Ferrets are known as fitch in the fur trade industry. They are called polecats in Europe where they originated and the Maori name for the ferret is Torihura.
WHAT DO THEY LOOK LIKE?
• Ferrets are the largest of the three mustelid species in New Zealand growing up to half a metre long.
• They have a stocky build.
• Their body colour varies from white through light brown to black. In general they have a creamy-yellow undercoat, with long guard hairs that are black at the tip, giving a generally dark appearance.
• The legs and tail appear darker than the body.
• The guard hairs on the tail make it look bushy especially when the ferret is excited.
• The face is lighter with a dark, mask around the eyes and across the nose giving it a distinctive dark ‘bandit’ facemask appearance.
• The ears are flattened against the head, and along with tactile (responds to pressure or touch) bristles on the face, are adaptations for use in burrows when hunting prey.
DID YOU KNOW?
New Zealand has the largest known population of feral ferrets in the world!
WHERE DO THEY LIVE?
• Ferrets occur in pastoral habitats, especially grazed pasture, as well as rough grassland,
roadsides, scrubland and forest margins.
• They can also be found in dunes and coastal grassland that backs onto farm or scrubland.
DID YOU KNOW?
Ferrets were imported by the thousands in 1882, and thousands more were bred locally. By the turn of the century, they were well established in the wild (except for offshore islands), but had come to be regarded as pests. Although all legal protection was removed for ferrets by 1903 and further imports restricted the 1980s saw renewed interest in ferrets with fitch farms being developed to supply the fur trade. Within a few years the industry had collapsed. Many of the ferrets were put down but others were released into the wild!
WHAT DO THEY EAT?
• Ferrets feed mainly on small mammals (e.g. rabbits, rodents, possums, and hedgehogs). Rabbits are usually hunted below the ground.
• They will also eat ground nesting birds (e.g. yellow-eyed penguin, shearwaters) and their eggs, lizards, frogs, eels, and various invertebrates (e.g. weta, beetles, spiders, and earwigs).
• Females tend to eat more
mice and males larger prey (e.g. rabbits and possums).
• They eat both fresh and scavenged prey.
DID YOU KNOW?
Ferrets are nocturnal, so they are not often directly observed in the wild. However, where ferrets are common, they may be seen on roads, illuminated by headlights or as road kills, during the day they may be seen near poultry runs and in places with high numbers of rabbits.
Scats (dung) may also be found deposited on rocks and logs. These are up to 70mm long and 10mm wide with twisted, tapering ends, often containing fur, bone or feathers.
WHAT DO THEY DO TO THE NEW ZEALAND ENVIRONMENT?
• Both ground and hole nesting native birds, if they make their nests low enough, are susceptible to ferret predation.
• Ferrets are known to have killed adult kiwi at Lake Waikaremoana and have contributed to the decline of kiwi in Northland.
• Ferrets killed a small population of North Island weka liberated in the Karangahake Gorge near Waihi.
• In 1986, Ferrets preyed on 13 black stilt nests and also killed chicks in the MacKenzie basin.
• They are known to have killed yellow-eyed penguin chicks in Otago.
• Other native species at risk include brown teal, shearwaters, dotterel, fairy tern, little blue penguin, skinks, kauri snails and native frogs.
• Ferrets are also known to act as carriers of bovine TB for cattle and farmed deer, especially in rabbit-prone areas where there is an established problem with TB in the wild animal population.
DID YOU KNOW?
Ferrets gained popularity as pets during the late 1980s but in 1999 the Department of Conservation received over one thousand letters from conservationists, farmers, regional councils and the general public regarding the keeping of ferrets. 77% of these submissions requested a total ban on the keeping of ferrets by anyone in New Zealand. A ban on the keeping of ferrets is currently being approved by government.