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Monday, 11 November 2019

FOLLOWING THE SHOALS

When a Monster, of the sea serpent variety, was filmed 3 times in the River Thames in March to April 2016. I was reminded of an old theory I had pondered upon, regarding the creatures of Loch Ness and other seldom sighted water cryptids.  

The mosaic which adorns the floor of the Patriarchal Basilica of Aquileia,
Italy and depicts the prophet, Jonah, being swallowed by a sea monster.
(4th Century AD)


My theory in regards to the seldom sighted creatures of 'Ness and their numerous relatives, is that they are seasonal or occasional visitors, following fish migration routes and that they are spotted by members of the public, when they are travelling through our lochs, lakes and rivers or around our coasts.

This is theory only, but one that could be applied to many lake monster sightings around the British Isles in both coastal and inland waters. Because the search for food is a behaviour defining necessity for all animals, I began to wonder if we could track these creatures' movements via the monitoring of fish migration patterns? Maybe, even predict the times and places that they are most likely to visit a particular coastal spot, river, lake or loch, based upon real-time updates of fish migrations to and from our waters. Then at least, we might just have a chance of proving the existence of these creatures through repeatable and predictable sighting hotspots, creating protected nature reserves and arranging for scientific monitoring of the species via non-intrusive remote high tech ROV's and online camera surveillance.

Special data collection and collation would be required for such a theory to work, including cooperation with various fisheries departments and monitoring bodies. But, in the absence of this great feat of (assumed) government cooperation in the search for sea monsters, there is another quite important technique or method that can be derived from this 'pie in the sky' idea and that is the collation and data-basing of locations, times and dates of spawning and migration of known prey species, weather conditions etc. and then correlating this information against sightings of these magnificent and elusive creatures in the hope of finding repeatable patterns of predation. This information could then be used to create an algorithm or a 'key' for predicting the time and season of future appearances of any number of cryptids upon which to base an expedition

This theory is based partially upon an assumption that repetitive feeding patterns or migration routes of most animals are habitual, and that a location that has had one sighting is likely to have another, and if that sighting observes feeding or predation, then it can safely be assumed that this location and sighting are potentially repeatable. In cases of the predation taking place during a fish migration, then the reliability of the method for predicting the approximate timing and locality of the 'monsters' appearance could be increased tenfold. 

Another possible theory is that they are seen when searching for a mate. As most sightings of sea serpents and lake monsters are of single animals and very rarely feature 2 or more creatures together (multiple sightings are often assumed to be adults with young), I would propose that it is safe to assume that they are solitary, possibly territorial animals, that only seek the company of their own kind as juveniles or during natural breeding seasons, perhaps somewhere out at sea (like eels) or maybe; leaving their lakes and waterways to move across land, driven by some inexplicable natural sense to propagate their species.

The possibility of water monsters feeding on migratory fish like eels and salmonids is very probable and there have been several eyewitness accounts that describe them doing just that. 
What follows are some examples of alleged plesiosaur sightings that describe the animals in the act of hunting or predation. I think these serve as a small sample of the type of information that could be collated nationwide to include not only observed predation but also 'regular' monster sightings where the witness' did not see voracity per se, but the sighting still coincided with the location of a known fish migration or congregation. (river mouths, etc.)


Let Us Prey
Fisherman along the stretch of coastline between Paignton, Plymouth and Falmouth in the south-west of England have for many years blamed a poor day's fishing on the presence of Morgawr and it's many relatives that inhabit this corner of the British Isles. Although most of the British coast is replete with monster sightings, this little corner of our waterlogged island seems to be particularly popular with these mysterious creatures

The Saltern Cove Chameleon was witnessed by several people in July 2010, chasing shoals of Mackerel in the shallows of Saltern Cove, Paignton, Devon. The frightened fish were actually seen beaching themselves in an attempt to escape the creature, which was seen hunting the fish in and out of the water by several witnesses. 

What has become known as The Plymouth Crocodile was sighted at Devil's Point, off Plymouth in 1987 by an experienced diver who says he saw a 'dog-like head on a neck rising 1 metre out of the sea'. He noted that it was in a 'spot favoured by conger eels'

Probably the most famous Sea Monster in this part of the British Isles is Morgawr (which means Sea Giant in Cornish) that was first seen by 2 witnesses at Pendennis Point, Falmouth; in September 1975. The witnesses claim to have seen a humped figure with 'stumpy horns' and bristles on its long neck, catching a conger eel in its mouth, 

Navy Seals
The Welsh coast, as well as its inland lakes, have their fair share of water monster stories, one of which recounts the predatory pursuit of several seals by a plesiosaurid sea monster. It is notable that other Sea monster reports around the world have also made mention of seals as an occasional prey item for these aquatic cryptids. The eyewitness account, related here and which was first reported in Paul Harrison's 'Sea serpents and Lake Monsters of The British Isles', is quite plain and yet definitive in its description of both predator and prey. 

In 1963, Mr P Sharman whilst on Holiday in New Quay, Wales (Dyfed) saw a plesiosaur-like creature from a clifftop as it was chasing seals in a rocky cove, (presumably in an attempt to prey upon them as a food source)He described 'watching the seals flee from the animal, which was 30-40ft long and black in colour, with a short tail, four flippers and a long neck with a small head.'

What's This All A Trout?
Loch Ness, Scotland's most infamous and over investigated tourist attraction, has very few observed sightings of predation. One reason for this could be that the creature either hunts in the deeper waters of The Loch or both preys on and eats the fish it catches underwater. Salmon inhabit the Loch and its rivers all year round and there are also, sea trout, char and eels amongst other fish species, that could provide a regular supply of food for any proactive predator willing to travel. 

One example of Nessie hunting fish was witnessed by John Mclean, whilst standing at the shore near the mouth of the Altsigh Burn. He was looking for a good spot from which to fish and was watching to see whether any trout were rising when he saw something very frightening. 

He said: "It was the monster's head and neck, less than twenty yards from me and it was, without any doubt, in the act of swallowing food. It opened and closed its mouth several times quite quickly, and then kept tossing its head backwards in exactly the same manner as a cormorant does after it has devoured a fish. 1 was absolutely petrified with astonishment, and if I did have a camera with me I was so excited that I would probably have spoiled the chance of a lifetime. The monster, I am sure, is eighteen to twenty-two feet long, the tail fully six feet, and the largest hump was about three feet high. The head is small and pointed, the skin very dark brown on the back, and like that of a horse when wet and glistening. The neck is rather thin and several feet long, but I saw no flippers or fins."  Although the witness did not actually observe the fish being eaten, the fact that this extraordinary sighting took place at a river mouth popular with fisherman, in conjunction with the action of swallowing, in which the creature was observed, clearly leads to the conclusion of feeding. 

Something Smells Fishy? 
For the purpose of matching Nessie sightings to fish migrations and movements, the year-round salmon supply in The Loch makes things a little difficult. To add to this, the eel migration happens in August at night, a time when this rural setting provides a dark cloak of invisibility to any creature that wishes to remain hidden and unobserved. There are however some very interesting facts which were gleaned from Nessie sightings over the last 20 years that provide other methods with which to streamline this which-hunt. Geographically, the majority of sightings are in the northern half of the Loch and where they appear in the southern end, they are usually exclusively near the 'Inver' (Gaelic - River Mouth) villages. In fact, almost all sightings apart from 'mid loch' sightings are in the vicinity of river mouths emptying into The Loch. The only section of The Loch lacking in any sightings at all is the south-east end, which coincidentally perhaps, does not have any rivers at all. This adds a sense of gravity to the theory of temporary and transient habituation of The Loch as a place to hunt fish that congregate at the river mouths, which are in turn attracted by the nutrients that are stirred up by the current and its insect life, but it is also this concentration of fish that is indicative of the creatures presence or lack thereof! 

Salmonids and eels are insectivorous fish and therefore the availability of insects upon which to feed will directly affect their numbers. When looking at the last 20 years of Nessie sightings at Loch Ness, an environmental influence on the frequency of sightings becomes apparent. For example, there was an average of 5 sights per year between 2001 -2005 (which culminated with a heatwave) but then the sightings dipped right down to 1-2 sightings in the years 2006-2010, which had 4 incredibly wet summers. As many a beekeeper will testify, bees like many other insects will fly in the snow, frost and fog, but not the rain! And if the bees won't fly, then neither will the other insect species, leaving a much smaller food supply for the insectivorous fish population and in consequence reducing it, thus leaving Nessie & friends to seek their fare elsewhere! This for the moment is just a theory, but I think that the data supports the idea of Nessie being a part-time resident in Loch Ness, a fair-weather friend, if you will, willing to wander to wherever the food supply is plentiful. Yet, another environmental lesson for us to learn about how weather affects every aspect of the natural environment and can even change the behaviour of both predator and prey!

An illustration of the type of correlation one would expect to find if this theory were true can be demonstrated in the concordance between the yearly salmon catch in Loch Ness and reported Monster sightings. For example, in 1999 there was a huge drop in the salmon catch in Ness' which was also matched by a significant drop in Nessie sightings!  

The table below is based upon a 16 year period in Loch Ness, utilising data such as salmon catches, weather conditions (where available) and Nessie sightings, to validate a correlation between fish numbers and the predictability of 'monster' sightings.

SEE TABLE: 

In the figures for each year below, there is a general correlation between salmon numbers and Nessie sightings, but also some anomalies. For example, in 2013, only had one sighting all year but nothing to indicate the reason why. Although, it was colder than the average, with several months of disruptive snow and further summer months of downpours. 2010 also stands out, but Met office data for this year provides a possible answer.

Year
Number of Nessie sightings
Salmon catch
Amount above/below 5yr average catch
Weather data using 1981-2010 average
2015
5
1222
+276
mean temp  +0.2C
rainfall 105-115%
2014
5
815
-120
mean temp +0.5-+1.5C
rainfall 105-115%
2013
1
930
-26
mean temp -0.2- >+0.5
rainfall 85-105%
2012
2
847
-144
mean temp -0.5 - +0.5C
rainfall 85-105%
2011
4
917
-199
mean temp +0.2-1.5C
rainfall 115-135%
2010
1
1166
+1
mean temp -1.2 - 0.5C below
rainfall <65-85% average
disruptive snow and rain
2009
1
923
-376
mean temp +0.5 - 0.8C
rainfall 95-115%
2008
2
1102
-321
mean temp +0.2-0.8C
rainfall 105-135%
2007
2
1471
+81

2006
1
1174
-144

2005
4
1823
+496

2004
3
1546
+402

2003
2
934
+20

2002
5
1114
+84

2001
5
1218
+284

2000
11
910
+10

1999
4
595
-545
large drop off in numbers of sightings with a huge drop in the catch


Most interesting is the huge drop off in salmon catches in 1999 which links with a drop in sightings overall. The sighting figures do not recover with the fish catches suggesting people are NOT reporting or misidentifying salmon as 'Monsters'

Sources:
  • Total Ness District Rod Catches of Salmon (salmon and girls combined), 2015 season catch analysis, Ness District Salmon Fishery Board. www.ness.dsfb.org.uk
  • The Official Loch Ness Monster Sightings Register, www.lochnesssightings.com
  • Annual Weather Summaries, www.metoffice.gov.uk

    The Absence of Evidence
    Many theories have been put forward over the years as to what Nessie could eat in The Loch as it has been estimated that only 27 tons of fish exist in its 'unproductive' Waters (excluding eels). This theory in particular, realistically only acts as an 'academic' Straw Man, a protest from researchers too busy trying to prove a truth instead of discovering one and a study too personal to view as unbiased. In rebuttal, it could simply be pointed out that this information was gathered from a ship that only trawled to a depth of 100 feet and it should reasonably be assumed that the study chose a small section of The Loch within which to statistically demonstrate the population of the entire water, which would naturally exclude its great depths. After all, as it is commonly boasted that the Loch is between 700-900 feet deep,(there is some dispute over this) I feel that it would be safer to conclude that the outcome of this research was the discovery of only 27 tons of fish in the first 100 feet of Loch Ness (excluding eels); and the acceptance that there may be more or fewer fish stocks in the deeper places of this massive body of water, not forgetting its rivers. There are also large numbers of zooplankton in the Loch, that could easily sustain a very healthy population of fish, or perhaps, even a monster if it were so inclined to eat such fare. 

    The fish species in the Loch are salmon, trout and sea trout, eels, char and very occasionally sturgeon. There are also many sheep grazing in the surrounding hills, that could become a choice meal on the odd occasion, as well as deer in healthy numbers, there have been several 'alleged' sightings over the years of Nessie emerging from the undergrowth with 'sheep' and other animals in its mouth.  Some claim that there have been a significant drop in Nessie sightings per capita of visitors to Loch Ness over the years, with some of the more evangelical sceptics claiming that the increased traffic on and around The Loch should yield a significant increase in sightings, as there are quite simply, more people to witness her than ever before. 

    Again, another common 'Straw Man' that is regularly used as an example for 'the absence of evidence, being evidence of absence'. This argument, of course, quickly succumbs to the powers of 'the monster' to frustrate the sceptics at every turn - I am of course alluding to the year 2016 being one of the busiest years on record with 7 recorded Nessie sightings! In regards to the supposed absence of scientific evidence and preferring always to name the elephant in the room, I would say something more along the lines of  'If there's enough evidence for a court to convict you, then it should surely be enough to convince you!'

    Nessie, Where Art Thou? 
    So if there is a breeding population of prehistoric animals in and around the waters of the British Isles, why don't we see them more often? Surely, a large air-breathing creature like a plesiosaur would be seen frequently by anyone within the vicinity of its habitat? Not so! There are a few points to make about this, the first of which is the misconception that wild animals somehow want to be seen by people or are oblivious to our presence. This is patently untrue and wild animals; even predators will usually avoid contact with humans if possible. The second point is that there are populations of known animals in the British Isles in great numbers which are very rarely seen, even in areas they are known to inhabit. There are, for example, an estimated 1.5-2 million deer roaming free in England that are rarely seen by the majority of the population. Why? because these animals are cautious, reclusive and wary of humans. I am reminded of a story related to me of a party who had stalked a known population of sea otters on Loch Fyne for several days. The otters were known to inhabit the loch and are rather conspicuous animals. After a very unsuccessful search of several days, one of the party after sitting motionless for 2 hours in a rather inaccessible part of the lochside, was lucky enough to glimpse one of the animals for 10 seconds, at dusk. 

    In the case of lake monsters, counterbalancing the creatures reticence for public display makes a focus on corroborative and especially antagonistic witness reports extremely importantIt is easy enough for our debunkers and researchers to neutralize and nullify a lake monster photo as nothing more than a log or a seal, but if 3 unconnected witnesses claim that, that log or seal was, in fact, a 40ft long serpent, with reptilian features that reared up 10 ft out of the water and growled at them...well, then that's a little harder to dispute.


    Roman mosaic from around the 3rd Century AD,
    found at Lydney Park Temple in Gloucestershire, UK

    All in all, I think that it's highly likely that these creatures eat a varied diet of fish and other marine animals, such as seals, squid and eels, with the occasional land animal thrown in for good measure. Whatever their dietary outlook, they certainly do seem to be of a transient inclination, at least in the waterways they are said to inhabit, and I can only join the great throng of speculators, who postulate not only about the preferred plaice for their palate, but also the mode of their habits and habituation. Are they migratory fish eaters, stalking and hunting the shoals throughout the offshore and inshore waterways of the British Isles? One thing is for certain, and that is that Nessie and her many friends are seen both in fresh and saltwater, more frequently than some would like to admit, in and around the British Isles. It would be reticent of us to not consider that some of the animals we see in the rivers and off the coasts are of the same genus as those in lake and loch and are on occasion, perhaps even the same animal, far away from home, searching for its next meal. So it would seem (at least in theory) that the discovery of these elusive creatures is not altogether impossible, but is fraught with difficulty and distraction as has been proven in the last 80+ years. 

    But, If we can map the movements of their food sources, we should be able to predict, within a reasonable margin of error, the time and place of their appearance. The author is not a statistician however and his conclusions could by his own admission, be quite fallible. However, there is a seed of an idea in this hypothesis, a working and wonderful blueprint for tracking down all unknown animals. That is, follow the food - find the beast! 

    In conclusion, if we follow the source of their food with quietude and discretion, with carefully placed hides and remotely monitored game cams at conspicuous locations that have a history of sightings, we may indeed find our elusive cryptids, engaging; just as all other animals do, in the eternal and unending lifelong search for food! 

    Addendum:
    Originally written between 2016-17 and redrafted for the 2nd edition of this title in 2019, this chapter was published before the results of Professor Neil Gemmel's eDNA were announced. However, although the results of this extraordinary new technology seem somewhat damning, I do not believe that they were exhaustive nor conclusive in disproving whether or not 'the monster' exists. The study itself even failed to obtain DNA samples of otters, which are known to frequent Loch Ness and seals, which although rare, do occasionally enter the Loch, from time to time. That being said, one would have hoped for at least some ambiguity or some unknown, yet quantifiable evidence, of our beloved cryptid mascot to have been found...

    Written by Andrew McGrath

    'Following the Shoals' is an excerpt from my debut title - Beasts of Britain.

    For more on Beasts of Britain, check out:
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    Tuesday, 3 September 2019

    THE PLYMOUTH CROCODILE

    In early February 2015, a huge reptile was photographed swimming in Plymouth sound, Devon; with several local people claiming to have observed the strange creature swimming half-a-mile offshore. Allan Jones, a university technician who reported the sighting had a telephoto lens with him at the time and managed to capture a number of images. He said: "At one point it was near a boat and it looked about the same length. I've never seen anything like it - the first thing that struck me was that it looked just like a huge crocodile, The first photo I took I was up by Smeaton's Tower, but then I went down towards the sea for some closer shots. The creature or object moved in circles, appeared to curve its shape and moved a considerable distance from left to right, turned and then moved back the other way. I have circled a piece of floating wood that floated up to and past it. The creature or object then turned and remained stationary. It was very strange. It must have been 20-foot long. And it was moving against the current at some points. I'd love to know what it was."

    The Plymouth Crocodile - Photo by Allan Jones, 2015.

    This sighting has a great degree of credibility. There are so many facets that enrol themselves as a witness to the validity of this testimony that it scarcely seems worth defending or explaining. But, in order to juxtapose this sighting against others and validate its criterion, let us examine the verbal and physical evidence as we see it. In the first instance we have multiple witnesses that viewed the creature moving against the current, saw it circling and curving its shape and therefore it could not have been an inanimate solid object. We also have a boat in the background to give it some scale and several photographs taken by a ‘university technician’ with a telephoto lens from 2 separate vantage points, that place the creature in several different locations, swimming both with and against the current, therefore proving its animate nature, for as we all know; flotsam does not possess the ability to either change its shape or actively move against the current. The portion of the creatures back that is visible in the photos has the appearance of being bumpy or pocked in a similar (but not exact) manner to that of a crocodilian, but with a strange small, sail-like spine and small rounded lizard or snake-like head, which tells of an altogether different genus for this creature than that of a member of the crocodylomorph family.

    So, once again we come to this identity crisis, a taxonomic tossup, as to which order this creature belongs. If we look in to the history of the coastal area around Devon and Cornwall especially, we find many similar accounts of strange reptilian sea monsters and of course some photographic evidence as well, that may offer some familial support in reference to extending the credit of this errant and troublesome visitor to our shores and the unfortunately speculative lives of all cryptozoologists as well. Fortunately for us in this case this whole area is replete with sightings of similar beasts and strange oceanic visitors.  In 1975 we hear of a sighting of a large creature with a humped body, long neck and small head with black-brown skin like a sea lion that was witnessed near Pendennis Point, Cornwall. The creature was photographed and the photo donated anonymously to The Falmouth Packet Newspaper, the following year in 1976. The creature was given the name Morgawr, which means Sea Giant in Cornish, by self-proclaimed Wizard and alleged conjurer of these aquatic beasts, Tony 'Doc' Shiels. In point of fact the photo by Mary F is also allegedly a manufacture of this controversial ‘Wizard of the West’ and bears a striking resemblance to a photo he allegedly received from Edward Kelly, also an alleged hoaxer, of a creature in Lough Leane in County Kerry, Ireland in 1981. 

    When we are faced with such indeterminate evidence and questionable character, we certainly are not able to ascertain the truth from such sources and must revert again to the unwilling and antagonistic witness and rely upon the power of trauma upon those whose memory has been shocked in to remembering an unusual encounter, as something of such an unnatural animality, that it will be emotionally burned in to the brain of those who experience it.

    There have of course been many other regular witnesses over the years, but the local acceptance of a creature borne out in superstition, but also based in reality has had a mixed effect on the perceived folkloric element of the creature whose presence is said to be prefaced by a scarcity of fish and the coming of bad weather. Whether or not this is mythology mixed with experience we cannot know for sure, but historically speaking, most attributed supernatural animal powers are an interpretation of natural events viewed through the lens of superstitious culture and tradition. However, the history of British Water Monsters is replete with hoaxers and fakers and although we are in a time when cryptozoologically speaking, Bigfoot is King! and the hay day of Nessie-like reports and newspaper articles have certainly waned; our aquatic cryptids of lakes and lochs and our mystery migrants from the sea, still have the ability to steal the headlines, at least for a morning or an afternoon and very occasionally for the most bodacious of serpents, until teatime. 

    Written by Andrew McGrath

    The Plymouth Crocodile is an excerpt from my book - Beasts of Britain.

    For more on Beasts of Britain, go to: 
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    Saturday, 3 August 2019

    CATS IN THE CRADLE


    Nocturnal Isolation
    The most commonly held theory about the presence of Big Cats in Britain is that they were released by exotic pet owners, shortly before the introduction of the 'Dangerous Wild Animals Act, 1976’, (which was introduced to regulate the disquieting trend in the late 60s and early 70s, of keeping dangerous, exotic and hybrid, status animals), and have since gone on to thrive, in what is largely an island of cattle and countryside, overflowing with easy prey species which are officially, lacking any large, natural predators. Britain is, for the most part, an island in darkness; dotted with poorly lit villages and dimly illuminated towns. Even its large cities are crisscrossed with green corridors and wooded outposts full of cover, where a nocturnal and elusive animal could easily hide out after dark. So, how do we examine this Big Cat problem? Unlike most cryptids, we are at least certain of the existence of these animals, it's just that they are not supposed to exist here, in Britain!

    Living in Symbiosis
    Unfortunately, the introduction of the DWA act would seem to have had the opposite of the desired effect, of keeping the population of these animals under strict control.

    In Section 3 (c) & (f) of the act, we can read the requirement that:

    (c) any animal concerned will at all times of its being kept only under the authority of the licence — (i) be held in accommodation which secures that the animal will not escape, which is suitable as regards construction, size, temperature, lighting, ventilation, drainage and cleanliness and which is suitable for the number of animals proposed to be held in the accommodation.

    (f) While any animal concerned is at the premises where it will normally be held, its accommodation is such that it can take adequate exercise.

    Sadly, it is these two particular stipulations that I believe, would have had the greatest impact upon owners of Big Cats. The costs of providing both an adequate enclosure to comfortably house and allow for the adequate exercise of such energetic and powerful animals, in near zoo-like conditions would have been prohibitive for everyone, except the financially well endowed. Thus it makes sense that owners would have released these animals into the wild. These reckless or perhaps desperate, owners, were simply unable to foot the bill and released their pets, either believing that they would perish or be protected, by their largely nocturnal habits and the isolation of their rural settings.

    In retrospect, it may have made sense to provide an easy way out for these owners, in the form of agreements with local zoos and wildlife parks to take any unwanted animals, or for local authorities to provide initial subsidies to existing owners, caught out by this change in circumstance. But that does not seem to have been the case.

    Historically, Norfolk, Suffolk, Devon and Cornwall seem to have had the largest concentration of sightings, but that is no longer the rule. Sightings are countrywide and are reported so frequently, that it has become a full-time job just trying to keep track of them. The most frequently sighted species are large black cats, most likely melanistic leopards, with the second most sighted, likely being pumas (mountain lions), with many witnesses describing a large cat with a tawny or silver-grey colouration.  

    As we are now in the early part of the 5th decade since the Dangerous Wild Animals Act, 1976, was introduced and these animals have a maximum lifespan of 13 years for the puma and 17 years for the leopard; there should be no doubt that the cats' people are now seeing, are the descendants of these original exotic pets. There have even been sightings of Big Cats with cubs, yet more proof, if any were needed; that the animals are surviving quite comfortably in our land of fields and felids.

    When it comes to this particular 'British Cryptid', or perhaps we should say, more properly, 'Out of Place Animal', there are simply too many significant sightings to recount here. The accounts of Big Cats are in fact so numerous, that I am certain several books consisting solely of eyewitness reports, could be written on the subject and yet still leave a wealth of untapped original reports for other authors to research.  

    Initially, when I began writing this book, I made a social media appeal for people who had witnessed any unusual animals, asking them to send me their stories. As one might imagine, I received countless Big Cat stories and little much else! Our national and local newspapers are replete with big cat stories and anyone with the patience to surf a few websites, will easily find myriad reports to choose from and researchers engaged in the hunt for this elusive invader. But, in order to exhibit here, this bountiful treasure trove of anecdotal animals roaming throughout our land, I intend for the most part, only to include sightings that have been reported to me directly. In fact, you will not find the following reports in other books or in any newspapers. Alarmingly, what they represent to me is a ticking time bomb or an incident in waiting; whilst we continue to deny on a governmental level, that we now have several, large, native predators; that are for want of a better word – home-grown!

    Sightings

    THE FINEDON LION
    This sighting was related to me by a resident of Finedon, a small town of just over 4,300 people, set amidst the beautiful countryside of Northamptonshire. Although there is extensive rural landscape surrounding the town, it is worth noting that the animal he witnessed in the late summer of 2009, would have had to traverse a populated and very urban part of the town, in order to find itself in his back garden.

    “It was late summer and I had gone out to take the laundry off the line. As it happens, I was taking clothes off pegs and was facing the rear of the garden. I suddenly caught movement in the background. On the right-hand side of the garden as I was looking at it, was the very tip of something tan coloured and although I only saw it extremely briefly, the colour was very distinct, as it flashed behind a big black water barrel that was there at the time. Almost immediately, I saw movement again. Something was clearly behind that barrel.

    I continued to look and what must have been a few seconds later, I saw a creature take two leaps across the width of the garden, followed by an almost vertical jump to the top of a 6-foot fence panel, at the rear left-hand side. The fence swayed 2-3 times under its weight and then the creature jumped down into the neighbouring garden.

    Three thoughts went through my mind as I was watching all this. I remember them clearly. These three things were:

    ·         There is a boxer dog, in my back yard!
    ·         Boxers don't have long tails?
    ·         Boxers don't jump on fences!

    I remember those exact thoughts as if they happened yesterday. I remember the fear setting in immediately, as my mind finally made a connection between what I saw moments before and the cougars I had seen in films and documentaries throughout my life. I remember running into the house with whatever clothes I already had in my hands and locking the door. I remember shouting incoherently at my wife, running up to the upstairs bedroom that overlooked the back garden and trying to catch a glimpse of it again. For the next couple of weeks, I did not venture into my back garden at night and when I went there in the day, I carried a very big knife on me.”

    THE CASUAL BIG CAT OF RUSPER
    Two incredulous witnesses observed a Big Cat at around 9:30pm, on Monday 27th November 2017, in Rusper, West Sussex, whilst collecting a hay consignment from a local farm. After loading the hay on to their vehicle, they were just about to leave the property, when one of the witnesses briefly jumped out of the car to close the farm gate. As she made her way back to the vehicle, both she and her friend clearly saw, illuminated by their headlights, an enormous jet-black cat walking towards them and looking at them intently. When the animal was about a 'bus length away' (45 feet!), it stopped and licked its nose, before casually disappearing into a hedgerow.  The witness, amazed by the sight of this creature, says that there can be no mistaking what she saw and said of the animal: "It was huge and its big eyes were shining back at us. It was unnerving, to say the least. It didn't seem bothered by us at all. I had no idea at all that we had big cats in this country!!" She further described the creature saying: "It was about the size of a Great Dane, but much, much heavier built and definitely male. When it turned, I could see its body was around 4ft long and its tail was around 3ft long. The tail wasn't straight and almost touched the ground, even though it curved at the end. The thickness of its tail was approximately as thick around as my wrist and its legs were, well, stocky, thick or 'good boned' as we would say in horse terms. It had a slinky walk for its size, moving effortlessly. Its ears were also strange, they were not pointed but round”.

    THE LEOPARD OF LLANDUDNO
    This sighting was related directly to me via social media and of the many reported sightings I received, this particular one stood out as an unusual and slightly comical sighting.

    "My name is Terry Brown and I once saw a black leopard on a north Wales beach, while fishing with my son. It was just after first light, so there was good visibility. We saw a leopard stalking in sand dunes close by and watched it until it suddenly spotted us, then we ran like crazy! I even overtook my son! Looking back as we ran, I noticed that it ran the same way, which was scary! It must have thought we were fair game; it was literally 100 metres away. We got back to the car carrying 50lb of fishing gear in record time! This sighting was in 1998 and I and my son still laugh about how I overtook him. I did report it at the time, as I was worried about people getting mauled, but the police just laughed at me, so I've not talked about it since. I've kept the location to myself for fear of people wanting to kill (or hunt) this marvellous animal."

    AVEBURY, BIG CAT & CUB
    One of the sticking points in Big Cat research is the absence of credible reports of adults with young cubs. This incredible sighting, which occurred near the Avebury Stone Circle, in Wiltshire; fills that gap very neatly and illustrates a very natural mother and cub interaction:

    “My sighting was in early August 2012, in Wiltshire; not too far from Avebury stone circle. I had decided, as I don't live so far away that I would take my dogs there for a walk and make a day of it. I had parked near the white horse and I was on a country path that went towards an old Iron Age settlement. I was the only person around the path and was at the top of a hill, so I had a good view down in front of me. It was then that I noticed two black things moving around on a grassy patch by some trees, next to the edge of a field. One was smaller than the other and it sat watching the bigger one, which was pouncing around in the grass trying to catch something. After a while, the larger one just started to walk away along the edge of the cornfield, away from me. The smaller one jumped to its feet and chased after it. They walked the edge of the field, until out of sight. It was a huge black cat and a cub. It had a long tail and it scared me. I turned around and walked back to the car after that.”

    BIG CAT OF HOLLYM
    This sighting took place in Hollym, in East Yorkshire (Coast) somewhere between April and May of 2002 and is a good example of the boldness that some of these animals are starting to display towards people and vehicles; which may go some way to explaining, the steady increase in sightings over the last 20 years!

    “At the time of my sighting, I was living in Withernsea – a small seaside town on the East coast of Yorkshire and working at a bakery in Hull and as such was getting up fairly early and driving to work. The next village is Hollym, it has a crossroads and it was further down the road from this that, as I drove along, I saw a huge black cat, appear at the side of the road next to the hedge. It was casually walking (slowly) across the road, from my right to left – it was massive!
    It was not bothered about me or my Ford Escort whatsoever, It almost stopped halfway over the road and looked over towards me, as if to say:, ‘I’m a big black cat! –whatcha gonna do?’ I couldn’t believe my eyes, all the hairs on my body were standing in shock, it was beautiful and freaky at the same time and I was thoroughly amazed and couldn’t stop thinking about it for ages. As I got further down the road, it simply went in, under the hedgerow and disappeared.”

    THE PRESELI PANTHER 
    Witnessed in 1999, by the sister of an ex-girlfriend. After an afternoon visiting a friend in a nearby farm, our witness was riding her horse home over the Preseli Mountains in West Wales, when she stopped briefly to rest and look back towards the farm, she had just left. Usually a sceptical person, she was very surprised to see a large black cat with small ears and a long tail, about the size of an Alsatian dog, chasing sheep in the field next to the farm. Seeing that the creature had a predatory demeanour, she became afraid and quickly rode home.

    THE CRYMYCH CAT 
    Another big cat sighting took place outside a home in which I was staying, in the lovely village of Crymych, West Wales on Christmas morning around 5am, in 1999. A guest of my host, a lady in her mid-50's and a smoker, was enjoying a cigarette on the front porch, when she suddenly noticed a large black cat, resembling a panther, staring at her out of the darkness just 15 feet away. She watched the animal for about 30 seconds before it melted away into the undergrowth. She was understandably in a state of shock at what she had seen and for obvious reasons decided not to join our impromptu Big Cat hunt later that day.  I personally have a lot of trust in the veracity of both this and the Preseli Panther sighting. Both persons were known to me and had no interest in or awareness of the Big Cat phenomenon, at the time. They both gave corroborative descriptions of the animal they had witnessed and I think it can quite confidently be asserted that either they witnessed either the same animal or the same species of animal, on both occasions.

    THE SANDY COLOURED STALKER 
    This sighting was passed to me by a roadie of one of my former bands, back in the late 90's; after he had witnessed a sandy coloured, large cat that resembled a puma; on a Devonshire beach one night. The animal approached him and his friends, just stopping short of the headlights of their car. The animal quietly observed them for around 30 seconds, before disappearing into the darkness.  

    THE DEVONSHIRE DOG CATCHER 
    Another Devonshire encounter, with one of these mystery big cats was related to me by an ex-flatmate in the year 2000. He was living in a small village in rural Devon and was walking his dog one summer evening at twilight, when he became aware of a black shape in the tree line moving towards them. At first, he thought he was looking at another dog, but due to its size, quickly realised that he was being stalked by what appeared to be a large black panther. He quickly ran with his dog back to his home, which was close by, and secured himself and his dog inside. He stated that he believed that the creature was stalking his dog and not him, but was fearful of what could have transpired if he had not escaped, due to the animal's size.

    Under Our Nose
    These sightings are just the tip of a very large iceberg. Even though there were an astounding 460 reported sightings logged by police in England, Wales and Northern Ireland between 2010 and 2016, it is estimated that there are around 2,000 sightings each year in the UK, many of which go unreported, due to fear of ridicule. This extremely high number of reports and sightings would seem to defy the efforts of any sceptic to deny the presence of Big Cats living in our midst.  I would expect that anyone examining the wealth of evidence pertaining to the presence of these creatures here in the UK, presented through photographs, film, eyewitness reports, tracks, livestock kills and other signs of habituation would seriously reconsider their position on this very exciting subject.

    We live in a land of plenty, for such skilled predators as Big Cats. A land that offers many places to nest and hide, filled with livestock, deer and many smaller species that could sustain quite a healthy population of these 'Out of Place Animals'. In our present era, many still believe that these sightings are cases of mistaken identity, perhaps large dogs or deer seen in poor light, or even an occasional zoo escapee; but for our children, I believe that Big Cats will be an accepted and natural part of the fauna of the British Isles.


    Written By Andrew McGrath

    'Cats in the Cradle' is an excerpt from my book - Beasts of Britain -  available here!

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