Sep 242008

Frida the baby ferret It was 4:30pm on a Friday afternoon. I was sitting in the office about to start writing this column when one of the twins burst in.

“Dad, can we take the ferrets for a walk?” she asked. I looked out of the window. For once the sun was shining. You’d be amazed at how quickly I can move when a viable opportunity to avoid work presents itself. I was out of the door in a flash, the laptop and the column forgotten.

We’ve had the ferrets for just over two years now… and they really are wonderful pets. They’re so much more fun than alternative small animal options: rabbits, guinea pigs and hamsters.

Ferrets are naturally playful, inquisitive and affectionate. They ‘re predators… and like all predators (cats, dogs, lions, etc.) they get their energy in small, high-value doses. That means that, when they’re not sleeping (and they can sleep for up to 16 out of every 24 hours… which, I must admit, makes me a bit envious), they spend most of their time playing and exploring to hone their hunting skills. Compare that to a guinea pig, for example, which needs to spend every waking hour chewing frantically just to stay alive, and you’ll start to see what I mean.

A slightly more mature Frida exploring my desk And then there’s instinctive behaviour: when a herbivore hears a sudden noise it’s primary instinct is to flee, but a carnivore’s natural instinct is to investigate a potential meal. Both are thinking of lunch… it’s just that one is looking for its lunch while the other wants to avoid becoming lunch. So, guinea pigs, rabbits, et-al spend all their time running away, while ferrets tend to run towards strange sounds and actually engage in active play. When was the last time your guinea pig played chase with a feather on a string?

As for the supposedly vicious nature of these marvelous mustelids, I have to say it’s mostly a myth. Yes, they have the arsenal to inflict a nasty bite… but then so does your average dog, cat and even the aforementioned rabbits, guinea pigs and hamsters if mistreated. Vicious ferrets are, by and large, mistreated ferrets, and as a general rule they won’t bite unless seriously provoked.

I went out to their large hutch/enclosure to fit their leads and harnesses (matching little red and black numbers) and after a bit of squirming, wriggling (the ferrets) and cursing (me) we were ready to go. Walking with ferrets is a slow process – especially when you’re heading down a country lane. They keep diving into the hedgerow investigating smells – mice, rabbits, rats, foxes, badgers and whatever else has crossed the path the night before. Their leads get tangled in the undergrowth and progress is… well, let’s call it gradual.

At this time of year that’s ideal, because ambling slowly along a hedgerow thick with brambles gives you ample opportunity to pick out the best of the blackberries. The crop this year is, admittedly, not spectacular – spoiled by rain and lack of sunshine – but there are enough around to make picking them worthwhile as you wait for a stray ferret to emerge from a hole in a drystone wall.

That night, as the bread machine beeped to tell me the jam was ready to pour into jars, I found myself smiling involuntarily. This is what country living is all about (strange looks from local farmers while walking the ferrets notwithstanding). There are a few things I miss about living in the city – largely involving more convenient access to products and services – but by and large the country wins hands down. At this stage I wouldn’t move back to the city for diamonds….