Ferrets

The munch bunch

Ferret, Rod Morris
Photo: Rod Morris

Like stoats and weasels, ferrets were brought into New Zealand in the 1880s in an attempt to control pest rabbits on farms.

Farmers from Britain knew these animals were the natural enemy of rabbits, they didn’t realise they would become an even bigger enemy to our native birds!

Because our birds had very few predators before humans came along, lots of our bird make their nests on the ground or in burrows (like our kiwi). This makes their chicks and eggs an easy lunch for ferrets! Many of our birds also became flightless, like the kakapo, which meant they couldn't escape a ferret's sharp teeth. What’s more – ferrets, stoats and weasels didn’t have to fight off bigger, larger creatures that might have eaten them. New Zealand was heaven for them! It still is.

As well as being a predator to our blue duck, kiwi and our penguins, ferrets can harm our cows too.

It carries a disease called bovine tuberculosis virus and this gives our cows a nasty cough, and causes them to lose weight and become weak.

The way you can tell a ferret from its cousins, stoats and weasels, is because it wears a bandit-like face mask – plus it’s bigger, much bigger – it can grow to 56 cm in size. That’s the size of a small cat.

The ferret’s cousin is the European polecat, and like the polecat it can live pretty much anywhere – on riverbeds, farmland, scrubland, and on the fringes of the forest.

The way we can keep down the number of our ferrets is by putting out specially designed traps or posions.

Here’s how to tell the difference between a ferret and its cousins the weasel and stoat –

Table Caption:
Stoats Weasels         Ferret                          
Larger tailShorter tail Larger tail 
Pale belly - with a distinctive line
between the white and brown
No distinctive colour on the bellyDark-coloured stomach 
Black tip on its tailShort tail with no black tip Black tip on its tail 
No black face mask No black face mask Black face mask 
30-40 cm long20 – 25 cm long48 – 56 cm

Facts, facts, facts

  • The average life span of a ferret is 5 – 8 years
  • It has an average of 8 babies per litter.
  • It’s got a heart-rate of 200 – 250 beats-per-minute – we only have a heart rate of 60 – 100 beats per minute
  • Baby ferrets are called kits, and an un-neutered female is called a jill.