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Fur hunting the UK with retrievers, ferrets
While competing in the UK, Mike Stewart and Team USA had the chance to pursue rabbits afield with ferrets and their retrievers...

Articles published about deer hunting, turkey hunting and more... Nice shot as this hunter takes down a white tail deer.

By Mike Stewart
Posted Wednesday, August 25, 2004

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While competing in the UK, Mike Stewart and Team USA had the chance to pursue rabbits afield with ferrets and their retrievers


The anxious shooters readied at the rear of the vehicles as our English host popped the trunk of his vehicle exposing the devious-looking principle players on this evening's hunt, "The Fur."

I'm not referring to our retrievers. These fur were two white ferrets residing in a small, square cage. Each had a small collar placed around their necks as they were stuffed into a smaller case that hung by a strap over the ferreter's shoulder. The collars actually had small transmitters attached. Other tools of the trade were pulled from the trunk, a hollow pipe, a shovel, two shotguns and a .17 caliber CV rifle sporting a bi-pod. The two ferreters ready for the hunt wore attire reminiscent of the film, Oliver Twist, totally in character they were!


The retrievers were collected and rules of the shoot explained. This had to be one of the first times ever that two Americans took American-trained duck/upland labs on a rabbit hunt, at least in North Ireland.

Training retrievers for fur

To pick fur, either rabbits or squirrels, with your retriever really only takes a bit of additional training. I can think of numerous times rabbit hunting over beagles that a nice retriever that could track wounded game and handle over water would have been welcomed.


For several days leading up to the hunt, we were warned by the experienced not to take our members of the US Gundog team rabbit hunting, just before our important competitions. This type of hunting will unnerve the steadiness of dogs.


After considering the credible advice, Bill Gibson with Jet and I with Drake, the official mascot of Ducks Unlimited, opted for the obvious. We went hunting. We rationalized, when would we ever get such an opportunity again to hunt our own dogs in the UK on game. First and foremost we are hunters so the decision was made and we hoped any negative effects on our dogs would not be too excessive.


The drive


Each shotgunner was placed on the outer flanks of our seven-person line with the rifleman dead center. Dogs were in line next to the shotgunners. We entered the field of lush, tall rye grass, yet 10 yards of the border around the entire field looked as if it had been mowed to lawn height, the grazing work of our prey, no doubt.


As the line moved forward, dogs at heel, several rabbits stood on their rears in the tall grass for a look. Now, our rifle shooter's task was to take the initial shots at 60 yards. Two rabbits are taken before others fled to the ground. Retrieves were then called upon to pick the game.


The initial retrieves


Jet got the first retrieve straight out to the left of the line. Marking is out of the question. Dogs cannot see the rabbit in the tall grass and nothing has fallen from the sky. We would be running blinds. Dogs will use the wind to get the scent once in the area and they will also learn to work up the scent line established by the shotgun blast close to the ground.


We have practiced these types of retrieves using a retriever launcher and tennis balls so we have a basis for this type retrieve. Jet makes his pick without a problem and so does Drake from across the line. Our dogs had no trouble with pickin' fur.

The fur

All rabbits in this field are now safe underground. UK rabbits live in holes and tunnels burrowed deep into the ground — in this situation at the field's edge. Here, safe from most predators, including hunters, little will stir them. What will get them from their sanctuary is "The Fur."


The ferreter moved forward of the line to release the white critters into the center hole in the bank. Upon release, he runs back to the line as if he just lit a charge of dynamite. As far as the rabbits are concerned, he just did. The ferrets were in the ground only briefly before the first of three rabbits blasted from the hole and one was taken by a shotgunner, the other two escaping back into the holes.


We walked away to pick up the single rabbit as a memory while the ferreter moved to the ground above the holes to locate the position of his ferrets that were still pursuing their prey. The hollow pipe was pushed into the soil to the tunnels below to listen for the furs' activities. He also used his electronic receiver for a fix on the pursuit. (Remember the little transmitter collars?)


Finally, both ferrets were called to the entrances by their owner. The ferreter teaches the fur to come by squeaking with his mouth, a sound conditioned into the ferrets at feeding time.


Our hunt continues with the rifle being the primary tool to take long shots. Drake and Jet get plenty of exercise on some long, very nice blinds.

Another exciting round took place when the ferrets went to the ground in holes in the middle of an open field. Lots of action occurred as the rabbits bolted from the holes as the dogs' interest remained keen. Drake was actually shaking as if the weather was frigid.


As the hunt drew to a close, we had 12 rabbits in the bag, two tired, happy dogs, both ferrets back in the cage slung over their owner's shoulder and a group of delighted hunters who were totally mesmerized by the grandeur of the mountain scenery.


As a point of interest, our ferreter was also an accomplished retriever trainer. He was the man that made my Angus into an Irish Field Trial Champion. He also ran in this year's Southern Irish International Retriever team which placed 3rd over Mike Lardy's U.S. team running in the South of England just two days later.


Training retrievers for fur


To pick fur, either rabbits or squirrels, with your retriever really only takes a bit of additional training. I can think of numerous times rabbit hunting over beagles that a nice retriever that could track wounded game and handle over water would have been welcomed.


The steps


1. A dog must be steady as a rock when rabbits run. Also the dog must honor other working dogs and pack hounds in pursuit. They must be calm, focused hunters.


2. Dogs must be conditioned to pick up fur. Tape skins over heavy bumpers. Use cold game saved from previous hunts for training. I used squirrels taken by my Jack Russells to start Drake on fur. There are lots of people about raising rabbits so fur should not be difficult to acquire.


3.Steady your dog to off game, including flushed birds and especially deer. Be sure you can recall your dog off game.


4. Develop the dog's nose. Tracking game, either by fur scent, blood trail and gunpowder line is a must.


a. Fur use a fur covered bumper as a drag. Pull between two assistants to establish a trail.
b. Use a "chuck it" or tennis ball launcher (see for details) and scented tennis balls. The bouncing balls create brakes with scent line for excellent track work.
c. Gunpowder lines are easy to set up. You are attempting to develop your dog's ability to find down game by locating and following the scent line created by the shot close to the ground.
d. Hide a bumper (blind) and shoot close to the ground toward it. The dog sees the shot pattern along the ground and learns to follow the scent to his reward. Later run the entire drill as a blind without the dog seeing the shot.


5. Make sure your retriever handles well under very distracting and exciting conditions. Most of your retrieves will be blinds and the dog must remain focused despite a running pack of hounds or in this case, ferrets!


6. Dogs will be expected to cross various barriers including steep ditch banks, fences, and briar thickets.


In the UK trials, dogs must pick any game taken in the field — geese, duck, pheasant, grouse, snipe, partridge, pigeon, rabbit and hare. A UK trial dog is an impeccably trained hunting dog first and foremost that must pick fur with equal enthusiasm as fowl, and so it was with their American visitors.


The Wildrose gundog is bred and trained to be a versatile hunting companion... a gentleman's gundog. Drake and Jet proved their worth in both field and competition during our trip.


With a bit of extra transitional training, you can develop your retriever to be a multi purpose gundog, not only for waterfowl and upland game but also for hunting with houndsmen in pursuit of fur or tracking wounded large game. If only I had had Drake along years ago when I was a Beagler pursuing rabbits in the swamps of Mississippi...


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