabbit-catcher in full swing should have from eight hundred to a thousand yards of this, for with a good long net he will often kill as many rabbits in a few hours as he could do with the ferrets in a week.
I myself keep no special dog for rabbit-catching, chiefly because I have a neighbour who will always let me have a cunning old lurcher that he keeps, which is as good as gold, and as clever as a lawyer, and desperately fond of a day with me and my dogs.
I have three male ferrets, real monsters, strong enough to trot down a burrow and drag five or six yards of line after them with ease.
Having described all the tools, etc, necessary for work, I will now jot down, as an exercise for you students, a nice easy day's rabbiting that actually took place a few weeks ago—a sort of day that quite a young beginner might work with success. There had been a sharp rime frost in the night, which still hung about in shady spots at eight o'clock in the morning, as Jack and I marched off with my dogs and ferrets, accompanied by old Fly, the lurcher. By nine a.m. we began working field hedge-rows and banks, where rabbits were pretty plentiful and had been established for years in every description of burrow. There had been a lot of partridge and other shooting going on over this farm for the last month, and most of the rabbits had got a dislike to sitting out in the open, and were under ground, so we began at the burrows at once, the dogs driving every rabbit that was sitting out in the hedge back to their burrows as we walked along. We began work in a stiff clay bank far too hard for the rabbits to make deep holes in, and here we got on fast. I took the ditch side—in fact, I took the ditch itself—with a big ferret with a short line on, and I ran it into each hole I came to. Jack on the other side looked out for the bolt holes, and always laid down a little to one side, as much as possible out of sight, but with a hand just on the bank over the hole ready to catch a bolting rabbit. Fly and the other dogs took charge of the other holes, and all kept as quiet as possible.
In went the ferret, slowly dragging the line after him till I count two yards gone by the red marks on the line; then there is a halt for half a minute, then a loud rumbling and the line is pulled fast through my fingers. Jack moves quickly, and the next instant a rabbit is thrown a little way out into the field with its neck broken. Jack says, "Ferret out," then picks it up, draws the line through the hole, passes the ferret over to me, and we go on to the next, having filled up the entrance of the hole we have just worked. Hole after hole was ferreted much in the same way. Sometimes Jack bagged the bolting rabbit, sometimes the dogs, and now and then one bolted and got into the hedge before it could be caught and went back, but it was little use, for the dogs with Fly at their head were soon after it, and in a few minutes Fly was sure to have it, and would retrieve it back to Jack.
As we worked round a big field, we got into softer ground, a red sand and soil mixed; and here the holes were much deeper and often ran through the bank and out for yards underground into the next field. Here Jack and I changed places, Jack doing the ferreting, and I going to his side with the garden spade. One, two, three, four, five yards the ferret went and stopped, and all was quiet. I listen, but not a sound. Jack pulls gently on the line and finds it tight, and for a minute we wait, hoping a rabbit may bolt from the hole the ferret went in at. But no such luck. I take the small ratting-spade, and with the spike end feel into the ground at the foot of the bank, and at once come upon the hole; this I open out and clear of earth, and Jack, who has crept through the hedge, kneels down and finds the line passing this hole in the direction of the field and going downwards. At that moment there is a sound like very distant thunder, and the line is pulled quickly four yards further into the hole, and the marks show six yards are in. I go about this distance out into the field, lie down and place my ear close to the ground. I shift about in all directions listening intently, and at last hear a faint thudding sound. I shift again a few inches in this direction, and lose it; in that, and recover it; again a few inches, and the sound is directly under my head, but pretty deep down. I take the big spade and open out a hole a yard square, and dig down as far as I can reach. I get into the hole and sink deeper. I have to enlarge it a foot all round to get room, and then I dig down again till only my head appears above ground when I stand up. Then I take the long spade, and with that sink two more feet, and plump I come on the top of the hole, and the ferret shoves a sand-covered head up and looks at me. I reverse the long spade and catch the line with the hook and pull the ferret up, and then calling Jack, I send him head first into the well-like pit, holding on to one of his feet myself as I lie flat on the ground to allow him to go deep enough. In a minute a dead rabbit is taken out and two live ones, whose necks Jack breaks as he hangs suspended, and then I pull him up with his plunder, and he rights himself on the surface, very red in the face, very sandy, spluttering and rubbing his eyes. Then the ferret is swung down again by the line, it goes a little way into the hole and returns, and so we know we have made a clean sweep. The big hole is filled up and stamped down, and after filling a pipe and resting a few minutes, on we go with our work.
On the high sandy part of the field we have several deep digs like the above, with varying success, and we rejoice when we reach the last side of the field and get into clay again, where holes are short and most of the rabbits bolt at once. During all the day we only stopped once for half-an-hour to get a snack of bread and cheese, and by the time the cock partridges began to call their families together for roost, and the teams in the next field to knock off ploughing, we are all, man, boy, dogs and ferrets, fairly tired, and are glad to tumble seventeen couple of rabbits into the keeper's cart that has been sent out for them, and trudge off home ourselves.
Now for another day's sport that was quite different. No dogs with us, only a bag of ready-muzzled ferrets, a bundle of purse nets and a spade. Success will depend on perfect quiet, and even the patter of the dogs' feet would spoil our sport, so they are at home for once, and Jack and I are alone.
It is one of those soft mild dull days that now and then appear in mid-winter, a sort of day to gladden the heart of foxhunters and doctors, and to make wiseacres shake their heads and say "most unseasonable." It is a good day for Jack and me, and we feel confident as we steal into a plantation of tall spruce firs, placed so thick on the ground that beneath them is perpetual twilight, and not a blade of grass or bramble to hide the thick carpet of needle points. Softly we creep forward to a lot of burrows we know of in the corner of the wood, and then I go forward alone and spread a net loosely over every hole, firmly pegging it down by the cord. This done I stand quietly down-wind of the holes, and Jack comes and slips the six ferrets all into different holes, and then crouches down on his knees. All is quiet; only the whisperings of the tree-tops, the occasional chirp of a bird, or the rustle of a mouse in the dead leaves. Five minutes pass, and then out dashes a rabbit into a net, which draws up round it. Jack moves forward on tip-toe, kills the rabbit and takes it out of the net, and covers the hole again. While he is doing this, three more rabbits have bolted and got netted, one has escaped, and a ferret has come out. The captured ones are killed, the ferret sent into another hole, and for an hour this work goes on, and during all the time neither of us have spoken, for we know there is nothing that scares wild animals more than the human voice, unless it is the jingle of metals, such as a bunch of keys rattling. They dread the human voice because they have had too much experience of it, and the rattle of metal because they have not had experience enough of it, for it is a sound they have never heard, and nothing like, in the quiet woods and fields. On the other hand, animals pay but little attention to a whistle, for in one shape or another they are constantly hearing it from their feathered companions.
But to go back to our netting. An hour over, we pick up the ferrets as they come out and bag them, and then I go off to some fresh holes and spread the nets again, and we repeat the same performance; and during the day we kill, without any digging or hard work, about twenty-two couple of rabbits. In the above account I have written of a day's sport that took place in a fir plantation in a little village in Norfolk, where it would have been madness to work the ferrets without muzzling them, for they would have been sure to kill some rabbits in the holes and then have laid up; but I should mention that I have killed many rabbits in the same way on the Cotswold Hills in Gloucestershire, and I was much astonished when I first got there to find men who thoroughly understood their business working their ferrets under nets without muzzling them. I adopted the plan myself, and have rarely had a ferret kill a rabbit underground. For some reason that I could never find out, a Cotswold rabbit will always bolt from a hole with a ferret in if it can. It is well known in Norfolk that if a rabbit is run into a hole by dogs, you may ferret it if you like, but it will never bolt, and it must be dug out. But in Gloucestershire I have seen the same rabbit bolt out of a hole, get shot at, be run by dogs, go to ground, and again bolt at once from a ferret. Few professionals ever use a line on a ferret on the Cotswold, one reason being that the burrows are nearly all in rocky ground, and there would be danger of the line being caught in the numerous cracks; besides it is not required, for a rabbit there is sure to bolt, and for this reason it is twice as easy to kill rabbits in Gloucestershire as it is in Norfolk, especially in the sandy or soft soil of the latter county.
Let me here beg of all my readers, especially students, never to keep a poor rabbit alive in their hands a second. I don't suppose any who read this book could be so unsportsmanlike and brutal as to keep a rabbit alive to course and torture over again with dogs, or for the fun of shooting at the poor little beast. Such ruffians should never be allowed a day's sport on a gentleman's property. They are only fit to go out mole-catching. No, directly you have a live rabbit in your hand, take it by its hind legs with your right hand, and the head with your left, with two fingers under its face; with these fingers turn the head back, and give the rabbit a smart quick stretch, and in an instant all its sufferings are over. Never hit it with your hand or a stick behind the ears: first, because you are not quite sure to kill it with the first blow; and secondly, if you do, half the blood in the rabbit will settle in a great bruise at the spot where it was struck, and make that portion unfit for table.
That is sufficient for this morning, and you may now turn to a little lighter work with some algebra.