Saturday, 29 June 2013

Beast of Bodmin: Truth Or Fiction?

Cornwall’s Bodmin Moor breathes myth, its brooding isolation silent and ominous. Remote hamlets and farmsteads huddle in shallow valleys, along narrow, twisting roads. And across the granite uplands, peat mires and windswept treeless heath a shadowy creature prowls: the Beast of Bodmin.

Since the early 1980s more than 60 sightings of the Beast have been reported. Up to five feet long with large yellow-white eyes, the animal apparently resembles a puma or a panther; it appears mostly at dusk. So far its attacks have been confined to livestock, but some local people believe the big cat searches for human prey.

At first glance it’s hard to see how the Beast could have originated. But before the mid 1970s, having a leopard or a panther as a pet wasn’t unknown among the rich and avant-garde. That changed with the 1976 Dangerous Wild Animals Act, which restricted keeping such exotic creatures.

But between then and the introduction of the 1981 Wildlife and Countryside Act, it was perfectly legal to release your meat-loving companion into the wild; some believe discarded pets were dumped in remote areas. Other theories include circus escapees and, rather more left-field, survivors from Ice Age big cats.

In the early 1990s Bodmin Moor’s farmers experienced a spate of attacks on their animals. Speculation grew that perhaps the Beast wasn’t just a fancy of eccentrics; occasionally too, big cats were found in other areas. 

During 1980 at Cannich in Inverness-shire, a farmer captured a puma; christened Felicity, she was kept at Kincraig Wildlife Park near Kingussie. In 1991 near Norwich, a gamekeeper shot dead a Eurasian Lynx. Persistent rumours of Bodmin’s wild cat finally led to an investigation by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, their concern the safety of livestock.

Under intense media interest, the Ministry’s enquiries began in January 1995 and lasted until July. But despite their efforts, the search was unsuccessful. Video footage and photographs submitted as evidence turned out to show domestic cats. Night images sometimes revealed pupils narrowed by lamplight to vertical slits; but in none of the larger cats such as leopards, jaguars and pumas do the pupils contract in that manner.

The Ministry’s subsequent report found “no verifiable evidence” of a big cat on Bodmin Moor, and suggested the mangled sheep could have been killed by animals native to Britain. Tantalisingly though, the report also concluded "the investigation could not prove that a 'big cat' is not present."

Just two weeks following the report, a boy walking on the moor at Golitha Falls noticed a skull in the water. Undeniably cat-like, the skull was missing its lower jaw but among the upper teeth were two large fangs. 

The story made the national press and the find was rushed to the Natural History Museum’s Department of Zoology. Experts agreed that from the number, position and types of teeth the skull was that of a young male leopard. Inside though, they found an egg case belonging to a type of cockroach not native to Britain. They also noticed the back of the skull had been cut cleanly off, a sure sign it had once been mounted on a rug.

The 'Piltdown Pussy' hoax was a serious setback to the Beast’s credibility, but nonetheless sightings and indications continued. During October 1997, Cornwall’s Newquay Zoo officials claimed paw prints left in mud near Bodmin Moor were those of a puma. Some London Zoo staff also believed there was little doubt the Beast existed. In August 1998 an amateur video clip taken on the moor was released, which appeared to show two cat-like creatures of around three feet long.

By then, Paul Tyler, a staunch believer in the Beast and at the time Liberal Democrat MP for Cornwall North, had submitted to the Government his own file of evidence. Photographs, admittedly poor, were included of a black cat-like animal seen at Cardinham and another apparently sunbathing near St Austell. Tyler urged Elliot Morley, then Fisheries and Countryside Minister, to consider the file but Morley’s view was: “I am afraid that, until we obtain stronger evidence … big cats are still in the category of mythical creatures.”

During November 1999 a hi-tech attempt to find the Beast was made by volunteers from the RAF. The team of men and women spent the night camped on the moor, using up-to-the-minute night-vision equipment, thermal imaging, seismic intruder devices – and chicken offal. But perhaps the area’s notoriously changeable weather came to the big cat's aid. Fog developed and though the detection gear was triggered several times, confirming its cause proved impossible. Once again, the canny Beast had evaded its pursuers.

Finally in March 2010, after an investigation across Britain, the Government’s environmental watchdog Natural England (whose predecessors include parts of MAFF) declared: "It is very unlikely there are any big cats at large." During the study, supposed sightings were gathered from people nationwide, but Natural England found not a whisker of conclusive evidence. Equally though, no reasons or motives were put forward to explain why so many claimed to have seen the animals.

Despite the numerous sightings of Bodmin’s prowler, photographs have yet to appear which show the Beast at all clearly. The few images capturing the creature are as poor as those peddled by UFO hoaxers and their Chevrolet hub-caps. And why is the animal often said to be black?  Most cats big or otherwise are marked with variations of stripe or spot; is it that black has been chosen by fakers as a suitably chilling, evil colour?

Rural legend, hoax, or fact? The big guns of Government departments can find no convincing confirmation of the Beast’s existence. But regardless of officialdom's views, on Bodmin Moor sightings and livestock attacks continue. Cornish people who’ve made careful, painstaking study of the evidence over many years insist big cats, and the truth, are out there.   

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