There is a limited amount of information on ferret history and where ferrets originate from. However, mentions of ferrets date back as far as 450BC (Aristophanes and later Aristotle mentioned something about them at around 350BC)!
It seems like the first accurate account of ferrets being used was of them helping to control a rabbit plague in the Balearic Islands at around AD200. Thus the thought that ferrets may have been domesticated somewhere around the Mediterranean in order to obtain rabbits as a human food source.
Ferrets and rabbits have a long history together (you would think that after all this time they would have become best friends). Humans saw rabbits as a food source so wherever the rabbit went the ferrets were taken along...all through Europe.
Ferrets have also rubbed shoulders with Royalty throughout history!
- There are records of the German Emperor, Fredrick II, using ferrets (supposedly) in 1245.
- Around the same time in Asia in 1221, Genghis Khan used ferrets for hunting (who would have known?!).
- A manuscript of a ‘Livre de Chasse’ of Gaston Phebus, Comte de Foix, who ruled in southern France and northern Spain at around 1387 shows ferreting with muzzled ferrets (can you even imagine trying to get a muzzle on a ferret? pfft yeah right...the spoiled little fuzzbutts would leave small deposits all over the house to teach you a lesson!) and the use of purse nets.
Ferrets in the Middle Ages
In the Middle Ages, ferreting was combined with falconry. The ferret would be sent into a rabbit burrow to chase the rabbits out while the falcon would catch them when they ran out of the burrow (the rabbit did not stand a chance!).
Also during this time ferrets were kept in and around dining halls to chase/ eat /scare vermin away. A lady may have also kept a small ferret in the sleeve of her gown to release at a sight of a rodent (rat or mouse). Apparently ferrets were a lot smaller back then because of poorer nutrition (and apparently a lot less energetic!).
Below is a painting of Queen Elizabeth I with her ferret (however the artist made the ferret look more royal by giving it spots!)
White and Albino Ferrets throughout history
In ferret history there was no mention of white or albino ferrets till AD 1551 in Britain where they are described as ‘the colour of wool stained urine’. During the Renaissance period a woman was considered a witch if she practiced herbalism and talked to their black cat or pale ferret (I think that means that many women on this site would not stand a chance...I know I would be burning at the stake right about now).
Ferrets featured in Folklore
Ferrets have also featured in folklore eg. the Irish believed that if milk was drunk by a ferret then it was blessed. There were also songs, dances and card games invented around the ferret.
During Victorian times the cat became more domesticated and so was the ferret. Although not allowed to live in the house ferrets would often live in the yard in their hutches.
Where does the domesticated ferret come from?
The ferret is a very close relative of the Polecat however scientists do not know if it is the European Polecat, the Steppe Polecat or a hybrid of the two from which it is domesticated from. The exact relationship of these is uncertain as it has been found that under laboratory conditions when mated these can produce fertile offspring.
There is an endangered species of wild ferrets which have been recently re-discovered in America, the Black-footed ferret . There are also several other small, elongated carnivorous mammals which belong to the Mustelidae (weasels) family who also have the word “ferret” in their common names.
The interesting thing about the origin of the name is that “ferret” which is derived from the Latin word furittus actually means “little thief” (I’m sure this name makes sense to anyone who has had the experience of not knowing where their keys or other items were, only to find them a few stressful days later in a little ferret hiding spot… they are very cheeky little buggers!).
Wild Ferrets in New Zealand
New Zealand has the largest population of ferret-polecat hybrids. They were imported from England from 1879 to 1883 when farmers demanded that something be done about the rabbit population, which was out of control at the time (which were also imported – shame they did not learn from their first mistake).
The imported animals consisted of ferrets, polecats, ferret hybrids, weasels and stoats. Unfortunately, after the rabbits were under control the ferrets started eating the New Zealand native birds which up to that point in time had no natural predators (poor birds).
Ferret history is pretty interesting don't you think?! 🙂
To learn more about ferret history we recommend reading the below articles: