Tuesday, August 28, 2012

The Beast of Exmoor and Other Nonsense

A repost from February 2009

Stories of feral "beasts" lurking in the darkness of the English countryside have been around for hundred of years, and were already old when Sir Arthur Conan Doyle used such a tale as the basis of The Hound of the Baskervilles.

The stories persist, of course.

Here are a few contemporary descriptions of various U.K. beasties:
  • Beast of Muchty: "I was travelling to my work at 04:30 when a cat the size of a Lurcher, jet black, small head, very slim with a long tail ran in front of my car (about fifty yards). The whole incident was over in 2 seconds ... "
  • Beast of Bont: "The main evidence for the existence of these sharp-clawed, but mysterious stalkers has been the death toll among vulnerable herds of sheep."
  • Beast of Barford: "It is twice the size of a dog print and clearly shows three huge claws and a large pad at the back. Wildlife experts believe the print is the most conclusive evidence yet that big cats are roaming Warwickshire."
  • The Beast of Gloucester and The Black Beast of Inkeberrow: "A 'huge black beast' ran in front of Ray Lock's car on the other side of the river near Lydney... one evening near Monmouth where it was described as 'jet black and about the size of a large dog.'"
  • Beast of Burford: "A £5,000 reward has been offered for the capture of a 'big cat' which has been terrorising a farming community ..... Pc Ray Hamilton, wildlife crime officer at Thames Valley Police, admitted there had been several sightings - but said this was not unusual. 'We've had sightings of everything you could imagine - pink flamingos, lions, dingos, wolves and even a giant ant-eater in Pangbourne.'"

The human desire to create imaginary "beasts" seems to have some correlation to the loss of large predators and true wilderness.

With the extinction of the bear and the wolf, the U.K. has lost all large predators and now has to suffice with two rather unimpressive meso-predators, the fox (average weight 15 pounds and living almost entirely off of mice) and the badger (average weight around 25 to 30 pounds and living almost entirely off of worms, beetle grubs, and small bulbs).

So what are these large feral "beasts" seen in the English countryside, and why is it that they are never actually found?

The short answer is that these "beasts" are nothing more than large escaped lurchers (coursing dog crosses) that have taken to livestock-worrying. As an article on the Beast of Osset notes:

"On a parkland estate in rural Yorkshire a poacher's lurcher (a fast greyhound-like hunting dog) was at large for six months but was sighted only once during that period. The gamekeepers knew it was there because they found the roe deer that it had killed, but it took a concerted effort with volunteers to flush it out of the wood."

In fact, sheep worrying is a serious problem
in the U.K., and while any dog can end up attacking sheep, it is the larger dogs such as Lurchers and Bandogs (mastiff crosses) that do the damage that lead some to think a large cat or lion is loose in the English countryside.

Sheep worrying by lurcher.

In fact, a lurcher really does look like a large cat if seen in the dark or fog, and especially if it is seen only briefly from a moving car, as most "big cat" sightings are.

A Bandog (what the Hound of the Baskervilles was) really does look like a lion if seen under the same circumstances.

What is amazing about the "big cat" stories in the U.K., however, is how easy they are disprove, and yet how utterly resistant people are to having their bubbles burst.

Take the issue of "big cat footprints". Most of these footprints are clearly large dog prints. How can we be sure? Simple -- all the footprints show claw marks. All the large cats, except the cheetah, however, walk with retracted claws, otherwise they would quickly dull

This foot print of the "Beast of Barford"
is held up by a young hopeful.

The other issue has to do with hounds -- the U.K. is crawling with fox packs, and yet none has ever chased and cornered a large cat other than the now very rare native Scottish Wildcat, which is not much larger than a tabby.

You can be sure that if the big cats were out there, British fox hounds would have found them by now! In the U.S., small teams of less experienced hounds manage to track down marauding farm-country cougars in only a few hours time.

Finally, we come to the issue of rub strips -- bits of carpet and tacks impregnated with a mixture of catnip and beaver castoreum -- that have failed to turn up any positive large cat hits in the U.K.

Wherever these rub strips are used -- whether in North America, South American, Europe, Africa, or Asia -- they are quickly found and rubbed against by large cats and other predators.

A DNA analysis of fur caught on the hooks of the carpet tacks can not only identify what species of animal has left it behind, it can identify what specific animal has come by in the night.

Rub strips are so accurate they are now routinely used to survey population densities of such elusive large cats as leopard, lynx, cougar, and jaguar, as well as badger, wolverine, bear, wolf, coyote and bobcat.

Of course, "Beast of" stories are not unique to the U.K.

Here in the United States we have Sasquatch and some local tales of little green men, swamp creatures, and even a werewolf or two (all delivered with a wink to small children).

In truth, however, we have far fewer fantasy "Beast" stories than the U.K. for a simple reason: we have more real top end predators.

In states like Minnesota, Wyoming, Idaho, Montana and North Carolina we really do have wolves prowling the remote sections.

In Florida, Louisiana and South Carolina we really do have 12 foot lizards slithering out of drainage ditches and quite capable of eating an old lady alive.

Mountain lions really do prowl the remote sections of Idaho, Wyoming, Montana, New Mexico, Colorado and even Texas, and are now being found as far east as Iowa.

Black bears number well over 400,000 in the lower 48 states, and there are over 100,000 more in Alaska.

Bobcats are everywhere, as are coyotes -- the later so common that there are bounties on them, including in my home state of Virginia.

No one living in a large America city today lives more than two hours away from a major top-end predator of some kind.

This is a glorious thing, and something we should count among our greatest national treasures.

But a "Beast of Bondwynn?" No, we don't have that.

In a world in which top-end predators are still common, there is no reason to invent ghost stories.



Seahorse said...

I was struck by your comment about wolves living in North Carolina. I had two guys tell me the other day that there are wolves in West Virginia, which surprised me. I questioned them carefully, asking if they meant coyotes, or wolf-hybrid "dogs", or anything other than wild wolves. They assured me they knew what they were talking about. They went on to say some wolves had inter-bred with domestic dogs and there were large packs prowling through the mountains where they regularly camp. According to their story, in the area they frequent, there used to be large sheep flocks, but the sheep have been wiped out by the wolves and the farmers don't even try to keep sheep anymore.


PBurns said...

Not only true, Seahorse, but I have pictures. See >> http://terriermandotcom.blogspot.com/2008/05/monongahela-national-forest-virginia.html

Those are red wolves -- the original east coast wolf -- which is stable hybrid between gray wolves and coyotes.


Jo Mercer said...

My brother lives in the Missouri Ozarks and says he has seen a cougar near his property. And locals who have goats claim they've seen a large and smaller cougar (mother and cub?) skulking around their farms, and have lost several of their herds to the cats. No doubt, if they exist, some good ol' boy will soon have the hides tacked up onto the back of his shed.

Heather Houlahan said...

We have plenty of Lion-on-the-Brain here.

"Cougar" sitings in Beaver County, PA -- with TV news footage of the Lab-sized dog-tracks as "proof."

Geezers in north-central PA who will SWEAR that the PGC is secretly importing mountain lions, and spin the most amazing tales of pre-dawn traffic stops of Game Commission officers with trailers full of breeding stock. These are the same guys who earnestly believe that the PGC imported coyotes, and that those same coyotes are eating all the deer.

Finally, there were the livestock attacks, also in Beaver county, that the owners KNEW were the work of giant coyotes aka WOLVES because, no dog could do it. They stopped after police shot a pack of scraggly dogs that tried to steal and eat a toddler from her back patio.

The Brits are silly, but I don't think we are so much less so. Even PA has its Sasquatch sightings.

Seahorse said...

Sonnavagun! I had no idea, though the guys telling me about these wolves were quite specific and believable. Are you saying that these animals are naturally occuring and have been around for a long time? I think I would have taken them for coyotes, though I'm by no means expert in coyote identification, either!


PBurns said...

I do not think the red wolves in the Monongahela have been DNA tested, but my bet is that they are a migrating pair and kin from the Alligator in North Carolina. Wolves will move a long way to find new space. Coyote-wolf crosses are also coming down from NY. Some of the eastern coyotes are 40-60 pound animals -- smaller than a grey wolf but larger than a western coyote. See http://terriermandotcom.blogspot.com/2005/02/eastern-coyotes.html for a picture of a 59-lb coyote, and here >> http://terriermandotcom.blogspot.com/2006/03/central-park-coyote-new-york-city.html for a coyote captured in Central Park (they really are everywhere now).


Chas S. Clifton said...

You might have missed this article.

Escapees from "safari parks" seems to be the leading hypothesis.

PBurns said...

My bet is that these are lurchers. Time will tell. You will note that no one seems to have reported a missing Big Cat, these animals were seen at night in a car while wearing InfraRed or LowLight googgles, etc.

Known Big Cats that have escaped zoos in the U.S. or the U.K. before (see >> http://ady.tearn.com/ady.aspx?id=38&mid=bigcatrescue&pid=1&url=http%3A//www.telegraph.co.uk/news/newstopics/howaboutthat/3279439/Boy-finds-cheetah-in-his-garden.html&z=44 ) are typically located or shot within a week. A breeding population would require: 1) several animals escaped at once; 2) of the same species; 3) different sexes, 3) in the same area with no mortality or infecundity, and; 4) no reporting of the escape and no inquiry as to "whatever happened to your lions?".


Seahorse said...

Those photos of "red wolves" and coyotes are fascinating and concerning. It was only a few years ago that the State of Maryland declared coyotes now live in every county. I've never seen one where I live but a credible person I know has, and she lives in a neighborhood in our still (relatively) rural county. Our Maryland farm is for sale and we plan to move to a southern state (SC) with a very well-established coyote population. I'm told you can legally hunt coyote there 365 days a year. Frankly, these healthy coyote numbers makes me a bit unsettled, especially pondering small terrier ownership again after several years without. Maybe it's over-blown fear of the unknown, but I'll cop to feeling a bit worried.


Anonymous said...

As far as I know (and I take something of an interest in such beasties), apart from escaped tame big cats recaptured there have only been two definitively large, unknown felids shot in the UK, both in northern Scotland, and the skins of both have been retained.

In one case, this large (body length of about 3 feet, excluding tail) black cat was caught in a snare and behaved so ferociously that the gamekeeper who found it stood back quite a way when he shot it.

On examination the animal was something of a mystery; it had very large teeth and for its size a very small brain-pan, smaller than a normal domestic cat. The eye orbits were complete, which in domestic cats they are not, and all in all the beast looked most peculiar, right down to unusually large ears.

At a rough guess, I'd say it was an F1 or F2 hybrid between a domestic cat and an exotic of some sort; these are now getting quite common as pets (and one was almost certainly the cause of the Church Fenton tiger reports of a couple of years ago; the area that this purported tiger was seen in is right next door to an RAF training base, and the surounding area is regularly and thoroughly hunted by the Bramham Moor and Badsworth foxhounds and never yet have they spoken on a tiger).

Apart from these reports, there is a continual low level of sightings of large black felids plus the occasional physical encounter with one, which usually results in mild scratches to the victim and only occurs under extreme provocation of the cat, for instance being actually stepped upon.

What you do not see is predation of deer, which are increasing in numbers in the UK, nor do you see much predation of domestic cats, small dogs, livestock and rabbits and nor does the predation of non-rabbit species increase when myxy locally wipes out rabbits. You don't even see local predation of deer infected with bovine tuberculosis, which is a local zoonotic that has badgers as the reservoir host.

What you do see is a strong correlation between sightings of big cats, truly enormous black dogs and other, stranger phenomena with geological faults which would lead to the hypothesis that geomagnetism-induced hallucination is the cause of many of the stranger sightings.

PipedreamFarm said...

Last week one of our neighbors called to warn us his son-in-law had seen a cougar crossing a field just above our farm in western Frederick Co, MD. I don't know the eye witness and another neighbor (longtime resident and farmer) who was also warned does not know the eye witness.

Just to be safe, I had a talk with Sam (our Maremma) to keep an eye out for a large cat. :)

Simba said...

Clearly this is all just a newfangled misinterpretation of sightings of the 'black dog' (madra dubh or gytrash).

If there's one thing we know from ghost hunters, the supernatural explanation is always the most likely one.

yakimabelle said...

There are cougar that have been shot inside California towns and suburbs; coyotes live in central LA, and bobcats were found living on freeway loops and under tool sheds in suburban Seattle. Meanwhile, at our home place in Nevada, coyotes, cougars, and black bears walk down the road.

What does crack me up is the supposed "monster" reported from a Midwestern state. The monster was somewhat large and smelled very bad. The picture looked suspiciously like a wolverine, a monster that is somewhat large and smells very bad. The "imaginary monster" was really a wild animal that the viewer had no idea existed.

Dan said...

One interesting thing about the various legends of huge black dogs in the UK is when these legends originated. The key to understanding both what they are, and why the legends are so place-specific is in the genesis of the legends.

They mostly start at a period of British history when smuggling of luxury good was absolutely rife. The government had just come out of a major war, and was short of money. Taxing income had yet to be thought of, so taxes on luxury goods were the best way of extracting money from the populace without causing riots.

Unfortunately Britain is an island, and most of us British are somewhat rebellious to the point of criminality when dodging tax comes up. The Scottish people were further from continental Europe and tended to go in for covert stills and the like; down in England smuggled booze and tobacco were more common.

Now, the thing about smuggling is this: actually shifting the goods from ship to shore is only half the battle. The other half is getting the stuff from shore to somewhere where the local revenue collectors won't see it, and it is very helpful indeed if you can persuade inconvenient witnesses to stay out of your way. Hence we see an outbreak of what one friend of mine terms the Health & Safety Beast.

"Stay out of that lane that runs from the hidden cove up to the church with the large and easily accessed crypt, for a huge dog with red-glowing eyes, truly a hound from Hell is known to roam this lane on the night of the full moon!"

Or rather, stay out of that lane or we might be forced to give you a little tap on the head with a club, and we can really do without having to make an inconvenient dead body disappear into the night, when we would be much better occupied hauling booze.