The quirky world of Yorkshire ferret racing
- Credit: Stephen Garnett
Flat caps, real ale and scores of ferrets racing overhead. It could only happen in Yorkshire...
Dreamt up in Yorkshire more than 40 years ago, ferret racing is now a nationwide spectator sport, with even the Queen laying claim to races on her lawns at Windsor Castle.
Yet David Aynesworth, owner of the Craven Arms at Appletreewick and creator of the first ferret race back in 1978, remains – as always – one step ahead, with 16 February marking the tenth edition of the world’s only overhead timed ferret course and race.
More than 50 ferrets are expected to compete on the night, with some ferrets contesting the heats – their sights set on the grand final, whilst others limber up for the individual timed circuits taking place throughout the evening, with the fastest ferret of the night duly winning.
Former estate manager David explains: 'Ferrets are slim, agile creatures, a relation of the European polecat. They are usually bred as a working animal and so like nothing more than rushing down pipes, which follows their natural instincts of flushing rabbits out of their burrows. So it’s a perfect night’s entertainment for them, just without the prize of a rabbit at the end.'
The bespoke installation enables four ferrets to consecutively race along parallel routes, with clever chicken wire sections also allowing the assembled crowds to monitor the progress of the 50 or so furry competitors as they pass overhead. A sight to behold, the unique racetrack is constructed afresh each year from 30 metres of four and half inch drain piping on the floor of the Craven Arm’s impressive Cruck Barn, by David and his son Robert. Once ready, the duo carefully winch the course into place, suspending it from barn’s seven metre high open roof. On the subject of ‘little ferret accidents’ raining down from above, David is keen to point out that there’s never been any, they’re too excited looking for rabbits to stop for the call of nature!' he explains with a laugh.
For those wanting to give the back of their necks a rest, David has also conjured up the sport of Ferret Roulette, made possible through a customised dustbin. For ‘fifty pence a go’ you can ‘bet’ to see which of the five pipes attached to the dustbin the intrepid ferrets will eventually emerge from, with all monies raised going to a charity close to David’s heart. 'All the money made on the night goes to the Upper Wharfedale Fell Rescue, an amazing organisation and not just for the rescuing, which they do multiple times a week, but also for its social and educational programme for young people.'
Speaking of youngsters, the night’s activities are not surprisingly a popular draw for families who bring children and teenagers to race their own ferrets as well as those simply wanting to come along for a little cuddle.
'Ferrets have suffered some bad press in the past,' says David, 'but like any animal, if they are well handled they don’t bite, so you can keep them as a pet, much like you’d keep a rabbit or a guinea pig. The key thing to know is that the male ferrets – the hobs – can be quite smelly. We do get a few on the night and you definitely know they are here!'
For anyone interested in learning about keeping ferrets, Otley Ferret Rescue also support the event, bringing along several of their own re-housed ferrets for people to handle.
Despite having decades of ferret racing experience behind him, inspiration for making the competition an indoor event lies with Paul, the Aynesworths own ferret who serependitiously arrived in their chicken coop one day. 'One morning a member of staff went out to feed the hens and came rushing back in saying ‘an otter’s eaten all the hens!’ So we went up and there was this ferret on its back resting its huge stomach! You could tell he was a well-kept ferret so we let it be known that we’d got one, but no one came forward, and so we kept him.
'The first year Paul raced he came third, the second year, second and the third year he came first,' explains David, laughing. 'People started to say ‘it’s a fix’ as he can practice on the course – but this is the last thing we would want him to do! If we kept feeding him into the pipe for practice runs he’d know there wasn’t a rabbit down there. The key to a great race is that the ferrets need to be fresh down the pipe – there’s no advantage with ferrets practicing on the course, otherwise they’ll know there’s nothing in it!'
David’s love of history and bringing it back to life is hugely evident not just in the events he conceives, but throughout the Craven Arms. Buying the pub in 2005, in a state David describes as 'an absolute disaster – it had had the full treatment', it has been lovingly restored to become one of the few truly charismatic pubs in the Yorkshire Dales, with gas lighting, flagged floors and open fires. And, the Craven Cruck Barn which David’s son Robert started building in 2006, finishing in 2008, is one of the family’s greatest love letters to the past. Hand crafted from bent oak trees, its walls are insulated with sheep’s wool and rendered with traditional lime and horse hair 'from mother’s horse', and roofed with a hand pulled heather ling thatch which took six months to gather and six months to thatch. An absolute thing of beauty, the Craven Cruck Barn is also historically significant, being the first one to be built in Wharfedale in a traditional, non-mechanised way for 500 years. It is also a great, airy space for scores of ferrets and people to gather.
So, if the time has come to distinguish a hob from a jill then Ferret Racing might just be for you. Humans are free and ferrets are £1, so if you are planning to bring a furry friend, make sure you don’t wear your trousers with the deep pockets. After all, it’s for a good cause.