Meeting the last full-time warrener and rabbit catcher in Britain
PUBLISHED: 11:41 16 April 2019
Simon Whitehead, of Lowestoft, is the last full-time warrener and rabbit catcher in Britain, keeping alive a centuries-old tradition | Words & Photos: Nigel Housden
It's increasingly rare these days to find someone pursuing a traditional rural profession, just as it was done well over 100 years ago. It's rarer still that the person doesn't have a countryman's blood lineage, but has come to the profession through passion, dedication and hard graft. Simon Whitehead is one such person.
Widely acknowledged as the last full time rabbit catcher and warrener operating in Britain, Simon is known as 'The Ferret Man'. He has written four books, the latest, Ahead of the Game – the first celebrating the harvest, preparation and cooking of wild rabbit – named after his award-winning film.
He has worked with celebrity chefs, celebrating and promoting wild rabbit as a tasty, nutritious addition to the dining table, and worked on the BBC 4 programme The Green and Pleasant Land, helping to recreate George Morland's 1792 painting, Ferreting.
Born in Middlesborough, Simon moved with his parents to Lowestoft in 1983. His father had been made redundant from the British Steel Lackenby plant but was able to continue his trade as a motor armature winder, servicing equipment for the offshore oil rigs.
At 16 Simon enrolled at Otley College and then worked as a market gardener, followed by working in a local print works and then a pest control company.
His love of wild open spaces, and the simple enjoyment of ferreting and rabbiting, provided a welcome release from the constraints of the print shop and formal employment, and in 2001 Simon opted for self-employment as a full time warrener and rabbit catcher.
Simon is following an ancient tradition. Archaeological evidence, from Lynford in Norfolk, shows wild rabbits were in Britain from the second century AD, during the Roman period. But it's widely recognised that the Normans were responsible for re-introducing the wild European rabbit to Britain.
Suffolk's Breckland, with its dry, light, sandy soils and a climate close to that of the Mediterranean, provided the ideal habitat. Wild rabbits like gently banked, free draining soils which are easy to burrow and are the suitable for the chambers and pipe system of tunnels that make up a warren.
Wherever the existence of the rabbit sits in the timeline of East Anglia, the warrens of Suffolk established in medieval times, provide a lasting socio-economic commentary on rural society over several centuries.
During early Norman times only land owners with manorial rights could own a warren. The warrener was appointed to manage the warren, protect it from predation by foxes, stoats and badgers, achieve selective breeding for a strong healthy population, ensuring a constant harvest of meat and fur for the lord or monastic masters.
In the 13th century one rabbit was worth more than a workman's daily wage and such was the value and status of the rabbit, the warrener was one of the highest paid manorial officials.
Fortified lodges were built for the warrener and his family, close to the warren, provided living quarters, storage for tools, equipment, harvested rabbits and a look-out to spot gangs of poachers.
The rural role of warrener remained undiminished and little changed until well into the 18th century, as did the tools of the trade – purse nets, long nets, stave, ferrets and trusted lurcher.
The wild rabbit was important to the rural economy, but with increasing rural poverty, poaching became a desperate option for the lowly paid poor to feed their starving families.
Deportations, public whippings and even hangings followed, under Acts of Parliament passed in the 1700s and 1800s, designed to halt growing rural social unrest and curtail peasants' ability to forage for food, particularly game species, including the wild rabbit.
Over centuries the rabbit population expanded well beyond the confines of the warren, ranging unchecked throughout much of Britain. Rabbits are sociable creatures and prolific breeders, with a gestation period of 29 to 35 days, a litter of three to seven kittens, and up to eight litters in a season. The male buck rabbit is sexually mature at four months and the doe between three and five.
The Land Enclosure Act of 1845 enabled large tracts of land to be split into smaller parcels. Hedges were planted, boundaries were banked or ditched, providing cover from predators and soil that was easy to burrow.
Improved agricultural equipment and farming methods increased arable crops, providing a huge source of food for an animal with a voracious appetite and capacity for reproduction.
And reproduce it did.
Such was the damage to crops countrywide, the government passed the Prevention of Damage by Rabbits Act 1939. By the 1950s the government estimated 60 million rabbits were causing £50 million worth of damage.
Warreners now became rabbit catchers, plying their ancient trade with the same tools as used down the centuries. Accounts show that a managed warren at Lakenheath was the last survivor, ceasing to function in 1940.
In 1953 myxomatosis reached Britain, devastating the rabbit population. Estimates suggest that barely 600,000 animals remained. This catastrophic demise left little work for the rabbit catcher. The commercial rabbit meat and fur trade struggled on for a few more years, but reverence for the rabbit evaporated.
Eventually, the rabbit gradually recolonised, reaching levels of the late 1990s, around 45 million animals.
It's against this background that Simon applies his craft through autumn, winter and early spring. Ferrets are the foundation tools of his trade. He has a lifelong love of them, working and breeding them.
He also has an unerring respect for the natural world and the animals that inhabit it. His rabbit control work is a holistic harvest, designed to cause minimal disturbance and provide a supply of meat for the table.
His first task is to assess the extent of a warren, or several that may be close together, thinking both like the ferret that will explore the ground beneath his feet and the rabbit that will seek to outwit the invader of its home. He places long nets just beyond the boundary of the warren, along with purse nets over burrow exits, accompanied by his trusty lurchers.
His one concession to technology is a ferret finding transmitter that allows him to track the ferret in the burrow system. Pre-technology this would have been a piece of string, tied loosely around the ferret's neck and knotted at two yard intervals to measure the depth and distance of travel in the burrow.
It's tempting to view traditional rural crafts and professions through a rose-tinted, warm glow of history.
Simon's job is one of many bone chilling hours outdoors, exposed to saturating rain, sleet and snow, delving into damp cold earth, isolation and solitude with only lurchers and ferrets for company. But it's a noble profession which this humble family man is passionate about.
The financial returns require long, hard hours of work – commercially a wild rabbit is worth little more than £1.50 to a butcher or pie maker. Promoting his craft provides another source of income, the hours of rabbit harvesting solitude swapped for six months of rural shows and fairs, where his ferreting displays have become legend.
It's entertainment, but it also promotes an ethical approach to sourcing healthy food, preserving an ancient tradition, conservation and, above all, respect for nature. Simon's displays have helped people reconnect with the countryside, some becoming hobbyist ferreters.
Simon's life is entwined with the wild rabbit, echoing centuries of rural tradition – a tradition and lifestyle to celebrate and honour.
A species under pressure
The range of the rabbit is rapidly being diminished by expanding road systems, creation of vast distribution depots, housing and commercial development sites.
All habitat is far more managed than it has ever been, not always to the benefit of indigenous wildlife species and the synergy between them. In the background, since 1953, is myxomatosis, a horrendous flea-borne rabbit decimating disease.
More worrying for Simon Whitehead's livelihood is the onset of rabbit haemorrhagic disease – RHD1 and the more recent strain RHD2 and RHD/K5, virulent killers within the wild rabbit population.