A black five-year-old retired female greyhound named Rennie went missing from Crowborough, East Sussex, England, on February 13 of this year. A few weeks later, a spate of "big cat sightings" from nearby Ashdown Forest began.
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.