Nearly ten years ago, my old friend Nigel Wright and I collaborated on a book called The Rising of the Moon. In it he quoted a rhyme that his mother had once told him:
“A wise old owl sat in an oak,
The more he heard, the less he spoke;
The less he spoke, the more he heard;
Why aren't we all like that wise old bird?”
Nigel quoted the poem whilst relating the cautionary tale of how he was bamboozled by a group of students who had made a crop circle, and concluded. “Evidently I am no wise owl”.
As events have transpired, evidently, neither am I!
A couple of weekends ago, Corinna and I, together with Olly and Mark from the CFZ Permanent Directorate spent the weekend in Hull for the first annual conference by the Big Cats in Britain group.
Last year we attended another big cat conference in the east Midlands, organised by Merrily Harpur to launch her long awaited book on the subject. As events transpired poor Merrily was ill, and yours truly had to take over the helm. It was enjoyable enough, and I met up with several old friends, and met some new ones, but the events of last year fade into insignificance besides the events of this year's converence.
This was a far more cohesive affair, with an impressive list of speakers, (although, as I was one of them, I should not - perhaps - dwell on that subject for too long, for fear that I shall be accused of blowing my own trumpet unduly).
At every conference that I have ever attended the most important work takes place in the bar, usually late at night. Although I could well claim that this is why I am to be found in the bar late at night at most conferences, but that would be crass, and although I have the word `CRASS` emblazoned upon the T Shirt I am wearing, that is another story entirely!
Late on friday night, Corinna and I were sitting at a table in one of the darkest corners of the bar. We were talking to Di Francis, the one-time doyenne of British Big Cat research, who for various reasons has slipped beneath the radar in recent years. We had never met, and, while we talked away amicably I was rather uncomfortably aware that - over the years - I have maligned her in print on a number of occasions. Her thesis, first set out in a book called Cat Country in 1983, is that there is an indigenous species of British big cat, that at the moment is unrecognised by science.
I will make no pretence. I have always thought that this theory was palpable nonsense. After all, Britain is one of the best-explored countries in the world, and its wildlife has been thoroughly mapped and codified over the years. For about a hundred years from the mid 19th Century Natural History was the most popular pastime for Britons of all ages. Generations of children – and adults, for that matter – collected birds eggs, butterflies, pressed flowers, ferns, and shot everything that moved so the desiccated corpses could be preserved in home museums. Although new species of invertebrate are discovered occasionally in the British Isles, surely no species of indigenous vertebrate could possibly have escaped our notice.
Well, quite possibly not! About fifteen years ago I wrote a paper that was eventually published in Animals & Men, which suggested that the European green lizard was a hitherto undiscovered British resident. A few years ago in 2003 a colony of the western green lizard (Lacerta bilineata) was discovered in Dorset, the Pool Frog (Rana lessonae) was discovered to have been a British native (they are probably all extinct now), and it has also been suggested that the wall lizard (Podarcis muralis) and the European tree frog (Hyla arborea) are also natives. Whereas these assertions (with the exception of the pool frog, are still controversial, they certainly give one food for thought. (OK I admit that publishing an article called `I Told U So` in the now defunct Reptile World magazine was probably not the most tactful thing I could do, but I have not always been noted for my tact).
For more details on the green lizard saga, I refer you to the estimable Dr Daz
However, as is my wont, I have digressed mightily from my original train of thought. But…..
I shall now digress even further.
In my 1996 book The Smaller Mystery Carnivores of the Westcountry I suggested that the currently accepted status of several species of native British carnivore was completely wrong. Whereas Langley and Yalden (1977) had suggested that the Eurasian wildcat (Felis sylvestris), the polecat (Mustela putorius), and the pine marten (Martes martes) were extinct in southern England, and furthermore had been since the second half of the 19th Century, I suggested that this might not have been the case, and cited evidence that all three species were to be found in the western peninsula of England until the present day.
I also suggested that another species, the beeck marten (Martes foina) is also a British resident. Indeed it was considered such until 1879 when a zoologist called Edward Alston almost unilaterally decided that all records of there being two species of marten in Britain should be ignored, and that all specimens were actually M. Martes. I unearthed what I thought was a compelling body of linguistic and historical evidence to prove him wrong.
I published the book, and subsequently events in my personal and professional lives got in the way, and although I never actually forgot about the case of the British beech marten, I got on with other things, and left the mystery behind.
That was unil the first big cat conference in 2006. It was there that I met Jonathan McGowan. His biography on the BCIB site reads:
“Jonathan McGowan is Assistant Curator at the Bournemouth Natural Sciences Society, and head of its Mammals Section. He is a native of Dorset, an expert on both its rare and common fauna, and has observed both puma and panther-like big cats in the wild in the county several times, the first occasion being while he was badger watching in 1984. I have always been a keen naturalist and watched wildlife extensively. I have had any sightings of non-indigenous cats since 1984. I believe they should be thoroughly investigated, for many reasons. I would prefer people telephone me with any sightings, livestock killings etc.”
Jonathan is a thoroughly nice bloke and we got on like the proverbial house on fire. Over a late night beer the conversation somehow got onto beech martens, and I found to my great pleasure that his research had paralleled mine over the years and that we had totally coincidentally come to the same conclusions.
So, despite all the a priori evidence to the contrary it seems that it would be unwise to state that no new vertebrate residents of the British Isles will ever be discovered.
So why, despite the evidence in the above paragraphs did I still think that the idea of an indigenous species of British big cat was such a bloody stupid idea?
Firstly because of its sheer size. The animals described above, fascinating though they are, are still relatively small in size. I considered that the idea of a puma-sized animal having roamed the British Isles since the year dot was so unlikely to be practically impossible.
Secondly, most of the available evidence suggested that the big cats roaming our countryiside were of known species – mostly pumas and melanistic leopards. The fact that I saw a puma crossing the road in front of me on Bodmin Moor in 1997 merely confirmed me in this belief. Yes, I was aware that there were sightings of animals that really didn’t fit in to such a model, but – behaving much like the mainstream scientists that I have made a career out of baiting – I conveniently decided to ignore them. The strange looking animals that looked more like mastiffs than cats were, I believed, just dogs, and the accounts of two animals of different colours being seen together were purely incidences of released pets “sticking together” as they were familiar with each other from their days in captivity.
Thirdly, because of the lack of historic accounts of livestock predation. The British big cat phenomenon first took centre stage in the eyes of the media as a result of sheep kills. Ironically, although I had written as early as 1990 that I believed that the vast majority of these killings were the work of dogs, I contradicted myself when considering the lack of historical killings to be important evidence against the existence of a British big cat.
Then, late one Friday night in a boozer in Kingston upon Hull, it all changed.
Now, before we go any further, I want to make a couple of things clear:
1. I still believe that there are o-o-p pumas and panthers in the British countryside, and furthermore I still believe that they got there as a result of escapees from badly run unlicensed zoos, and from pets released in the wake of the Dangerous Wild Animals Act.
2. I still believe that the vast majority of `big cat` pictures, reputedly snapped in the British countryside, are merely large domestic moggies.
However, I now believe that Di Francis’s hypothesis regarding an indigenous species of British big cat, should be taken seriously, and that it would be unscientific (and grossly unfair) not to do so.
I’m getting to that bit. So let’s get back to the table in the dingy bar where Corinna, Di Francis and I were sitting with Mark North and Mark Frazer (founder of the BCIB group). We were sitting around making small talk when Jonathan McGowan and Darren Naish joined us. As I have said, I only met Jonathan last spring, but I have known Dr Daz for well over a decade.
I was quite surprised, therefore, when, as Di was talking, they started to giggle and nudge each other like naughty schoolboys. This was no way to treat someone even if you didn’t believe in her hypothesis, I thought. But it was soon obvious that something else was afoot.
Di was telling us about her hypothesis for the British big cat, and how her researches had led her to the following conclusions:
1. The species was sexually dimorphic.
2. The females were lighter in colour whilst the males had heavy, muscular, shoulders unlike those of any other car species.
3. The males were darker, and appeared to be more doglike than catlike in some respects.
4. Both sexes had strange foreshortened faces.
5. The animals were solitary except for mating.
6. The females moved their young each day to a new den, never staying in the same place once.
Di then got out a laminated print of a watercolour painting that she had done; a sort of identikit picture based on years of eyewitness statements. She passed it around, and Jonathan and Darren started to giggle even more. This was too much, and I was just about to glare disapprovingly, when Jonathan produced a photo album. Now, Jonathan is a wildlife photographer par excellence and his pictures are a joy to look at.
“Look at this” he said with a grin, and passed us a particularly unattractive photograph of a very dead animal.
To me, at least, the similarity between Di’s painting and Jonathan’s photograph is marked. The images have not been tampered with (except to flip them to the same orientation), and I wonder how many of you agree with me.
The photograph is of an animal found dead outside Bovington Tank Museum in Dorset. For a number of perfectly valid reasons (all of which earned him a good ribbing by the nasty sods of the big cat research community including yours truly), he was unable to take the corpse home, and as he thought it was probably a dead dog anyway, he wasn’t too disappointed when – upon his return – the carcass had vanished.
I interviewed Di and Jonathan. Here is an edited video of that interview:
The only bits that have been edited out refer to a series of photographs that, for the moment at leat, must remain under wraps.
Di also showed us some photographs that we are not at liberty to discuss at the moment, but sufficient to say, that if all the calculations which have been given are correct, they provide even more compelling evidence for the existence of an indigenous species of British big cat.
So, whether or not Di has been right for all these years, I have been wrong for not displaying the scientific open mindedness that I have condemned so many others for not displaying. So, I guess Nigel’s mum was right, and we should all seek to emulate that wise old strigiform.