Saturday, 11 August 2018

CARL WRITES: 18/7/18 - Hawick, Roxburghshire

"Ex Detective Left Baffled by Sighting of Mystery Wildcat in Hawick." (The Southern Reporter, 18 July 2018) 

As an ex police chief inspector, Andy Suddon is likely to be a reliable observer, at least in terms of his integrity. However, we know next to nothing of his skill in biological identification, especially at night with limited visibility. There are previous reports of big cats stalking the Southern Uplands that might corroborate Mr. Suddon's claim, such as sightings in and around Hawick itself, of what were reported at the time to be large black cats; including observations made on the Hawick to Jedburgh road. Three years ago, a report was made of a panther-like cat being observed by a dog walker on Gala Hill in Galashiels, and in 2001, the British Big Cat Society considered sending a representative with a motion sensitive camera to Hawick after a spate of sightings there. 

A three ft long Leopard cat (Prionailurus bengalensis) was shot and killed near Jedburgh by Gamekeeper, Willi Thomas, in February 1988, and a second one was killed in neighbouring Berwickshire in 1989, proving none indigenous felids, at least were once living wild in the region. The origin of the Berwickshire leopard cat remains unknown. 

Of course it is entirely possible that Mr Suddon witnessed a bonafide 'big cat', maybe an escapee from a private collection, or even the first or second generation offspring of escaped or released animals. Although Mr Suddon's property is located on the outskirts of a populated Scottish town, it backs onto expansive areas of wilderness such as Hawick moor and nearby Kielder forest. I personally believe that the continuation of the British big cat phenomenon is not entirely sustained by natural procreation. Even though some breeding has obviously taken place, resulting in observations of cubs alongside an adult, as a whole, the British populations are the result of continuing escapees and illegal releases, and numbers are far lower than most researchers suggest. In the National Parks of Kenya there is approximately one leopard every 10 square kilometres, whereas in the UK, I would expect it to be more like one every 500 square kilometres.      

Enter Felicity.

Scotland is the only British country that can actually claim the verified capture of a wild puma, after a Cannich farmer named Ted Noble, captured a live puma (Puma concolor) in a bated trap on his land in 1980, following an eight month hunt during which he lost many sheep and foals. The puma, which was later named Felicity, was presented to the Highlands Wildlife Park near Kingussie, where she stayed until her death on 30th January 1985. Felicity's remains were stuffed and mounted and now resides in the Inverness Municipal Museum. There is some controversy as to how long Felicity was living "wild" for. 

A Very Credible Scottish Case.  

On the night of June 16th 2001, while driving home from Dundee to Cupar (north-east Fife), journalist Ralph Barnett, while rounding a bend and coming out of a slight dip in the road, put on the full beams of his headlamps, illuminating what he reported to police to be a big dark-coloured cat, which promptly leapt away leaving behind a bloodied roe deer carcass (Capreolus capreolus). 

The remains showed very distinctive circular shaped lacerations on the neck, clotted blood on the face, and a protruding tongue; implying asphyxiation. The entire carcass was split open along its ventral surface, and its left hind limb was defleshed right down to the bones. Barnett reported that moist blood, disturbed earth, and tufts of deer hair were present at the roadside. The big cat (if that's what it was) obviously was dragging the carcass across the road when Barnett rounded the corner frightening the predator away.

My opinion is that the extensive trauma present on this carcass provides strong evidence for a big cat kill, suggesting that these top predators continue to stalk the Scottish wilderness, though in very low numbers.

Back to Hawick..
     
Given that Scotland appears to be suitable both for big cats to remain hidden, and to provide the resources necessary for their sustained survival, it is conceivable that a normally highly secretive, young 'panther', most likely a black leopard (Panthera pardus) might have wandered too close to a populated area after a night of unsuccessful hunting; or dehydrated and looking for water in the recent hot weather, and was observed by Mr Suddon from his kitchen windoas it prowled the borders of his property. 

However, the 20in (50.8cm) body reported is very small for a leopard and would have to be a cub if anything!

Mr Suddon's observation was made in the evening (Monday 16th July) in low light conditions, and some of the features described could potentially be those of a half grown fox cub or even a malnourished vixen, such as the described long legs, long tail, and "sharper" facial features. In low light, a fox might seem darker in colour than it really is (especially if dark furred and silhouetted against the moonlight) and might honestly be mistaken for a young black leopard.  

"Andy, 78, was within 7ft of the creature, and he says it looked to be about half again as large as a domestic cat" - About the size of an average fox!

"... it had what I would describe as a sharper face than a cat" - Could this also be describing the long, sharply defined muzzle of a fox?

"It was sleeker than a domestic cat tends to be, about 20in long, and its legs and tail were longer."  - Sleeker in proportion, approximately 20in (50.8 cm) in length, with longer legs and tail - Again, these descriptions could all potentially be of a fox. A half grown fox cub or an emaciated vixen that had recently birthed a litter, especially if she alone had to find enough food to sustain both herself and her cubs due to the absence of a male, for whatever reason, would have a relatively thin furred tail (and generally look slender and more cat-like in the absence of this otherwise typical featureuntil winter approaches. 

A fox is definitely within the size range of a "young lynx" - the animal compared to this mystery animal by Mr Suddon himself. As far as I am aware, the bobcat is the only member of the Lynx genus to produce extremely rare mechanistic specimens

Black Foxes?

Melanistic foxes do exist in Britain (I possess hairs and a tissue sample taken from a black fox killed near Bassingbourn, Cambridgeshire (see my article The Sad Tale of the Black Fox - CFZ blog, March 30, 2012). DNA analysed by Helen McRobie, a lecturer in biomedical sciences at the Life Sciences Department at the Anglia Ruskin University, proved it to be a silver/red fox (Vulpes vulpes) raccoon dog (Nyctereutes procyonoidesinter-genetic hybrid, probably bred by fur farmers to produce foxes with a thicker pelage. However, naturally occurring black foxes are almost as rare as the mystery big cats themselves. In most reports of black foxes, the animals are usually going through a phase where the colour of its fur is particularly dark. This phenomenon is usually seen in growing cubs and generally the fox will develop to have a dark chestnut coat, but a few red foxes will remain black due to one or two rare genetic mutations dating back centuries. As mentioned, only a handful of natural melanistic foxes are thought to exist in Britain, although siblings might share the same genetic makeup for this mutation. 

Conclusions

There are almost certainly some big cats stalking the Scottish countryside and other rural areas of Britain, however, personally, think Mr Suddon either saw lean, dark coloured fox, or very large domestic cat. Mr Suddon claims to have good vision, been teetotal for 20 years, and says he was within seven feet of the creature for about a minute, which all suggests he may have witnessed something unusual. I have come across many 'big cat' reports that seem to describe extremely large domestic cats and a few of these giant domestics have been recorded on video.   


Two Big Cats 'Spotted on the Loose in Gloucestershire'. (GloucestershireLive, 28 July 2018) 

British big cat researcher, Frank Tunbridge received reports of what maybe two big cats roaming Gloucestershire late last month (July 2018). One was seen off France Lynch, near Stroud, at 8:30 am, and the other near Church Lane in Barnwood at 11:15 pm. Mr Tunbridge has quite accurately suggested these animals may have been forced to venture into populated areas because their usual water sources have dried up in the recent hot weather.

Mr Tunbridge believes the animals witnessed were leopard (P. pardus) X puma (Puma concolor) intergeneric hybrids. Unfortunately there are no photographs of the animals in question. 

The France Lynch sighting.

A resident from France Lynch, Stroud, contacted Mr Tunbridge, rather ambiguously claiming "She was going out to her garage when she saw a water leak from a pipe, which had created a puddle... [She] saw the rear end of the cat, by this puddle. It was ginger, foxy colour... The tail is nearly as long as the rest of the animal. It has a hook at the end". 

Shortly after the sighting, the residents friend saw what appears to be the same animal on allotments and similarly described it.  

This creature was claimed to be approximately the size of small Labrador dog and therefore still within the expected size range and colouration of a large fox, and, as mentioned previously in the Scottish report, both half grown cubs and emaciated vixens still have noticeably thinly furred tails until the winter months. This feature might not be expected during a brief encounter and mislead the observer into believing they have just witnessed a large fawn coloured cat, especially if the forelimbs and head were not clearly observed.   

It is extremely difficult to believe that this animal, which was apparently observed at close range, in, or near an enclosed environment, could have been any big cat species, hybridised or otherwise.

The Church Lane Sighting.

The second report provided to Mr Tunbridge was of a black animal with a "round puma-like head" and "shiny coat" observed from a house window approximately 40 yards away. The eyewitness first observed a fox in the same area, quite distinct from the alleged cat. The mystery animal reacted to the presence of the fox which in turn frightened the fox away. 

This alleged big cat was observed (albeit imperfectly) for about an hour before disappearing into the night. The eyewitness then tried to safely get a better look as the animal moved away, which activated his security light, illuminating the creature further, allowing for adequate viewing conditions.

Mr Tunbridge said "A man was looking out of his house window, and he saw a big black animal on its haunches 40 yards away." 

"It was watching another house intently... What they do sometimes is kill a domestic cat in times of need. It may have been going to do that."

"After about an hour, the cat disappeared out of sight and the man walked outside to get a better look."

In my view, the Church Lane report may potentially be of a genuine black leopard, possibly a sub-adult.

The creature was described as slightly smaller than a Labradoodle, muscular, with long legs and an "extremely long tail". Mr. Tunbridge believes the animal went to the area because of its pond. 

"The cats are moving around to find water sources in this heat", Mr Tunbridge said.

In theory, the alleged cat's prey are also having the same problem finding enough water, so they are travelling around too, with the alleged felids potentially following them.

"Usually, sightings dry up in June and July, but not this year, because there is less water."

Mr. Tunbridge revealed four more big cat reports described to him so far in 2018.

Conclusions.

I feel that out of the three main observations reported in the above article, the most likely to actually describe a feral black leopard, would be the Church Lane sighting reported to Mr Tunbridge. Even though there is strong evidence for the continued existence of large predatory felids in Scotland, I believe its more likely Mr Suddon (despite his professional credibility) either observed a dark coloured fox, (maybe even something almost as rare as the British big cats themselves, a melanistic fox (V. vulpes)), or a massive domestic cat (Felis catus). 

Of the two Gloucestershire reports, one, the France Lynch sighting, as far too ambiguous to provide any further details and is therefore invalid. 


The Church Lane sighting is, in my view, the most likely to have genuine cryptozoological connotations.

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