Tuesday, 2 October 2018

CARL WRITES: 24/9/18 - 'The Beast of Bodmin'

The "Beast of Bodmin" according to The Packet Newspaper.

Read the original story here.

Since the first sightings of the so called "Beast of Bodmin Moor" began back in 1978, and with sporadic reports of mutilated livestock made famous in 1983, there have been many such observations of anomalous panther-like felids reported to Devon and Cornwall Police. In general, scientists dismiss such reports due to the improbably large numbers of animals necessary to maintain sustained breeding populations, and because resources and climate issues would make such purported creatures' survival in alleged habitats, such as Bodmin Moor in Cornwall seem unlikely.

The main hypothesis suggested by British big cat researchers is that the animals at large in the United Kingdom could have been imported as part of private collections or zoos, and either escaped their enclosures, or were purposefully released illegally into the wilder areas of Britain. The escaped big cats would not be regularly reported to the local authorities due to the illegality of the importing, owning, and releasing of such animals since the Dangerous Wild Animals Act of 1976. However, it has often been claimed that British circus entertainer Mary Chipperfield released three cougars into the wild following the closure of her Plymouth zoo in 1978, and that subsequent observations of the animals gave rise to the first rumours of the "beast", though such claims have never been officially verified and many early reports refer to large black animals that cannot be those of cougars, which do not officially produce a melanistic variety.

In 1995, the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food conducted an official investigation. The enquiry published that there was "no verifiable evidence" of such predators loose in Britain, and that the mauled remains of livestock were probably the result of indigenous species and dog-worrying incidents - "worrying" is synonymous with gnawing when applied to animal behaviour. The official report stated that "no verifiable evidence for the presence of a big cat was found... There is no significant threat to livestock from a 'big cat' on Bodmin Moor."

However, such depredations have continued, albeit infrequently. 

Less than a week following the government announcement, a young boy walking by the River Fowley discovered a large cat skull measuring approximately ten centimetres long and eighteen centimetres wide, the skull was missing its lower jaw but possessed two very sharp, prominent canine teeth that suggested that it might have been a leopard - a species of big cat that does produce a well known melanistic variety. The discovery of the skull coincided with the official government counter-statement.

The skull was sent to the National History Museum in London for authentication, and determined to be that of a young male leopard, but also found that the animal had not died in Britain. The back of the cranium was clearly cut off in a way that is typically used by taxidermists to mount the head on a rug, and there was an egg case inside the skull that had been laid by a tropical species of cockroach that is not found in Britain.

There is no doubt that Bodmin Moor is a very atmospheric place. Should one find themselves alone there at dusk it is difficult not to think about the legends of "the Beast", but is it possible that despite the 1995 government report, and the disappointing discovery of the pre-mounted leopard skull, such a creature might actually exist after all?

The "Beast" is the result of numerous sightings of black panther-like big cats (therefore not cougars unless poorly observed), supposedly three to five feet in length and sporting yellow-white piercing eyes, and the various reports of mutilated livestock. Some credible eyewitnesses have also reported seeing such a creature over the years, and it seems likely that on occasion, a wandering leopard might have made temporary residence on Bodmin Moor. Leopards and cougars both have very large geographical ranges (cougars once had the largest range of any predator in the Western Hemisphere) so it is entirely possible that escaped big cats do occasionally venture onto Bodmin Moor, although they obviously do not remain there. According to Packet Newspapers Limited, since 2000, 205 sightings have been reported in the Devon and Cornwall force area, and now new freedom of information requests have revealed that Devon and Cornwall have been called a further 55 times since the beginning of 2011, although only on seven occasions since 2011 have police officers actually attended incidents, and no details on the disclosure log reveals whether there actually was a 'big cat' on the loose.

The Packet also reports that sixteen of the 55 reports since 2011 took place in July 2016 after Flaviu the Lynx famously escaped from Dartmoor Zoo. Witnesses reported that Flaviu had also been observed as far and wide as Exmouth, Dartmouth, Newquay and Bideford. Flaviu first escaped from the zoo at Sparkwell on July 7 when he chewed his way out of his enclosure, just a day after arriving from Port Lympne Animal Park in Kent. However, it’s almost impossible that Flaviu was responsible for all these reports as he was eventually captured three weeks later, 200 yards from Hemerdon Plantation, a woodland approximately a mile away from the zoo, in a trap set by keepers after he hunted and killed four lambs. The geographical range of a lynx is far less than those of leopards or cougars.  

I am of the opinion that large non-native felids do exist in small unsustained breeding populations in Britain, supplemented by simultaneous, illegal escapees from private collections, adding to the genealogy of these highly illusive animals. I suggest that even though breeding has probably taken place in the UK, resulting in observations of cubs alongside an adult, as a whole the British populations are the result of continuing escapees and illegal releases, and the actual number of these animals are far lower than most researchers might 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 closer to one every 500 square kilometres.  

Essentially the big cat[s] referred to as the "Beast of Bodmin" was probably one in the same as the so called "Exmoor Beast" and “Beast of Dartmoor”, or descendants, simply travelling great distances and responsible for multiple observations over the intervening years.    

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