Ferrets are mustelids, like stoats and weasels. They are bigger than stoats and weasels and are about the same size as a small cat. In other parts of the world ferrets are used to hunt rabbits and are kept as pets.
Ferrets are closely related to European polecats and have been tamed by humans for at least 2,500 years. They were probably used by Ancient Romans for hunting.
The ferrets in New Zealand are ferret-polecat hybrids. Tame ferrets were bred with polecats during the voyage to New Zealand so that they would be better at surviving in the wild. Unfortunately it worked! Now New Zealand has the world’s largest population of wild ferret-polecat hybrids!
The first 5 ferrets were brought to New Zealand in 1879 to get rid of rabbits. Rabbits are their favourite food. From 1882-1883 there were 32 shipments of ferrets from London to New Zealand with about 700 ferrets released. From 1884-1886 another 4000 ferrets and ferret-polecat hybrids were released in New Zealand.
This was bad news for rabbits. It was also very bad news for our native ground-nesting birds. Ferrets eat eggs and chicks and can even kill adult kiwi. They kill albatross chicks, yellow-eyed penguins and little blue penguins. Birds like black stilts and dotterels which live where there are lots of rabbits are especially at risk from ferrets. Ferrets also eat lots of possums, rats and mice. They’re at the top of the predator food chain.
The name “ferret” is derived from the Latin word furittus, meaning “little thief”. Ferrets like to steal small items and hide them away.
In the 1980s, at least 17 ferret farms were established in Northland, breeding ferrets for their fur. Ferrets farmed for their fur are called fitches. When the fur trade stopped being profitable and the farms closed down, many fitches escaped or were set free, helping ferrets to expand northwards into some of New Zealand’s best remaining kiwi habitat.
Male ferrets are called hobs; female ferrets are jills. A spayed female is a sprite, a neutered male is a gib, and a vasectomised male is known as a hoblet. Ferrets under one year old are known as kits. A group of ferrets is called a business.
Ferrets used to be kept as pets in New Zealand, but in 2002 a new law was passed, banning the sale, distribution and breeding of ferrets. There are only a few people in New Zealand who have a special permit which allows them to keep pet ferrets for hunting rabbits. You can find out more about one rabbiter who uses trained ferrets in his work here. His ferrets are called ‘Ferrety’ and ‘Boys’ and are trained to chase rabbits out from their burrows.
Did you know:
• A newborn ferret is so small that it can fit into a teaspoon!
• Ferrets spend 14–18 hours a day asleep and are most active around the hours of dawn and dusk.
• Ferrets can have problems with furballs, just like cats.
Ferrets love tunnels and burrowing. This was put to good use when a group of trained ferrets was used to lay TV cable for the broadcast of the wedding of Prince Charles and Diana. Ferrets were also used to save the Millenium Concert in London in the year 2000. The concert organisers hired ferrets from Britain’s ‘National Ferret Association’ to lay TV, lighting and sound cables along the tunnels under the stage in Greenwich Park.