IT'S 10 o'clock on a brisk, early spring Sunday morning and as the church bell clangs the hour across the valley, Henry Ray loads his dogs, nets and a box of ferrets into his car and sets off for a day's rabbiting.

You could equally call it ferreting, because the end result is the same.

The clearing of troublesome rabbit warrens by running ferrets through to chase out the inhabitants has been going on in the countryside since time immemorial.

Its practitioners will tell you it's a far better way than the three alternatives - gassing, snaring or shooting.

And then, of course, there is always the lingering death of the myxomatosis plague.

With ferreting, the rabbit is chased from its burrow into a net secured over the entrance. Thus caught, it is quickly despatched by the handler.

There are no injured rabbits left to crawl away and die. They are either killed humanely or escape.

Of course, rabbits are also kept in this country as family pets, which complicates the equation slightly in some people's minds.

Many thousand glossy coated specimens are entered in rabbit shows every year and probably a good few more occupy back garden hutches and are cuddled by children.

But wild rabbits are a pest species and fall under the Pests Act (1954), which requires people to deal with pests living on their land or be held responsible for the damage done by them.

That's why Henry Ray was on a mission that day.

To the experts, ferreting is an art.

As Henry explained: "It's not just a matter of laying a net over a rabbit hole, sticking a ferret down and hoping to get a rabbit out.

"Your nets have to be laid out so they don't become stuck on twigs and brambles and won't close when a rabbit runs into them.

"Your ferrets need to be fit and not just taken from their cage after an easy summer and expected to run down holes yards and yards long without laying up."

Which is killing a rabbit below ground and staying with the carcase. This frequently ends up with the ferret having to be dug out, along with the dead rabbit.

There is also the very important aspect of ferret husbandry and net design.

Ferrets should be housed in solid cages with plenty of room to climb and move around and generally enjoy themselves, while there are different nets for different jobs. Short ones for when the undergrowth is thick and long ones for when there are two holes or more close together.

Henry has been keeping ferrets ever since he was knee high to a grasshopper. He was brought up on the Halesend Estate at Storridge, near Malvern, where his father worked on the farm.

"Dad always said he was taught the secrets of ferreting by an old gipsy," said Henry, "and there were always a few ferrets about the place."

He now has 12 of his own and usually takes two or three out on any particular day.

"I prefer different coloured ones. That way if they suddenly appear at a hole entrance, you know which one it is."

His dogs, Bedlington terriers, are used to "mark" at a hole - or indicate if a rabbit is at home.

One of the secrets of a successful day's ferreting is to recce the area well, if possible up to a week in advance. This will give the site time to settle down before you return in earnest.

"One of the main reasons for a recce is to decide in advance how you are going to tackle the job," Henry explained.

"If you arrive on the day without a plan of action, you can spend ages messing about, disturbing things and your chances of success are much less.

"If you can't see the holes for cover, clean it away. Remove brambles and sticks and dead leaves, anything that will make the holes more accessible and your approach quieter.

"You need to work out how many holes you will need to net and make sure you have enough for the job."

As an experienced ferreter, Henry had his action plan in place.

He moved quickly, but silently and confidently around the warren, which lay on a wooded bank.

From his bag, he pulled a net at a time. Each was pushed into a hole and then slowly pulled out to open it, completely covering the hole before a peg was fixed in the ground to secure it.

Henry made his way around the warren, netting every hole, before retiring back to his car for a drink from a flask.

"The idea is to wait to 15-30 minutes to let things settle down," he explained.

Then he returned to the warren, pulled a net to one side and put a ferret down the hole. The net was re-fixed in place and Henry moved away from the hole, close enough to see the nets, but not so close the rabbits could see him.

Then there was a rumble from below ground. The rabbits were on the move. Henry sat silently, eyes fixed on the nets.

Suddenly one bursts into frenzied ball as a rabbit at full pelt hurtles into it. Quick as a flash, Henry is up, removes the net and struggling rabbit from the hole, swiftly despatches the animal by breaking its neck and then puts the net and dead rabbit on the ground while he pulls a fresh net from his bag and re-covers the hole.

It's all over in a matter of seconds.

Afterwards, everything is cleared away.

"There are two golden rules of ferreting," he explained. "Always ask the landowner's permission before you go and leave nothing behind but footprints."

Henry now gives talks and demon-strations about ferreting and ferret welfare in an effort to dispel any misunder-standings.

"People have to remember wild rabbits are pests which can cause considerable damage," he added, "and by and large they enjoy a pretty good life.

"I hope their only bad day is when I come around."