On the prowl
Mark Burrows goes on the trail of the big cats of Dorset
Published in February ’09
|A black panther is actually a melanistic leopard: a recessive gene turns its hair pigment black|
‘I am absolutely a hundred per cent sure that what I saw was a panther,’ insisted eyewitness Mark Dawson of the animal he spotted near Dorchester football club in August 2007. Like others who claim to have recently spotted a similar beast in the Dorchester vicinity, he was convinced it was not a dog. Other details, including the lengthy tail and the general posture, provide some substance to Mr Dawson’s perception.
Sightings of felid phantasms stalking Great Britain have surged since the mid 1970s. Dorset, if not as prolific as Devon and Cornwall, has had more than enough to attract the interest of committed trackers of Alien Big Cats, as they are often termed, including the police. According to their wildlife officer, PC John Snellin, ABC sightings in Dorset average around 30 per year.
In 2005, sightings around Bournemouth and Poole prompted Dorset Police to issue a plea to holidaymakers to dial 999 if a suspect animal was observed. This spate included a supposed puma present in Bournemouth’s West Cliff Road. Lately, Wareham and Purbeck have not been neglected by big cats as suitable habitat, according to reports. Further west, a mystery cat was seen with increasing frequency near the village of Broadwindsor. It was described as being the size of an Alsatian dog, and sightings of it spread to the Beaminster and Bridport localities.
Often providing conflicting reports of colour and size, some witnesses have insisted that they not only unequivocally saw a puma but also heard it roar. This is an impossibility: pumas, despite their size, cannot create the roaring sound with their throat apparatus. Furthermore, many people do not realize that a black panther is a leopard with a genetic mutation causing the overall darkening of hair pigment, which is termed melanism.
|Pumas (also known as cougars or mountain lions) are indigenous to the Americas but can live in mountainous or tropical regions. Strictly speaking, it is not a ‘big cat’ because it cannot roar|
The description confusion is well illustrated by a series of large cat sightings in and around Weymouth and Portland over the last twenty years. The initial reports stem from the Westham area, where several pets were mysteriously killed in the late 1980s. As sightings increased, the range widened to include Portland, Preston and Upwey. The animal is usually described as black and the size of a small leopard or puma; however, descriptions have also likened it to the distinctive species of wildcat, lynx or jungle cat. Yet a group of eyewitnesses who were confident that they had watched a lynx on Portland gave a detailed description that was indicative of a jungle cat –which, to the informed, is as different from a lynx as is a zebra from a shaggy pony. All the while, people monitoring these sightings have been convinced that they represent one individual cat – most commonly either a puma or lynx. PC Snellin confirmed in 2005 that the Weymouth area is a hotspot for lynx reports. It is possible, whatever the merits of muddled identification afforded by locals, that there may have been more than one species of exotic cat at large.
Of other more tangible evidence, spoor (paw prints) from around the nation has been promising, some hair samples indisputable, and attacks on livestock animals compelling. Twin puncture wounds to the neck resemble the classic bite of big cats, and multiple ripping wounds are indicative of razor-sharp claws gripping their prey. The nature of sheep carcasses adds to tell-tale signs – unlike the mess and frenzy of dog feeding, the bones and pelts were left largely intact while the flesh is cleanly stripped away. Supplementing the pile of documented cases in Devon and Cornwall, sheep killings like these have occurred near Wimborne and Ringwood.
Still photographic evidence has, with occasional exceptions, been poor quality. Video evidence of ABCs filmed in other counties has been different. While some show nothing other than large tabbies, foxes or dogs, there have been argument-clinchers: a clip showing leopard-like felids in two Cornish locations is highly persuasive, and another filmed in Worcestershire surely reveals a melanistic leopard on the prowl.
|The road from Wareham to Arne, on which the Hatch family saw big cats on two separate occasions in 2004|
With the weight of evidence in favour of the presence of ABCs in Dorset, why are they here? Plunging down a crypto-zoology rabbit-hole, the researcher Di Francis has suggested that they represent an indigenous British big cat that has so far eluded scientific classification. An intriguing local theory proposes that our mystery felids are descended from escapees of travelling Victorian show menageries that passed through Dorset. Most likely is that these cats have been ‘let out of the bag’ into the wild either deliberately or through escape. Certainly the Dangerous Wild Animals Act of 1976, a government reaction to the boom in keeping such animals, played a role. Without the means to obtain the new prerequisite licence and rather than face having their pets put to sleep, some owners, as they have since confessed, released their animals out of the car boot. Using the internet, people are still illegally obtaining big cats that have been smuggled into or bred in the country. As with pet reptiles, once the animal becomes too difficult to keep – and despite a 1981 act criminalising this activity – the tempting disposal option is discreet release.
Cats are typically secretive and remote, and as elusive as ghosts. While a minority of leopards have become prolific man-eaters, they normally prefer to avoid humans whenever possible. On the other hand, due to human contact before release, their innate fear of people will be diminished. It is prudent to steer clear of any wild animal that is wounded, cornered or accompanied by its brood. On balance, if you are strolling through Dorset meadows, woodland or country lanes, the chances of a big cat lurking nearby are slim. Should such an occasion be the exception, then it is far more likely that the cat will be aware of human presence rather than the other way round – and warily be intent on keeping it that way.
|Dorset wildlife artist Aviva Halter-Hurn’s painting of the big cat she saw late one night as she was driving near Broadoak|
The survival of these cats here is viable with our populous rabbits, deer and squirrels. Leopards, like pumas, will eat anything from beetles to hefty grazing animals. When opportunities get harder, herds of sheep offer irresistible temptation, as some farmers know only too well. Pumas are indigenous to the Americas, where they exist in snow-swept mountains and tropical regions alike. The adaptable leopard also exists in a variety of habitats and climates, and the lynx was indigenous here until hunted to extinction perhaps only a few hundred years ago. The European wildcat, now clinging on in the Scottish Highlands, had also been indigenous throughout Great Britain. So too, once upon a time, was the leopard.
But throughout most of the Pleistocene epoch, from about two million until ten thousand years ago, leopards were not the only large felids established in southern England. All now extinct, Owen’s panther, the European jaguar, the cave lion, and Homotherium also roamed what is now the county of Dorset. Possibly the largest cat ever to have existed, the European cave lion shrank just a little towards the end of the last ice age ten or so thousand years ago. The first discovery in 19th-century England of macabre elongated fangs caused a sensation: the flat and serrated scimitar blades of Homotherium evolved to slice through the toughest hides. Two sub-species of Homotherium existed here during the Pleistocene. The greater scimitar cat was an intimidating lion-sized predator. Sloping down from front to rear with forelegs longer than the hind limbs, Homotherium had a gait which resembled that of the spotted hyena, a bone-crunching predator more closely related to cats than dogs, also once present here. None of these bore any resemblance to our everyday moggy who pops over the garden fence to snatch a few prized Koi carp from the neighbour’s pond.
|Big cat country: the village of Broadwindsor was the focus of a spate of sightings in 2005|
The odds on digging up the bones of an extinct felid in Dorset are considerably longer than spotting an ABC, but evidence suggests that neither is impossible. In adjacent counties, the lesser scimitar cat has been found in Devon’s Kents Cavern which has, like Somerset’s Mendip cave network, also yielded the cave lion. Purbeck and Portland caves may be good options but almost anywhere would do, so long as luck grins more broadly on the discoverer than the Cheshire cat. Pleistocene finds in Dorset include a rhino at Encombe, a mammoth near Blandford Forum, and an extinct type of elephant at Dewlish. We await a prehistoric felid.
Should you spot an ABC, Merrily Harpur, who runs the Dorset Big Cat Register and is the author of Roaring Dorset!, which lists hundreds of Dorset sightings, would like to be informed. Video such a beast on the loose and the local television stations, for a start, would appreciate a copy. The odds on discovering a fossil felid may be as long as those of the proverbial cat in hell: whoever finds Dorset’s first large cat fossil remains will arguably have achieved something more extraordinary than the first person to video capture a leopard stalking the whorls of Maiden Castle.