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Rabbit Hunting with the Kelb tal-Fenek in Malta
It was an agreement that we had. My good friend and hunting companion Charles phoned me up late the evening, indicating the good weather conditions for a night hunt. These include a dark sky with a good breeze, preferably from the north. The ‘fenek’ (rabbit) has excellent eyesight with optimum sense of smell and hearing. A dark, windy night does increase, to some extent, the chance of the Kelb tal-Fenek to catch its prey. On the contrary, a moon-lit night would allow the ‘fenek’ to see its predator well in advance, thus enabling to flee, well before the dog has caught sight or wind of it. When working against the wind, the dog has the advantage of scenting the prey well ahead, and this without the rabbit having a clue that the dog is on its tracks.
We did not feed the dogs that evening, keeping them light in anticipation of the many hours of hunting ahead. All the necessary preparations were made - the ‘nemes’ (ferret) was carefully placed in its ‘garzella’ - a round basket made locally out of wicker. With long canvas straps this is held slung over the shoulder. The ‘xbiek’ - strong nets of varying sizes - were placed into a sack. A strong walking stick called a ‘bastun’ a most useful tool to find one’s footing when walking the rough terrain in pitch darkness, was also placed into the car. And last, but by no means least, the dogs were coaxed into the car. Finally, all set go. A look around to see that nothing was left behind, and off we drove to our meeting point.
Charles was waiting. From the look on his face, I could tell that he had not been waiting long and had just arrived. We whispered a quick hello, and without any undue delay, we released all the dogs. They were off in all directions - all six of them. With the ‘bastun’ in one hand, the ‘garzella’ slung over the shoulder, and the ‘xkora’ (sack) over the other, we scrambled our way over bushes, rocks and stones, and occasionally over loose rubble wall. A fall is not a rarity. We walked for about fifty meters, stopped, and waited, carefully listening to the sounds of the night.
Search in the darkness
Occasionally we heard a dog’s panting going past us like the wind. Then it was guess work. Was that ‘Chuck’ or maybe ‘Brownie’ or was it ‘Ram’. Our sixth sense told us that all dogs were in the vicinity - maybe up to five hundred meters away. As usual I was anxious - no, worried is the word - to get a glimpse of my dogs, least they got lost. Charles laughed! ‘How can the dogs loose you?!’ He exclaimed. ‘They follow our scent trail, and always manage to find us!’ Time and time again he has been proved right. Even though the dogs came up to us, as though to say ‘look we’re here! We’re all right!’ - at hourly intervals, I worried for the full hour and then started to worry the very moment they shot off again. I am constantly aware of the dangers of meeting other hunters and of bad goings on that have previously occurred with similar encounters. I am always amazed at the sheer speed the dogs are able to achieve across out typical terrain in the black of the night. But Charles is always there to reassure me ‘they are able to see in pitch dark!’ I know that but still I worry! An injury to a dog although a rarity is a possibility.
We walked for a further one hundred meters or so, choosing our legs well with the help of our walking stick. The dogs were still within hearing range. We stopped and listened as the dogs continued in their desperate search of their prey.
Suddenly the sound we had long awaited to hear: A crying barking sort of sound locally called a ‘kurriera’ so typical of the breed. ‘It’s Brownie!’ cried Charles ‘I recognise her bark’. We followed the ‘kurriera’ which was soon followed by another and yet another. Three dogs were on the rabbit. The ‘kurriera’ was nearing. About fifty meters from where we stood. Suddenly it changed into definite barks. In anticipation, we ran towards the sounds, our eyes having found new light, we carefully chose our step. Arriving on the spot we found all six dogs barking around a rubble wall. All dogs with the exception of two were tied up. Then we got to work. The net was fished out of the sack and was diligently spread out in a way so as to cover as large an area of the wall as possible. It was pegged down using large stones and boulders. Wearing a pair of leather gloves Charles carefully reached for the ‘nemes’. Placing a ‘gongoll’ (a little bell, not much different to that worn by domestic cats) around the ferret’s neck, it was let in through a hole indicated by the dogs. It was now a waiting game that we had to play. Both dogs were on alert and followed the tingling of the bell making its way through the rubble. We heard a thumping noise, then a short squeak. Suddenly a rabbit shots out straight into the well-place net. It was closely followed by the ferret, but the dogs were there too. They are far more agile and were upon the rabbit in a flash, killing it through the net and all. We took the rabbit away from the dogs and placed it into a sack. The ferret was easily caught and also placed back into its basket. We were carefully not to tear the net whilst folding it away into its sack. The other dogs were then let loose again. We realised that the barking has placed all the rabbits on the alert. We did realise that a good half hour would be necessary in order that they could regain their confidence and come out of hiding to nibble at the grass.
We slowly walked for another half hour to another locality we know well. The dogs were again working satisfactory with their nose to the ground covering huge areas at good speed. We were slowly nearing a ‘halq’ - a large crack in the ground running a few score meters. We know this place to be full of rabbits. We quickly got down to business. We placed the net length wise along the crack again pegging it down with stones and rocks, paying great care so that it was not taut but baggy and loose. This task lasted a good fifteen minutes, meanwhile the dogs were hunting in the vicinity. We decided to take a breather, discussing the skills of net laying when suddenly we heard a ‘kurriera’ in the distance. ‘They found another’ I whispered. We froze so as to become one with the rocks. ‘Another kurriera’ I cried, hearing this in a different direction to the previous one. Both were nearing, and fast. We had four dogs on one rabbit and another two on a different one. Suddenly just as it all had started, it stopped. Maybe the dogs lost the rabbit. This does in fact happen especially with older more experienced rabbits. By using various tactics and tricks, such as tight swerving, back tracking, entering thick bushes/trees and immediately exiting, instant stopping, etc., a rabbit often succeeds in loosing its pursuers. But the other kurriera was still going on, coming closer and closer still. We knew that the rabbit would be heading for the crack in the ground, hence the net. To our dismay, this kurriera also stopped. ‘What ! another one lost too?’ cried Charles. ‘It looks like it’ I replied. We were however pleasantly surprised when Ram came up to us wagging his tail, and proudly displaying his slain prey. The laying of the net had in fact been in vain. We were however tremendously pleased that the dogs had caught the rabbit on the run. We carefully packed the net away and proceeded to a new spot.
It was gone three in the morning, but we still decided to try our luck elsewhere. We would try a place called ‘Ix-Xaghara’. This is a flat piece of land full of spiny rock with sparse vegetation. One could hardly imagine other sight hounds walking on this type of terrain let alone running in full flight in desperate pursuit of its game. ‘Surely other sight hounds would break their legs’. Charles nodded with approval. We walked for a further mile or so. The dogs were all working hard, but to no avail. Time was not on our side and a shimmer of light forced its way through the dark sky. We decided to call it a day (or rather a night) after all it was not a bad hunt at all.
Walking back towards the cars, which by now were quite a way away, we were lucky to hear yet another ‘kurriera’. The dogs never stop working. The ‘kurriera’ then changed into frantic barking. We ran in the direction. With increased light, we could easily choose our step. We found all the dogs sniffing a huge pile of stones. ‘This must be a broken down ‘girna’’ I remarked. A ‘girna’ is a stone hut built in gone-by days by our fore fathers to lock up the tools required to work the land. ‘We do not have enough time to set the net.’ said Charles. I agreed. Charles let the ferret in through one of the many inlets. The dogs all froze listening to the tingling sound of the ferret’s bell. ‘The dogs will be on the rabbit in no time if it bolts’ said Charles. I nodded. There was no way that the poor thing could escape. All six dogs were like taut springs, ready to fly at anything that dared move. Like spectators watching an interesting tennis match the dog’s heads moved from one side to another in synchrony, obviously all intent and carefully listening to the noise from down under. But nothing happened. The sound of the bell stopped. The dogs were loosing interest. It was all too clear for us. The ferret had caught and killed the rabbit which was obviously trapped inside. Having done so we knew only too well that it would eat its liver and fall asleep. We had no option but to clear the rubble to arrive to the dead rabbit and the snoozing ferret. Time was pressing. Night had turned to day. We toiled hard and after half an hour’s hard work we caught the ferret and stuffed the mauled rabbit into our sack.
We again continued our journey back to the cars. Having arrived, the dogs were reluctant to enter. They seem to never have enough even after many hours of hunting. It was a good nights hunt but we were both anxious to get back home, having a shower and go straight to work. ‘We will be back again’ I thought, ‘maybe even tonight!’