Conversely, if they are looked after with respect and attention, these extravagantly clever little animals can make endearing pets. In fact they are the third most popular domestic animal in the USA.
Most of the estimated 500,000 ferrets in the UK are used for vermin control. Four rabbits eat about as much grass (not to mention young wheat, barley and sugar beet) as a sheep, so unsurprisingly, farmers are keen to keep the rabbit population down. And increasingly they rely on ferrets to help them do this.
The National Ferret Welfare Society has all sorts of useful information about ferrets and how to look after them properly. For example, did you know that the collective noun for ferrets is a "business"? And that they are domesticated descendants of the polecat, belonging to the Mustelidae family – which includes badger, otter, stoat, weasel and mink? Or that a female ferret is known as a "jill" and a male a "hob"?
The general public often needs education. People come up to ferret owners at fêtes and agricultural shows and ask "What’s that? A squirrel? A rat? Is it tame? Can I buy one?" But a ferret, like a dog, is for life – if people don’t know what they are then they shouldn’t own one. But if they do, then ferrets, like other animals, respond to kindness and will work their hearts out for a kind owner.
They’ve been doing that in Britain for a couple of millennia. Ferrets are believed to have been brought here by the Romans. They, in turn, are supposed to have obtained them from the Egyptians, who first domesticated ferrets to keep rats and mice out of the home. If it wasn’t the Romans who introduced them, then it was probably the Normans – there is pictorial evidence in the British Library showing warreners working ferrets in the 14th century. Rabbits were an important source of food and warrens were managed to ensure a constant supply of meat.
Those who keep them as pets often allow them to live in the home, as they can be easily house-trained. BBC broadcaster Jenni Murray was beguiled by ferrets when there was a feature about them on Woman’s Hour. One of her interviewees likened her animal to "a naughty teddy bear", which touched her heart and soul. Her animal was very forgiving with "a wonderful joy of life, which not wanting to be rude, sometimes my husband lacks".
She added that she was happiest when watching television with her calm and affectionate pet asleep around her neck.
The Game Fair, the world’s biggest celebration of country sports, is held at Ragley Hall, Warwickshire (www.gamefair.co.uk). It includes displays of the ancient field craft of ferreting.