Country Notes

Ferreting baht’at

There are few rabbits to be found on Ilkley Moor

This article is taken from the February 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

The Gloucestershire farmer, standing by the fire in his brown tweed breeks, told me it’d hardly been worth it — up at dawn to drive right across the county, only to return home with almost as many cartridges as he’d set out with. “Four shots for nothing,” he answered with a shrug, when his daughter dared to ask during dinner, “Bag was just 19.” 

When I pressed him, he explained vaguely that the shoot was part of some sort of rewilding project — “no pheasants put down and it’s cocks only.” I wanted to know everything but he had the look of a man whose wife has just left him for that cute DHL delivery driver and it felt insensitive to push it further. 

Our plan was to walk the pockmarks, dropping ferrets into likely looking holes

A week later, on the road over Ilkley Moor, the traction light on my dashboard flashed red. The previous day, the snow lay soft and powdery but the temperature had dropped in the night and up ahead of me, all the way to the top, ice glistened beneath a silent sky. 

When I met Simon Whitehead, down in Pateley Bridge, he wouldn’t tell me where we were headed. Rabbit numbers are so depleted in some parts of the country that if word gets out about where they’re still plentiful, boys with lurchers come from miles around. 

For 20 minutes, we wound our way into the hills, Simon ploughing ahead in his truck. When we pulled off the road, he explained that he thinks there’s almost something spiritual about using a dog when you’re ferreting. “It’s that quiet,” he said, as we tramped through the snow, “and then that total focus when the rabbits bolt,” but his lurcher was out of action so we’d brought guns. 

The commands of a shepherd working his collie, three fields over, drifted back to us on the thin air — in the winter, across the hills, the curlew and lapwings go and the land lies still. 

During the War, the Yorkshire moors were used as a firing range and over the years rabbits have taken refuge in the scars left behind. Our plan was to walk the pockmarks, dropping ferrets into likely looking holes. 

Too much noise above ground makes rabbits reluctant to bolt and after the youngest ferret, Bob, was deployed we stood and whispered. Simon was 15 when he got his first ferret and it became his way of understanding the world. “I was just always trying to work out where the rabbits were and I started to be able to read the land. You end up standing there for so long that you aren’t disturbing the wildlife. There’s this oneness.” 

Beneath our boots, a thud sounded: Bob had bumped a sleeping rabbit. Knowing there aren’t going to be many chances really focuses the mind and when the bundle of brown fur bolted, I bowled it over at 15 yards. As Simon boxed up the ferret, he told me that beyond rabbiting being a source of meat, he loves knowing he’s preserving a working man’s tradition. “They ferreted because they were hungry but I also think it was about freedom. 

I stood over a stove at a party in London watching balls of rabbit arancini turning golden brown in bubbling oil

“You imagine coming up from the pit and then you’re out here. You can’t put a price on that.” In a sense, Simon feels one of the sadnesses of modern life is that because most of us have so much, we’ll never get to experience the joy of catching rabbits in the way people did when they had so little. 

By lunchtime, we’d added four more to the bag. It wasn’t the haul Simon had hoped for but he reckoned we’d have better luck on the farm boundary. For half an hour we pushed on. “Trouble is,” Simon explained when we paused a moment, “that weather’s coming in and they won’t bolt in this thick snow so the ferrets’ll end up killing them below ground and I’ll spend all afternoon digging.” On a tumbledown dyke, we sat and drank from our flasks. As he sipped, Simon watched the slate grey snow clouds gather. At first we traced our footprints back the way we came but after a couple of hundred yards, large flakes started to fall, quickly covering our tracks. We traipsed on, heading for the hill just in front of where we’d parked, which turned out when we got there not to be that hill at all.

The following Friday, I stood over a stove at a party in London watching balls of rabbit arancini turning golden brown in bubbling oil. “So they’re Yorkshire bunnies?” a girl with a blonde mullet asked. “Very well travelled,” I replied. She smiled and told me she reckoned it was worth it. “Definitely,” I said, as I scooped them out of the pan. “Five rabbits felt like plenty.”

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