So apparently Lee Valley Tools had posed this same question in their Christmas 1995 catalog. This is the response they got from two readers:
The Origin of the Term “Rabbiting Spade”
In our Christmas ’95 catalog we asked if anyone had further views on the origin of the term “Rabbiting Spade.” Two customers wrote in. Here’s what they had to say.
While going through your Christmas Gifts Catalogue (1995) I was transported back to my wonderful life as a child growing up in the countryside of beautiful Sussex.
My father was a gamekeeper for nearly 50 years in south west England. The “rabbiting spade” was certainly just that and was used by gamekeepers. Before putting loose ferrets into a rabbit’s hole, the holes of the warren were covered with nets held in place by one or two wooden pegs pressed into the ground above each hole. The trained ferrets (well handled by my father) were put into the holes and the rabbits would bolt into the nets. On occasion a ferret would kill a rabbit and start to eat it and, on getting a taste of warm meat, would refuse to leave its kill. A gamekeeper would put his ear to the ground until he felt he was on top of the ferrets and rabbits. He would take the “rabbiting spade” and dig down a deep narrow shaft, which the spade is made ideally for, and could then reach down and bring up the rabbit with the ferret still hanging on. My father was so adept at this. Many times he has let me look down the hole he had dug to see the animals well framed at the bottom.
The offending ferret was usually sent to market since once tasting the warm meat will be apt to repeat the performance.
I should add as a point of interest, before digging, a big male ferret with a strong narrow cord attached to his collar may be sent down the hole; if he cannot budge the other ferrets then digging commences. The “rabbiting spade” was very strongly made as it had to dig as well as haul up the earth.
I realize my letter is lengthy but I hope it’s of interest.
— Mary J. Botsford,
In reply to your question in your Christmas catalogue regarding the use of the rabbiting spade you are covered. It was used for rabbiting, but not in the way you say. A rabbit warren has several exits and entrances, most of these would be blocked with small nets. A ferret would then be put down one hole, the rabbiters would stand around and listen for the squealing as the ferret attacked a rabbit. Through experience, The rabbiter would be able to judge where the ferret was and would then dig with the spade perhaps a foot or so to retrieve the rabbit and ferret. One or two of the onlookers would carry guns, as a few rabbits would bolt out of unnetted holes before the ferret was able to do his work. I am now 80, but as a child in England, remember well how we all went out rabbiting on Boxing Day with an uncle on his farm. I wonder what today’s animal rights people would think of this sport??? We loved it!!
— Kathleen D. Walmark,
Hmmm... I feel sorry for those poor rabbits, as well as the ferrets. I think I’ll start calling it my transplanting spade in a kind of protest.
My rabbitting spade was a gift from my mom several years ago. It came from Smith and Hawkin, when they used to have actual stores. Now you can only get it online through Target. Click here to check it out. They’ve changed the color (mine is green, not black, and the wooden handle on mine is more yellow than they are now), but I’m sure it’s the same solid construction that mine is. It is solid-forged with a solid wooden handle – very well made and has stood up to years of my abuse. I want to say I’ve had it at least 7 years so far and it’s still going strong. When Brian and I reorganized our shed this fall, I made sure this tool was within easy reach.
|My trusty rabbitting spade, I mean transplanting spade.|