(c) Ferret Info UK

Useful information

Ferrets, a brief history...

Ferrets are domesticated mammals from the family Mustelidae, which means they are related to Weasels, Stoats, Mink, Polecats, Pine Martens, Otters, Badgers and Wolverines, all of which are very efficient hunters.

They have been domesticated for at least 2,500 years, evolving as a separate subspecies from the polecat, Mustella Putorius, through the domestication of its kittens. It is not clear whether the domesticated ferret, Mustela Putorius Furo (which roughly translates as "stinky mouse-killing thief "), is derived from the European, Asiastic, Siberian or Ethiopian polecat, though ancient roman texts and genetics link back to the Berber polecat (M. putorius berberii = furo). Ferret is the most common name used, but there are/have been others Fert, Fitch, Fitcher, Stinkmart, Stinkmarten, Foulmart, Foulmarten, and Fulimart, but most of these terms have fallen into disuse. Nicknames include Carpet Shark, Carpet Snorkler, Weezil, Fuzzy.

It is thought that ferrets were introduced into the UK by the Romans who used them for hunting rats as well as mice. Later the Normans introduced rabbits to the UK, and as they escaped from captivity the ferret was used to hunt these too (ferreting). Historical records and paintings show that ferrets were used over the centuries for rabbiting, pest control in barns and graneries and even as live-in rat catchers in manor houses and palaces. Rural workers started using ferrets in the 1300s, and in 1390 King Richard II issued a statute prohibiting ferreting on Sundays! So accepted were mustelids that one of Leonardo da Vinci 's materpieces entitled "Lady with Ermine" (c 1489) shows a noble lady holding a pet stoat/ferret. Leveticus 11:29 & 11:30 in the 1611 Kings James bible warnes mention of "These also shalbe vncleane vnto you, among the creeping things that creepe vpon the earth: the Weasell, and the Mouse, and the Tortois, after his kinde and the Ferret, and the Cameleon, and the Lyzard, and the Snaile, and the Molle". There is also conjecture that on some sea fairing vessels the 'ship's cat' was not a feline but a ferret, the ferret being able to get into all the nooks and crannies that a rat can, and being a more efficient and determined hunter than a cat.

In the Middle Ages ferreting was combined with falconry, a practice still used by some falconers/ferreters today, whereby the ferret is sent into a burrow to flush out the prey, which is then swooped on by the falcon. Ferrets remained the primary rodent catcher in Europe until the late eighteenth century, when cats, no longer considered to be the consort of the devil, came back into favour as rresident rat catcher and companion animal. Probably not surprising ,as whole ferrets have a very strong odour that some consider unpleasant (spaying and neuturing, which removes the smell, did not come into being until the 20th century) so cats would certainly have been more pleasant cohabitees in those days. Even so, Ferrets still remained popular for pest control amongst rural communities.

More recently, ferrets have been put to other uses.

  • In the forties and fifties in the USA and Canada, they were bred and raised for their fur which was used in making fake mink coats, a practice that has fortunately ceased.

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      • Other industrial applications of ferret skills have been the stringing of electrical and telephone cables. As recently as the late 1960's, Boeing Aircraft Corporation in Seattle and British Columbia Telephones used ferrets to lay the guidewires for pulling the heavier cables through conduits. Some companies still use fererts for cable laying today. One, Freddie, is even a paid up member of the New Zealand Electrical Workers union,  though

        • reports in the Telegraph on 1st April 2010, that Virgin Media were using ferrets to lay their cables proved to be
          a well thought out April Fool hoax.

          Since the begining of the 21st Century there has been a increase in the number of ferrets kept as pets in the UK, and ferrets are now once again popular companions. This increase in popularity has been put down to people becoming more aware of the true nature of these lively, intelligent, fun-loving animals and their highly developed sense of curiosity. These much maligned little animals are not the vicious, smelly creatures of music hall jokes - they do make affectionate pets that fit in perfectly with our hectic western lifestyles, so are ideal for people who love animals and want a pet but ar not finding it easy/possible to keep cats or dogs.