Tuesday, 23 April 2013

Wiltshire's Big Cats

Sightings of mysterious big cats have been reported across the British countryside for decades. As early as the 1960’s in Devon, Cornwall and Somerset, big cat sightings were on the increase, so much so that the media gave them names: In Cornwall, a huge panther-like creature was christened ’The Beast of Bodmin Moor”. In Devon and Somerset, ‘The Exmoor Cat’ had been seen several times prowling the moors. Descriptions of these animals vary only slightly; black or sandy in colour, resembling pumas, cougars, black leopards and panthers.

Many of these mysterious cats have been photographed and there is also some pretty convincing video footage to support their existence. With the abundance of photographic evidence, you would have thought it difficult to refute the claims of eyewitnesses, but as they say, the jury is still very much out. If they do exist, and there’s no reason to think they don’t, then the obvious question must be, how in blazes did they get here, after all, big cats are not exactly indigenous to Britain.

Explanations are wide and varied and some a little far fetched too, for example, it was speculated these animals had been turned loose by a passing circus. I find that theory hard to believe, why dispose of your livelihood, apart from that, most reputable circuses tend to look after their animals, but then I imagine there are disreputable ones too. The keeping of circus animals is set to change though, as the present government has proposed a bill effectively banning the use of wild animals in circuses. I wonder what will happen to the animals then.

One of the more outlandish suggestions to explain away sightings of big cats reported in Wiltshire, is that they escaped from Longleat Safari Park near Warminster. Now call me a bluff old cove but I can’t see Lord Bath’s staff, who I’m sure are very professional, not noticing that they were deficient in the cat department and it would be extremely damaging to Longleat’s reputation to cover up the fact that a big cat or cats had escaped from their enclosures.

A more plausible explanation may be as a result of the ‘Dangerous Wild Animals Act of 1976‘, which imposed laws regarding the ownership of non-indigenous species in the U.K. It was decreed that licences would only be issued to the over eighteens and only then, following a rigorous vetting of the intended owner and close inspection of proposed enclosures. It went further with regard to the ownership of big cats as ‘pets‘, this practice was to be prohibited. Further legislation included the introduction of periodic veterinary inspections, which I’m sure must have proved very expensive as would the cost of providing enclosures which would pass stringent criteria.

So here was the dilemma, what to do with your unwanted pussies?

The most sensible option would have been to turn the animals over to the RSPCA to be re-homed. Sadly, common sense may not have prevailed and some unscrupulous individuals may blithely have taken it upon themselves to turn the animals loose in the countryside. Cruel you may think but on hindsight, probably not that cruel from the animals point of view. With an abundance of food and cover, I can only imagine this lifestyle must have been preferable to being cooped up in a cage and fed dead stuff on the end of a stick.

There is little doubt that big cats could happily survive the British climate, the thing that intrigues me is why we don’t see them more often. The puma and cougar are native to North America, the panther is native to North America, Asia and Africa. All these cats are renown for their shyness and elusiveness, which probably accounts for their infrequent sightings, that’s assuming of course that what people are claiming to see stalking the West Country is nothing more than a rather large family tomcat, a bit like my rather large family tomcat, who it has to be said, often behaves like something four times his size. A Tomcat with attitude, that‘s my Max.

The Upavon Encounter
There have been many encounters of big cats in Wiltshire but one in particular I think ranks as being up there in my ‘most scary’ category.

The village of Upavon is situated 4 miles south of the Pewsey on the A345. It is flanked by vast areas of downland which borders Salisbury Plain, an area covering some 300 square miles, plenty of room for big cats to establish themselves, that‘s assuming there is more than one, which would seem essential to ensure the propagation of the species. Large puma like cats have been spotted in the meadows and fields by farmers and village folk in Upavon since the early 90’s. Descriptions are pretty much uniform; an animal about the size of a wolfhound, black or dark grey in colour, with a long sleek tail, catlike in appearance (that goes without saying) with an impressive turn of speed, especially when it has realized it has been spotted. However, not all encounters have seen the animal hightail it into the distance, sometimes curiosity is inevitable.

One such case was reported to Marcus Matthews (a local farmer and writer and one who is actively researching the big cat phenomena) by The Revd D.G Sloggett, who described an encounter in 1996 when his son and one of his friends came face-to-face with a panther like animal close to where they were playing some 50 yards from the rectory. Apparently the Reverend’s son and daughter had claimed on several occasions to have seen a large black cat prowling near to the garden’s perimeter for some two years or so.

The story goes, that the two boys had been playing with some bail twine, which they had fashioned into makeshift Walkie-Talkies by attaching two plastic cups at each end. As they played, one of the boys spotted a large black cat some yards away on an embankment near the ‘Pottery Track‘. The animal appeared to be staring directly at them. When it realized it had been spotted, it slunk off into the undergrowth, only to reappear again crouching close to where the boys were playing, almost as if it had circled them to gain an element of surprise. At this point the boys became frightened, they would later describe the animal as about the size of a German Shepherd, black and broad with a long thick tail. The animal was obviously in a playful mood (the boys didn’t know that of course) as it suddenly leapt from where it had been crouching and made a grab with its paws for the twine and cups. Now terrified, the boys ran for all they were worth, one of them still clutching the bail and twine with the cat in hot pursuit for said bail, twine and cups.

Never looking back and discarding the bail and twine in the hope the cat would stop chasing them, the boys managed to make it back to the rectory garden where they dashed into a garden shed slamming the door behind them. They tentatively peeked through the window where they discovered to their relief that the cat, the bail twine and cups had vanished.

Big cat sightings continue in Wiltshire especially on Salisbury Plain. I understand that the likelihood of encountering one is pretty rare but if you do dear reader, then the best thing to do is slowly back away in the opposite direction whilst avoiding looking directly into the animals eyes, as this can be interpreted as aggressive and threatening; the same can be said of dogs I believe. Big cats are rarely confrontational (unless you meet the ghostly White Cat on the Ridgeway of course) and will usually be long gone, so you wouldn’t have known they had been there in the first place - watching, waiting...

Enjoy your country walks...

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