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.   

Wednesday, 26 June 2013

Wimbledon's First Hero: Dustin Brown!

At Wimbledon today we have our first real hero of this year’s championship: 28-year-old Dustin Brown, dreadlocked, chilled, with his own wonderful take on the game.  

Coaching manuals are in the bin; Dustin plays naughty tennis. This afternoon he beat former champion Lleyton Hewitt in four sets; all through, he looked as relaxed and sunny as if he was having fun in the local park.

Born in Germany to father Leroy and mother Inge, in 1996 Dustin moved to Jamaica. His game’s based around serve and volley, sort of, but that’s not the full story. Today he pulled off a dazzling, mad variety of shots which simply don’t exist in any textbook. 

Ladling the ball over the net, delicate flips at crazy angles, a freakish compendium never seen before. Hewitt didn’t know what to do with him and after the shot that won the game, Dustin Brown’s grin would have powered the National Grid. 

Now, he can afford a new campervan to replace the old bus bought with mum and dad's help; usually he slogs around Europe scrapping at the less august levels of tennis. But for now Dustin, we’ll look forward to seeing you in the next round at SW19. 

Tuesday, 11 June 2013

GCHQ Bude: We Are Listening

Set atop barren cliffs, during calm weather the great white domes and dishes of GCHQ Bude sit in silence broken only by seabirds. But high perimeter fences isolate the satellite ground station from curious coastal walkers; scouring nearby footpaths, security cameras monitor and record. For while the site’s visible from miles away, it’s also Cornwall’s most secret place.

Since 1919 Britain’s had a code-breaking agency, to analyse information gathered from foreign powers. That year the Government Code and Cypher School was founded, based in central London and run by the Foreign Office. The term Government Communications Headquarters first appeared as a cover name for a new centre created in 1939, away from the capital at Bletchley Park in Buckinghamshire.

Each day during the Second World War Bletchley’s code-breakers were fed with encrypted enemy radio transmissions, intercepted by a network of stations across Britain. When the team moved to Cheltenham in Gloucestershire during the early 1950s the GCHQ title was formally adopted.

Today Bletchley Park’s wartime successes are celebrated, especially the astonishing mathematical feats led by brilliant Alan Turing in decrypting the German Enigma cipher machines. By contrast, GCHQ’s post-war activities have always remained elusive to the public eye. Secrecy is vital in its work at the heart of Britain's international confrontations, her struggle against terrorism and the prevention of serious crime.

One of the country’s three security services alongside MI5 and MI6, GCHQ deals with signals intelligence, known as SIGINT: the eavesdropping, interception and analysis of radio and electronic signals to draw together information. Once studied and filtered, data of possible importance is passed to the Government’s military, diplomatic and law enforcement departments, and often to Britain’s allies. The service also uses its Information Assurance processes to protect Government communication and data systems from cyber-attack.

In 1967, to increase its international listening capacity GCHQ began work on a new satellite ground station, situated in north Cornwall. That year the Ministry of Public Buildings and Works was allotted land on which to build, a flat, remote clifftop area at Lower Sharpnose Point, around 5 miles north of Bude.

Throughout the war against Nazi Germany, the site had hosted an RAF station used for anti-aircraft practice. Named Cleave after a local farm, the trainee gunners fired out to sea at target-tug aircraft and radio-controlled aerial drones. But though the base closed in 1945, the vacated land remained in government ownership.

Early into the project, GCHQ engineers visited the civilian satellite communications terminal located around 80 miles south-west of Bude at Goonhilly, on the Lizard. There they examined Goonhilly’s methods of bulk information handling, particularly its telephone traffic. Meanwhile in 1969 construction of the Bude station began, remaining wartime buildings mostly swept away. The location was ideal; clear air free of electrical interference, and solid bedrock to support huge dish antennas. Its remoteness too was attractive, inaccessible and difficult to find among obscure back roads.

Transporting materials and large pieces of equipment through the winding lanes was a logistical horror, but by 1974 CSO (Composite Signals Organisation) Morwenstow was operational. The site was equipped with the most sophisticated receiver technology available, including two truly enormous dishes weighing hundreds of tons, to capture signals broadcast from across much of the world.

Between Morwenstow and a base run by its American counterpart, the National Security Agency, by the 1980s global interception was achievable of transmissions across the INMARSAT land, sea and air mobile satellite communications system. But as the various satellite networks grew and their broadcast rates soared, so the listeners’ equipment and capacity had repeatedly to be upgraded. To preserve a truly global intercept capability, international co-operation became essential; more bases were built around the world by the allied powers. At Morwenstow a third giant dish appeared, and during July 2001 the site became known as GCHQ Bude.

For some time, it’s thought, Bude’s activities were assisted by nearby Goonhilly. Perhaps it was no coincidence that the eavesdroppers’ base had been built close by; countless signals from satellites received by the civilian terminal were duly captured by GCHQ. But by the time Goonhilly ceased most of its operations in 2008, Bude had long established a stand-alone capability; the various antennas, around 20 altogether, could track most signals passing through western communications satellites.

Allegedly the station can cover all the main electromagnetic frequency bands: L-band, C-band, Ku-band, X-band, Ka-band and V-band. This would allow interception across a huge spectrum, from computer data to TV signals live and recorded, fax and telex, internet, telephone landlines and cellphones.

Commentators believe Bude’s antennas are often angled toward the INTELSAT satellites, as well as those of its former Eastern Bloc INTERSPUTNIK equivalent, and the INMARSAT system. The satellites are positioned over mainland Europe as far as the Urals, the Atlantic and Indian Oceans, Africa, and the Middle East. Between them, they deliver voice and data communications for the world’s leading media and telecoms companies, multinational corporations, internet service providers and government agencies.

Bude also contributes to the mysterious commercial and private communications intercept system named Echelon, established world-wide between GCHQ and the National Security Agency. Echelon’s suspected existence first emerged in a 1997 European Parliament report and though its presence is no longer in doubt, for some time neither Britain nor the United States went out of their way to add any details. With their overseas partners, each day GCHQ’s listeners screen millions of captured messages for key words, using voice profile libraries and dictionary computers. Most are discarded, but those using suspicious words or the names of prominent people attract analysis.

During the 1990s some EU states expressed concerns over Echelon’s more commercially-sensitive intercepts and the fear that with others, Bude might be involved in industrial espionage. In July 2001 a second European Parliament report appeared, intended to provide reassurance by giving a degree of information about Echelon.

Without revealing activities in any detail, impossible given the network’s covert role, the report emphasised its security and intelligence purposes; misuse of commercial information was denied. Also touched on was Echelon’s limited technical suitability for industrial espionage. By that time, most EU member states had established parliamentary committees to scrutinise their intelligence services. In Britain the job fell to the Intelligence and Security Committee, which monitors GCHQ’s activities as well as those of MI5 and MI6.

Recently though it’s been suggested GCHQ has circumvented the law in other ways, intercepting personal data on British citizens through the US Prism spy programme. Prism is said to give systems access to nine of the world's top internet companies including Microsoft, Skype, Google and Facebook. The British government has faced pressure to answer allegations that using Prism has allowed GCHQ to evade the UK legal process for obtaining personal material such as emails, photographs and videos. The government denies CGHQ has acted illegally.

Meanwhile, beyond Bude's security fencing there’s still some evidence of the RAF's wartime presence: at the cliff edge, concrete plinths that once mounted artillery and the target-aircraft catapult; the old mobile radar ramp; pillboxes dotted around. Passing cliff-path walkers are able to inspect the relics, but today’s base wouldn’t take at all kindly to close examination. The activities of GCHQ Bude remain as opaque as the sudden sea mists which roll in along the Cornish coast, but one thing’s for sure: they’ve got your number.