An Apprenticeship in Field Sports Parts 1 to 5
by Dick Nutt
For many people 1944 was the year of 'D' day and what Churchill called 'the beginning of the end', but for me it will always be remembered as the year I first made contact with Mustela Putorious Furo. No not some dread disease, but that wonderful, addictive little creature the Ferret!
I was then aged eight and living in a tiny remote village in the Yorkshire Dales, which apart from the intrusions of the telephone, the infernal internal combustion engine and some fifty Italian prisoners of wars, had seen little change since Victorian times and where the war seemed very far away indeed. Its progress, however, was followed on accumulator powered radios, the village having no mains electricity at that time. These wet cells were exchanged every two weeks for freshly charged ones brought around on a barrow by the owner of the village shop, who possessed a petrol driven charging plant, making a nice little sideline for him and enabling people to keep up with current events as well as listen to Glen Miller or Henry Hall.
On another evening each week the same barrow was used for a different sideline, the selling of (fairly!) freshly killed rabbits, all paunched and legged, hanging on a wooden frame in the barrow, priced at one shilling and six pence each or a bit less if small! Meat rationing hadn't made much difference to this community, because even though beef was only seen in minuscule amounts, there was always the illegally kept and even more illegally slaughtered pig to be shared around. Most fireplaces had a ham hanging out of sight in the chimney with the peat smoke doing a fine job. There were no 'Ministry Snoopers' hardy enough to brave the high fells in March to count the lambs! Even so, the trade in rabbits was fairly brisk as most housewives would put it on the table at least once a week either as a pie, a casserole or roast.
Just about every lady could skin, dress and joint a rabbit, just as she could kill, pluck and dress a chicken or goose, a far cry from today where if something isn't wrapped in cling-film and ready to cook, most are baffled! Last year I actually had a young lady ask me whether one plucked or shaved a rabbit prior to cooking!
Wilf the "Rabbit Man" and his wife were a kindly, childless couple who, probably because they knew I lived with some rather uncaring distant relatives, took a liking to me. They became, for the next two years, more like parents and Wilf decided that it was up to him to undertake my education in country matters. His wife did most of the running of the shop and post office, leaving him time to see to his "sidelines" and his self imposed task or my education, which he undertook whenever I was free from the iron hand of Miss Violet at the village school. This formidable lady had retired in 1938 and had been asked back in 1942 due to the war. Despite her advanced years she could wield a wooden yard ruler with incredible (and unforgettable) force and accuracy!
"Nowt wrong wi' what yon owd lass beats into thee, lad", Wilf would say, "But she can't show thee 'ow t' set a wire, work ferrets or shoot - on t'other hand I can, will and more besides!" And on that score, as we shall see, he kept his word. . . . . . . . . . .
The rabbits Wilf sold each week were taken either with a .22 rifle, his ferrets or by the conventional running snare or "wire", the method used depending on the area he was working at the time, the types of ground, and, of course, the time of year.
Although leg hold gin traps were in common use in those days, he had a passionate hatred of the things and would never resort to their use. If he found any set in the places we worked, they were unpegged and either flung into the river or, if we were in the area of the old lead mines, dropped down an abandoned shaft, all done to the accompaniment of some language I didn't at that time fully understand! I would at this point ask people who come across the modern equivalent, the legal Fenn trap, to leave well alone. These are not leg hold traps and are designed to kill instantly and humanely. They should not, however, be set in the open for what should be very obvious reasons.
There is no doubt that Wilf was, by the standards of that time, an enlightened ferret keeper, with well housed and properly flesh fed stock who were all handled twice daily, by him in the mornings and by me when I came from school at four o'clock.
My job, needless to say, was to clean the cages, see to their feed and make sure the drinking water was topped up, all to be done in about twenty minutes as I then had to get back to the farm to help with the evening milking. Some twenty Shorthorns, all to be hand milked in a ten stall shippen, buckets to be carried and washed, cooler and separator to keep an eye on, churns to be dragged and mucking out to be done. I suppose these days I would be called an exploited child, taken away by a social worker, and placed in a "caring" environment! Thank God they knew better then, as I was happy to do it and learnt values that have always kept in good stead.
As spring was coming on, with large numbers of baby rabbits below ground, it was not practical to use the ferrets so much and Wilf concentrated his efforts on teaching me to shoot. During the Great War he had been a sniper with the Green Howards and, in consequence, although he owned some shotguns, his first love was the rifle. Apart from this, cleanly headshot rabbits sold more readily than those with a large dose of No.6 shot inside them! He had two rifles, a .303 Lee Enfield that had been lined to .22 and fitted with a telescopic sight, far too big and heavy for a child to use, and a small pump-action .22, I think a Browning, with the barrel screwed for a silencer. This rifle had leaf rear sights for 50 and 100 yards and was a possible 5lbs! Plenty of practice ammunition was no problem, after all he wasn't a sergeant with the local Home Guard platoon for nothing . . . . !
In my subsequent twenty-three years in the Army I would often remember his teachings on safe weapon handling, and even now, 52 years on, can still almost feel the clip around the ear or the kick up the backside that would result from the breaking of even his most minor safety rules. Some of the lethal clowns one can find on many rough or driven shoots today could well benefit from one of Wilf's accurately applied clogs!
"Nah then, lad," Wilf's voice broke in on my thoughts, "Hast tha done cleaning out yon ferrets then?"
I had done, quite some time before, and had since been playing happily with five or six albino jills on the barn floor and among some hay. "Get them put back then," he said, "I've got their snap here," and he passed me a rabbit caught the previous day. What he knew would happen certainly did and the jills all made a mad dash for the rabbit, leaving me to lift it into the open lid of the cub with about three of them hanging onto it like grim death. Wilf picked up those that had not been so quick and popped them in on top of the others to join in the feast. Having checked I'd cleaned and filled the heavy stone water bowl and made sure that all was ship-shape he pronounced himself satisfied. "Reet, lad, let's get on wi' deliveries and happen it'll still be light enough when we're done for a bit of rifle practice." Motivation? That man invented it!
In passing, I still meet people who are convinced that feeding rabbit will ruin a ferret for working. All I can say is that it certainly didn't ruin Wilf's ferrets, and I can't recall such a problem with any I've kept in the subsequent fifty years. Does a wild polecat stop hunting rabbits because it has eaten rabbit?!
I don't remember Wilf ever keeping any ferrets other than albino jills, nor did he keep a hob of his own, preferring to take a jill he wanted to breed from to a friend's hob in a neighbouring village. The chosen lady would be conveyed to the assignation in a box on the carrier of Wilf's bicycle, and collected a few days later hopefully with a big smile on her face! Jill jabs and vasectomised hobs were still forty years in the future and albinos preferred by most ferreters. By now I was becoming quite proficient with the little pump-action .22 rifle, due in part to Wilf allowing me to take it home (without ammunition) so I could have more time to practice the arm strengthening, holding and handling exercises his sniper training thirty years before had made him so keen on. These exercises, known as "pokey drill", I was to meet again some ten years later also with a service rifle! I was told very firmly that if I couldn't stalk a rabbit to within about 30 yards downwind then I could not be sure of a head shot and a clean kill.
This, he said, would result in two things. Firstly, the rabbit if only wounded would still be able to kick itself down a hole to die later, and secondly, "I'd 'ave t'kick thy arse t'Harrogate and back agen!
Knowing Harrogate was a good way away made me try very hard indeed, but it was not until I could hit a Swan Vestas box near centre every time at about 30 yards was I to be let loose at live quarry.
He was a man who believed strongly in the value of practical lessons and this was brought home to me in a very painful way one evening. I had often pleaded to be allowed to fire a 12 bore shotgun, a plea he always turned down on the grounds that I was neither big enough or strong enough to do so, and, in any event, guns were tools to be used sensibly and properly, not "summat t'be buggered abaht wi' for t'sake of it."
In the usual way of small boys I was not put off by this and, one evening when we had cleaned and put away the rifles, I started again on the same tack. Wilf got up, took a 12 bore out of the cupboard, rummaged in a drawer for a while and put a cartridge in his pocket.
"Reet then," he snapped, "outside in t'field!"
What I did not know was that he had selected his largest 12 bore, an old 32" barrel, heavy wildfowling hammer gun and the heaviest load cartridge he could find........
On the way out he picked up an old cardboard box and placed it well out in the middle of the walled croft, before walking back to where I stood full of eager anticipation and waiting for the great moment. He put the right hand hammer to half cock, broke and loaded the gun, closed it and said to me, "When ah tell thee, put t'hammer t' full cock, hold her tight in and look at t'box wi' both eyes open. When ah say, squeeze t'front trigger."
As I cocked the gun, doing my best to hold the weight, the barrels seemed more like about two yards long and I struggled to align them on the box, at the same time being careful to obey one of Wilf's Golden Rules, "Finger off the trigger until the moment you are ready."
"Reet," said Wilf and I touched the front trigger..........
A split second after the enormous bang that ensued I found myself on my back in the grass with a right shoulder I thought had been kicked by a horse, a rapidly swelling, bleeding lower lip where the left hand hammer spur had caught it, and some sore right fingers where the trigger guard had made violent contact in recoiling.
Dazedly I watched him pick up the gun and with ears that were still singing heard him say, "That's thy lesson f'tonight lad, happen ah'll sithee tomorrow." When I got back to the farm, fully expecting trouble for being late, there was another lesson waiting. My aunt and uncle, together with the Italian P.O.W. who now lived and worked on the farm, were listening to the radio and I was motioned to be quiet. After a minute or so my aunt told me that Monte Cassino, or what was left of it, had been taken by the Allies and we would soon be in Rome. This didn't mean much to me as I was staring at Bruno in utter amazement - I'd never seen a grown man crying before.
The first week of June 1944 brought not only the Normandy landings, but to us, up in the Dales, the immediate task of shearing, done at this time in order to get it over before haymaking. The sheep had been brought down from the high fells to lower pastures for the March lambing, and were kept at these lower levels until after shearing. This as in many of the smaller villages with only a few farms, was very much a communal affair with everyone pitching in, and the same approach was evident during haymaking.
Indeed, if the weather looked set to change for the worse prior to the hay being got in, attendance at the village school was very sparse indeed for a day or two! I can only presume the redoubtable Miss Violet had put up with this practice for years, understood the need and marked us as present. We were certainly expected to work harder afterwards to make up the loss.
A task my uncle took great delight getting me involved in was the thankless job of "clatting". In Wiltshire and Dorset the same task is know as "dagging" and consists simply of looking out for any sheep whose rear end fleece is thickly crusted and entangled with dried dung, and then simply cutting the same away so that flies are not so attracted to the animal's backside as an egg laying site. Did I say simply? With a seemingly large and usually truculent Swaledale cross ewe, and even with a man holding the front end, it was no easy task for me. Perhaps the old boy thought it was a character building exercise.
Although "fly strike" is not so much a problem on sheep kept at over 800 feet above sea level, no chances of maggots literally eating sheep alive were taken and all were dipped, which got rid of other unpleasant parasites as well. Not, however, in the dreadful organo phosphorus dip that has been found to cause such terrible long term health problems in farm workers today. That was an "improvement", courtesy of big business, still to come that, very thankfully, we didn't have then.
Uncle Dan's dip was still a pretty fearsome brew though, probably dating back to when dipping first started, and containing white arsenic, sulphur, washing soda, and soft soap all dissolved in a couple of hundred gallons of water. I'd love to see someone go shopping for 2 1/2lbs of white arsenic at their friendly local country store today!
In what little free time there was at this hectic period Wilf continued with my education in matters Miss Violet could not teach. The syllabus was now upgraded to include the manufacture and correct placing and setting of rabbit wires, as well as various methods of taking trout from the numerous becks and sometimes both trout and grayling from the Wharfe.
Beck trout didn't grow very big, averaging probably between 4 - 6 ozs with the occasionally half pounder encountered in pools below falls, but they were true native brown trout, fought like it and were wonderful to eat.
A few hours of rain up on the moors would transform the becks, from relatively quiet and clear streams, into raging torrents of peaty brown water, and this was the time to bring out the highly specialised and very technical tackle! This consisted of a piece of flat wood with about twenty yards of strong linen saddlemaker's thread wound onto it, on to the end of which line was tied, with a blood knot, a long tail hair from a suitable horse, preferably a grey. At the end of this "cast" was a No 12 or 14 tie-on hook and about half way up the length a piece of pinched on sheet lead to help in sink in strong currents. A tin of red or brandling worms from the oldest part of the farm midden completed the outfit!
The violent flow during a spate would wash worms out of the banks and so worm as the ideal natural bait under these conditions.
The trick was to work it out from the main flow into the quieter eddies, where the little "brownies" would be laying up and waiting for edible goodies to be washed down to them, and a good catch could soon be taken.
Yes, I do realise the method would not be approved by up-stream dry fly fishing purists on the Rivers Test or Wylye, but then I'm open to bet they have never tried it!
The heads, guts and trimmings from trout were fed to the ferrets, and I can assure you that freshwater fish is an excellent occasional change of diet for them, but do make sure they are hungry enough to eat it the same day as it is given. I have some wonderful shots on video of a wild polecat tackling a fairly large eel, caught as it moved across damp grass at night, crossing between waters. There is a real wrestling match before the victorious, but eel slimed poley, drags her victim back to the kits.
Apart from the numerous becks, the river, a mill race and a couple of mill dams, there were several tarns, or small lakes, dotted around the moors. Although I don't remember ever having fished these, early in spring they were a source of black-headed gulls eggs, as large numbers of these birds would nest close to the reeded edges so there must have been an adequate food supply within their range. Contrary to belief, gulls' eggs do not taste at all fishy and were enjoyed by both us and the ferrets, who would then have some fun and a real treat.
I still like to give my ferrets the same treat today, but now in the shape of whole bantams' eggs and always given to them outside their accommodation. The reason for this becomes obvious when you watch them rolling the eggs about and generally having a good game, prior to the shells being broken and the contents being enjoyed very messily and generally spread around.
Another very common and prolific bird in the area was the plover, or lapwing or pee-wit if you prefer, and hearing one calling still reminds me very much of the Dales. Their eggs are excellent eating as well, but they were not just taken in an indiscriminate fashion.
From early March we looked out for nests made on ground that was not destined to be cut for hay in June, and any clutches found were taken complete. The reason for this was the hen bird would lay again almost immediately and, with the weather hopefully getting warmer and the ground cover higher, she would stand more chance of raising a good brood. The early clutches laid in the hayfields, however, if they made it through any bad weather, would be hatched, fledged and able to move before the horse-drawn mower came around. A case of both ourselves and the plovers benefiting that will probably not be understood by some of today's R.S.P.B. members who I can hear reacting with horror. However, dear reader, I don't consider I require any lectures from some town-bred armchair "conservationist", as most of that breed couldn't tell a peregrine from a pigeon or s**t from silage!
With the hay about ready to be cut and made, what remained of the old ricks would be cleared away, and the story of what happened then will have to wait until we meet again.
I've heard it said that whether you're in the town or the country there is always a rat somewhere within twenty yards of you, and, when you think about it, that isn't so far fetched as it may at first seem.
The lady, alighting from her taxi outside Harrods, has probably got several rats much closer to her than twenty yards, in fact within about ten feet when you think how close her shoes are to the drains and sewers under the pavement! They are there nevertheless, and, so it is said, more numerous, larger, bolder and with a growing resistance to certain poisons than ever before.
I don't seem to see as many in the countryside today as I used to fifty years ago, but maybe that is to do with the very different farming practices that have evolved as well as the lack of rickyards, middens, cesspools, swill fed pigs and outside bucket privies! I know that if I had to visit our outside two-seater after dark, a lighted hurricane lamp and a stout stick always went with me. There were numerous brown rats about the small farm and despite the efforts of several cats, as well as my uncle with traps and poison, little reduction was ever made in their numbers.
This was in the days before Warfarin and similar modern rat baits and brings me to something which has always puzzled me.
If I were to advocate today a slow acting poison or spring traps as a means of controlling rabbits, then the reaction of the animal "rights" brigade would be most predictable with hatred and vilification heaped upon me.
Yet one never hears or reads a single word from these people when the same, and even worse, methods are used to kill rats. Now here is a creature with a very highly developed social order and a greater degree of intelligence than many others, which is why they are used in psychological and stress related experiments. It is usually accepted that the greater the intelligence then the greater the ability to feel distress and pain, yet the same person who becomes outraged and upset when I instantly and humanely kill a rabbit, never seems at all concerned at what is done to rats.
Maybe they are simple more moved by something they feel is "sweet" or "cuddly", such as Flopsy Bunny, than by a rat taking several days to bleed to death internally having ingested Warfarin. Funny old world, ain't it? Truly, it is one full of hypocrites.
The standard rat poison used then was called Squill and was certainly a very old concoction as well as a particularly nasty one.
It contained a large proportion of red phosphorus, so the effect of it in the stomach of a living creature can better be imagined than described, and for this reason it was always placed well down rat holes with a long spoon so to be out of the way of other animals.
Wilf would never use his ferrets against rats, as he had far too much respect for his jills to expose them to the sort of injuries that could be inflicted on them, and to this day, like so much of what he taught me, I follow that example. People I talk to at shows often seem surprised when I tell them I never work my ferrets to rats, just as some of you may be, but just consider the following. A ferret, catching a rat in the open, or even in a rabbit hole, will be able to deliver its fatal neck bite without much difficulty as it has room to manoeuvre, and, like a rabbit confronted by a stoat, the presence of a ferret will often cause a rat to "freeze".
However, it takes a small jill to enter a rat hole and it can be quite a tight fit for her. If she should confront, head on, say a doe rat with young to defend, she is straight away at a terrible disadvantage and can get badly bitten about the face and head. If you are lucky enough to get her back at all your problems are still not over, because surely as night follows day, rat bites will cause infection. There is also some considerable degree of risk to yourself, in that grovelling about near rat holes while entering ferrets you will put a hand, maybe with small scratches or cuts upon it, onto ground soaked in rat urine. The urine of about 60% of rats carries leptospirosis, better known as Weil's Disease, one result of which is usually gradual kidney failure and death. YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED!
If you must hunt rats, then a good terrier or two, a stout stick, small bore shotgun or an air rifle are the best tools for the job, and always ensure dead rats are picked up with a gloved hand.
Since my painful encounter with the old 12 bore hammer gun, I'd never mentioned shotguns at all to Wilf, which was probably what he'd intended when he let me fire it! One day, going the rounds of the village delivering freshly charged radio accumulators from the handcart, I told him that we had a fair rat problem on the farm and that my aunt had a particularly close encounter with a large specimen in the dairy. This, I recalled with ill-concealed relish, had resulted in the loudest shriek I had ever heard, a crash as a two gallon bucket of milk hit the floor and the clatter of clogs on the flagstones as she fled the scene. Odd behaviour, I'd thought, from a woman who could single-handed kill a goose, let alone a chicken, but then, in my experience, rats did have that effect on some people.
Wilf chuckled and cut himself a piece of the rank black twist tobacco that he chewed. "Sounds like tha' needs to get fixed oop for a bit of ratting then lad", he said, "best see what we can do".
A couple of days later, I'd gone round to the shop after school in order to do my usual ferret related chores, a great excuse to enjoy handling all his stock, to be told by his wife that he had gone out for a while but shouldn't be too long. I'd finished the ferrets and was tidying the shop's paraffin store, when Wilf pushed his bicycle into the yard and leant it against the wall. I noticed there was something wrapped in sacking tied to the cross-bar, but as he didn't explain, and I knew better than to ask, I waited while he checked what I'd been doing and then followed him into the kitchen for a mug of tea.
After a while, and having finished his tea, he went out into the yard and came back in with the sacking parcel, plus a tin box that must have been in his saddle bag.
"Tha's gettin' on well enough wi' that little .22 and I know you're a bit o' gun sense", he said as he untied the parcel, "But tha' can't use it in the yard or in the barn for fear of ricochets. So, ah've spoke t'thy uncle and he says it's areet for me to give thee this for so long as tha's here."
Inside the parcel was a little single barrelled, folding, hammer shotgun of a kind known as a No 3 or 9mm garden gun, which used a rimfire cartridge loaded with either bullet or shot, and was effective against garden pest birds or rats up to about ten yards.
It had a side lever break action and was Belgian made and proofed. In Boy's Own Papers from before the war there are adverts for identical guns priced at 15 shillings (75p), or to put it into perspective, half the average weekly wage for a skilled man. Today, an Italian made bolt action version in the same bore will set one back over £100, which is, I suppose, about the same in terms of wages. In the box were about a hundred of the little rimfire cartridges, each with a copper base and a body of green and white chequered paper, containing No 8 shot. I've no idea of how much he had paid for it second hand, and he never told me, but I guess now, that with the ammunition, ten shillings would have been about right.
I do know I just stood staring at it in delight and amazement until he told me to pick it up and see how it felt. Fortunately I had enough sense despite my excitement to point it down, open the action and show him it was not loaded. Had I not done so, then without any doubt, the wrath of God would have descended upon one of my ears and the joy of the occasion been ruined. I suppose it was one of his little "tests" that he would apply every so often, most particularly where firearms safety was concerned! He explained that the ammunition was unlikely to be manufactured while the war lasted, so that every round had to account for a rat and therefore there was none "t'be mucked abaht wi'!" Brushing aside my thanks he told me he'd keep it for a day or two until he had made up a cleaning rod and kit for it and then I could keep it at home, unless he ever saw it dirty and neglected in which event it would straight away be confiscated.
In the months after I literally haunted the barns and outbuildings with that little gun! I'd wait for rats to come out of their holes and take them sitting, and after a while learnt how to "lead" a rat with the muzzle so as to take them running. I don't know if I reduced the overall numbers by very much, but I certainly learnt a lot about shotgun shooting whilst still too young and small to stand the recoil of even a 20 bore. Also, I wasn't quite as rationed for ammunition as I had thought I would be, as my uncle found a couple of boxes left from pre-war years in a gunsmith's in Skipton, which he must have considered fair payment for my extra job of rat exterminator!
I don't recall anyone in the village owning a baler at that time, although baled hay could be bought from contractors and barn stored against the possibility of your own crop being insufficient. This was always something of a risk as land was only spread (by hand!) with dung and not nitrated, so you were very lucky to get two tons of hay off an acre and you needed to start the winter with a ton of hay per head of large stock (horses and cows) plus a bit for sheep. Once cut and laid in windrows for a couple of days, the hay was piled into haycocks in the fields, then carted to the rickyard to be built into stacks once it was fully dry and with the green gone out of it.
By this time last year's hay had nearly all been knifed out of the stacks and used, with only a couple of feet of the bottom of a stack left. This, of course, was home to numerous rats who had got a year's free housing out of it and which now had to be pulled down to enable new stacks to be built.
Each farm where this was to be done was visited in turn by a large gang of men and boys from all around, accompanied by a small army of assorted dogs, particularly terriers and whippets.
The men and dogs surrounded the rickyard and it was noticeable that the men wither wore bicycle clips or had their trousers "yorked" below the knee with twine, an obvious precaution in a situation where running rats were going to be much in evidence!
In those days it was almost unheard of for a boy under fourteen to wear long trousers, so we all just stood a bit further back from the circle, forming a sort of "outfield".
As soon as men with forks started to move the old hay, what can only be described as utter and total chaos ensued.
Rats and dogs running, men and boys jumping about and slashing with their sticks, shouting, cursing, barking and yelping, more rats running as more hay was moved, a terrier with a rat fast on his nose, until it all must have looked like Hamelin before the arrival of the Pied Piper!
Amid all the movement, action and excitement it was not unknown for somebody to be bitten by an over exuberant dog, and on one glorious occasion my uncle, who was wielding an enormous blackthorn stick, made a wild slash at a rat, missed, and caught a man who had moved too close to him at just the wrong instant, a tremendous whack across the shins! This not only helped my youthful knowledge of good old Anglo Saxon cursing, but cost my uncle several pints in the "Clarendon" that night to soothe the feelings of the injured party.
While the "Great Hebden Rat Hunt" was in progress, and after her encounter with King Rat in the dairy, my aunt had shut that particular building up tight, stuffed sacking under the door bottom and retreated to the safety of the house, taking the two border collies with her. As for me, due to most of the rats that had managed to escape making for the shelter of the other outbuildings, I had wonderful shooting for several days afterwards.
It was no good however attempting to tell Wilf about some of the bigger ones that I had killed.
"Rats?" he said, "Rats? Tha's nivver seen a big 'un, lad. Now them as we had int' trenches they were and th' size of cats int' bargain. I remember one neet I were Section Sentry and stood alone, I 'eard this scufflin' sort o' sound from nearby . . . . . . . . . . . .