Any regular visitor to a country fair, fete or show will be familiar with the mind-boggling range of creatures that are kept and bred for competition.
For the uninitiated, it can be surprising that there’s so much competition between amateur breeders for creating the perfect ferret, rabbit, or dog. Indeed, for most folks, animals such as these are pets, rather than the focus of intense research and painstaking generational breeding. This week, we were able to secure a chat with Robson Berry, one of the leading small animal breeders in the West Midlands. Once a successful livestock breeder, Robson retired from the rearing of large animals after a painful run-in with a young bull and has since devoted his time to breeding animals that are no less feisty, but considerably easier to handle.
Could you explain to us your reasoning behind moving into small animal breeding?
I’d made a good living from breeding cattle for nearly 20 years, my business has been a success, so when I got gored by one of my bull at the age of 62 it was a simple decision to chuck the lot it. The business is still managed by my children, but I felt it was the right time to step away from the day to day management and put my time to a new hobby. I’d always admired the skill of small animal breeders and was curious to see if I could transfer the skills I’d learnt with breeding cattle to rabbits and ferrets.
How does competing in the smaller classes compare to the larger classes of livestock?
Although you’re dealing with smaller animals in typically fewer numbers you expend less physical energy in the tasks needed to keep the animals healthy, however, it can still be a time-consuming job to do through health checks on 40 small animals. Then there’s the gestation period, which is much smaller in these creatures. One the one hand this means you can make improvements in the stock at a much quicker pace, but it also means that you have to be much more proactive in your breeding decisions. Managing stock can also become tricky when you’re dealing with much larger litters.
Keeping so many small creatures must be a logistical nightmare – how do you go about doing it?
I’d argue that it’s easier than keeping cattle, but it can still be a challenge. I had the opportunity to get advice from a number of other breeders before jumping into the task and I ended up investing in a custom-designed series of solid-timber pens from a firm called Barnes & Woodhouse. Although I think their forte is more aligned to packing crates and boxes, the quality of the wood they use makes their pens long-lasting and also easy to maintain. Due to how rapidly these creatures multiply, it’s been an interesting staying on top of sleeping arrangements!
Have you sustained any injuries from any of your current animals?
A couple of nips here or there, but nothing life-threatening! Ferrets and rabbits are very different creatures, temperament wise, but they’re both capable of forming bonds with humans and I’m already getting attached a couple of them – something that certainly didn’t happen with the cattle. My children have had their fun teasing me for becoming a soft old man with his bunnies, and now they’re inquiring whether they can have a couple themselves!