Saturday, 31 January 2009

The cat came back

After me bemoaning the fact that there were less and less kills from this ABC in my area, it seems once again it is time to pop open a Beast (fear not reader, I will explain all).

Yesterday as you are all aware was Saturday, the day I fire up my car and zoom off to work to earn an honest buck in order to keep myself and beer as close friends. Now, the day was fairly unspectacular (other than the freezing cold conditions) until it got to around 1400, when one of the shotgun coaches said to the three people he had just been tutoring “Ah, here’s the chap you want to speak to.” as I wandered past. One of the gentlemen proceeded then to tell me that he had a big cat in his area (Taunton) and that it was killing sheep.

It had been through a fair few apparently, but the only bodies my contact had seen were those that the farmer had shown him after he had dragged them in from the field. The sheep’s pelt had been taken off the bones, and the only bones the farmer brought back were the spine, ribs and skull. Now, this proves very little (ie, was the killer a cat, canid or just an excuse) as the sheep had been moved from, what we would call in palaeontology, life position (you can think of it as being moved from its exact position of death). The sheep killed were all grown on lambs at about ¾ of full size.

This is very interesting indeed, and I have exchanged emails with one of the chaps who will provide me with photos when he can. I intend to get up there as soon as I can. This is probably not the same cat that I have been dealing with closer to home, but 25 miles away as the Raven flies (or as the Leopard runs for that matter) is, although seemingly large, not completely out of the question. Remember, an ABC in the wild would probably not have a territory this large, but this is not their wild habitat (with the possible exception of Lynxes). We have no idea how they behave when their prey is confined to a comparatively small area of land and are fairly easy to catch and kill. Will their territory size increase? My feeling is that yes it will do. Territory size is controlled mainly by two factors, how many competitors there are nearby, and how much food there is nearby. So, taking a Leopard as an example, lots of Hyenas and Lions around will diminish its territory size, and lots if easy to catch prey with a high nutrition value will again, diminish it. Few competitors and hard to catch, low energy prey (rabbits for instance) will both increase territory size. Note, low energy prey is prey that may be low in calorific content (or whatever measure of nutrition you want to use), but also take a lot of effort and energy to catch. For a Leopard of 80kg, a Rabbit which might get to 1kg is much more energy intensive to catch and eat than it is for a 10kg Fox, hence why Foxes take a lot of Rabbits.

Here in the UK, we can see a large amount of easy prey (expected to reduce territory size), but a low population density and little competition (expecting to increase territory size). I would expect with the evidence available to me that 25 miles for a territory is not as mad as it may at first seem for a Leopard/Puma/whatever. Just to err on the side of caution however, I would say that this is not the same cat.

Now, that lot is good for a day’s work. However, it gets better. I got home, showered, ate tea and then went onto the computer to write an article about keeping beetles for Exotic Pets magazine. I went onto an invertebrate’s forum, (on which I am the moderator of the beetles, aquatics and cockroaches sections) to check how things had been over the last day, and what did I find? Someone had posted a thread in Off Topic about big cats in Britain. Obviously I looked at it, and I was really surprised at what I found (I will not repeat the thread here, but you can go and look at it if you sign up as a member for Bug Nation).

The jist of the thread is that one of the forum’s members had noticed in the local paper (the Hastings Observer: that there were big cats in the area, and was wondering what people’s thoughts on them were.

Now, attached to one of the thread starter’s posts was two photos which her other half had taken. One was of a large paw print in some mud, and the other was of the plaster cast this person had made of it. This is a brilliant example of people (one wants to use the phrase “general public, but that would be a touch insulting) using their initiative, getting something done and helping us all out. Good job!

Unfortunately, I cannot tell if it is a cat or a dog, as although there are no claw marks, the back of the central pad is obscured by a lighter used to show size. The pad is the same length as the lighter, and the whole print looks to be about 1.5 lighters tall, within cat size. The digit pads are close to the central pad and are all of similar size. I have contacted the member to see if I she can get some better photos of it for me, and obviously, I will keep you all updated.

As for that thing about the Beast, well, it is a little tradition I have.

Whenever something big happens with my big cat research, I open a bottle of one of my favourite ales, Exmoor Beast (a superb dark ale with a strong chocolate and hops flavour) which depicts a melanistic leopard jumping toward the drinker. As proof of this being a good day for me, here you can see me drinking aforementioned beer...

Thursday, 29 January 2009

The Raven's Revenge

The Raven (Corvus corax) is, at a maximum of 1500g, Britain’s largest crow. It is an omnivore, but its specialty in Britain is scavenging from dead animals. Its size puts it pretty near the top (for birds at least) of the scavenging chain, and it can easily intimidate smaller scavengers like carrion crows into giving up the lion’s share of the dead animal. Since the 1500s it has been persecuted by Sheppard’s and gamekeepers for scavenging or eating young animals and by the late 19th century it was confined to the west coast where the craggy cliffs it nested on afforded it some protection. Only after the First World War did the persecution slow and the Raven’s number begin to build up as it adapted again to tree nesting. Since then it has gone on to spread slowly inland, into Wales and Cumbria as well as making inroads into Devon. I had thought that the Raven was a species not really found in Somerset (where I currently live) and if it was at all to be found it would be far over to the west near Minehead and Watchet. I was, however, to be proved very wrong.

On Christmas Day this year, as you will remember, I was out and about doing some big cat research. After getting into the field, I saw coming towards me as I stood in the field was a crow, a “bloody huge one” if I remember myself muttering. Anyway, I carried on and ignored the bird. This was at the same moment that it flew past me and turned around over my head calling a deep throaty “prrrrruuuk”. “Raven!” I burst out. And indeed it was. Not just one, but four Ravens seemingly in two pairs.

After taking some photographs of them (as well as some rubbish video footage) I started thinking why were they here? Back at home I did come research on the subject, and found that Ravens are indeed found throughout Somerset, but they are few and far between with breeding occurring in Glastonbury’s Ham Wall reserve and across the Somerset Levels. Even though I had spend considerable time up at the killing fields, I had not noticed their presence at all, but seeing as on this day there was a freshly killed sheep, I am guessing they were in the area for this. The sheep’s eyes had gone, so one would suspect the Ravens of being the main scavengers of these from the kills. After following them for a bit on that first day, I found that one pair seemed to be spending a fair bit of time down on the quiet side of the quarry; it could well be that this is their perfect habitat: craggy cliffs for nesting, an abundance of food in the form of dead sheep, and no persecution. I for one am overjoyed at their comeback to Somerset, even if it is at the expense of a few sheep to keep them interested. Ravens begin nesting in January and lay their eggs in March, so it may be time to spend a while searching for their nest.

I have seen the Ravens twice in the four times I have been up there in the last month, however, I have not seen any sheep kills in this time (apart from possibly one) so it could be, as my best friend suggested when we went up for a look around early last week, that the cat has perished in the freezing temperatures that we experienced in late December. I need to get back to the field to see what’s changed, plus chase up the farmer and water board about the CFZ’s stolen trigger camera.

In other big cat related news, I was interviewed on Wednesday by the superb Geoff Ward who writes the “Mysterious West” page in one of the local newspapers. The interview will go up as part of his weekly podcast, and I (or more likely, Jon) will add a link to it when it is edited and published. I know full well I answered a few questions in the daftest possible manner (for instance, answering a question along the lines of “If big cats are comparatively numerous, why has no-one trapped one yet?” with “Well, in one night outside a large southern African city they trapped 27 leopards.” which means very little), but hey, it may just bring an extra bit of knowledge into people’s minds along with someone to contact if they do see something. It’s all about spreading the word...

PS, I apologise for this, but Fleur wanted to see some photos of me in my cat catching gear, but I only have one good one and im not even wearing my wide brim hat, but never mind:

Tuesday, 27 January 2009

The absolute final catch up!

Right, this is it now ladles and jellyspoons, the update on ABCs where I finally drag you all up to the present day. The music is on, door firmly closed, fingers flexed and the MSN conversation with JD shut down.

Previously we had just finished the quarry palaver, so we can now join the action on Sunday the 7th of December, early in the morning. I awoke early for two reasons, one, today was the day of the British Killifish Society’s annual auction and Jon and Matthew were picking me up to get up there before it started (as it so happened we didn’t, but that’s another story), and also because I wanted to have a look at the deer carcass to see if it had been eaten in the night. I breakfasted and kitted up with the video camera, stills camera (with 70-300mm lens fitted) and cat hunting hat I went out to record the nights action.

After driving up to work the temperature plummeted down to freezing levels (-3 degrees C I think) and so the walk down the road to the deer was slower than expected. Now, I must now talk briefly about the landscape near where the deer was killed. The first photograph is taken from my viewpoint near the top of the hill before it snakes its way past the carp ponds and the dead deer. You can see the road in front of me with brambles and other short plants between the road and the carp pond. A plump bush can be seen on the left which cannot be seen in the second picture. This other photo taken from in a field shows the ponds behind the vegetation, plus its thickness. The position of the deer cannot be seen in either photo, but it is to the right on the pond in the second photo. Got all that? Good.

Walking down the path, I got to the sharp left turn before the road moves in the straight line visible in the photos. It was now that I heard a loud, harsh and distinctive “Khheeeea!”. My immediate thought was “Holy Hell! A Leopard’s warning vocalisation!”. Needless to say, I moved back slowly the way I had came with the camera trained on the area the cry had come from as well as the pond in case it began to move away from me. I heard nothing again, so I went over into the field to take the second photograph. Again, I saw and heard nothing. By this time it was getting up to leaving time to catch the Matt car up to the auction, but I kept moving around closer to the pond. I noticed behind me about 200yrds away a friend who was also interested in ABCs with whom I had been examining the deer’s evidence the day before. We began to chat quietly, and he had been up since before dawn broke to look around the area. He was a keen rifle hunter, so I would have expected him to be both vigilant and muted when moving. He said he had seen nothing other than a large dark mass moving through the woods which could have been a deer. Now I got a phone call from Jon to tell me that they were very close to our meeting area and that I better get a move on.

We ended up being about an hour late, but had a cracking day.

Over the next few weeks the deer was moved around a bit and eaten in parts, probably by badgers, to the present day where it still sits in a broken heap next to some brambles where the badgers keep picking at it.

Nothing really happened for a few weeks until Christmas day when I got bored and decided to go up to the original killing fields (hooray! A reference to a Slayer song!) to see what had changed. After getting very distracted by Ravens (these will wait for another blog) I began my scouting and went up into the field above the normal one and came across a very nice bloody carcase of an adult sheep with a huge hole ripped into its side. As you can see from the photos, a few of the organs including the lungs and probably the heart were still inside the animal. The body was still warm at the time of discovery (1400). The eyes had been taken by the Ravens. The sheep’s head was bent backwards in the same shape as all the other kills.

I photographed and videoed this kill as I have done for all the others, and continued nosing around. I found an old kill which had rotten down to the bones and so the only tissue left was the ligaments between the vertebrae. It was in the same field as the above kill, but in a quiet corner where it looked not to have been disturbed (normally the bodies are moved after a day or two or the farmer knowing that they are there). The attached photos show the skeleton, plus the important bit of evidence for a big cat killing the sheep. The head of the sheep was twisted around to face the opposite direction, whilst the ligaments were still attached. You can see the twisted vertebrae in the photo. I pulled at one of the ligaments after photographing and it came away with little pressure. Because the ligaments are still attached, this leads me to conclude that the sheep had its neck broken before it died, not from an external force after death.

Now, we come up to mid January and finally, I had my trigger cameras to catch this beast! I had tested them beforehand, and myself and a few friends attached them to the fence which something jumps over to get into the field. We set the camera (only one was working) up attached to a fence not in the farmer’s field, nor in the water works land but technically in the quarry’s land, but this seemed to be a no-man’s land between the quarry and the field. We left after this...

Only to return the next day to find that the camera had gone! Seething, I rang Richard who muttered something about “commoners” and “Southerners” before ringing the farmer to see if he had removed them. He said he hadn’t, but he would try and contact the water board to see if they had. I could see the headlines running in my head: “Water technician proves existence of big cats in Britain!”, then a day later “Monster hunters claim the photograph was stolen!” then finally “Monster hunters triumph thanks to video evidence!”. Maybe that was a bit farfetched, but never mind.

A few days later I went back up to the field with a friend to take some photographs of me in suitably dramatic poses for an article being written about me by Geoff Ward (who did the article about the haunted pub a week or so ago, check the archives). Whilst there, I noticed that a few of the jaws were loose from the skulls, so I picked them up for a closer look. I found puncture marks in one, which led me on to search for more. I “stole” 3 jaw bones with damage and a skull which just looks cool. Next time I am up to CFZ headquarters I will take them up for a better opinion than mine.

Let’s hope the next blog is not quite as heavy going as that!

Thursday, 22 January 2009

Dragging you up to speed

Damn it! One always forgets something in a blog, and it appears I have missed something fairly crucial to this story (Derek, thanks for indirectly reminding me!) Back in mid November, the farmer told me that he had been talking to a deer and wild boar stalker in Gloucestershire who said that he would come down and take a look around the site, which he did. He took with him his rather large rifle (hoping to catch the cat in the glare of his spot light, then put a bullet between its eyes) which he left in the car whilst he had a look around the field initially.

It was dark at this point, but the light picked up a large pair of eyes shining, and I quote directly from him, “9-10 apart couler green little light gold”. Now, I must stress that his English was not superb, hence the incorrect spellings and lack of sentence structure, and the sentence seems ambiguous.

He was convinced it was not a sheep or deer as their eyes are not as far apart, and that they shine back a different colour. Remember that this is a professional deer stalker who would know ruminant eye shine when he sees it! The conditions of the sighting were a distance of 80yrds, dark but clear and calm.

He also provides evidence as he found one footprint (this was later driven over before I could get there by the same ******* who stole the CFZ’s trigger camera). He gives it as being 5” long with large digit pad marks and a tri-lobed convex edge to the main pad (a dog’s in comparison is concave). There were no claw marks.

Now, this is where things get interesting. I joined him and his two companions in a night’s foray into the field to see what we could see.

After chatting for a bit, myself and 2 of the hunters (not the main fellow, he stayed behind with the rifle) went into the quarry next door where we all thought the cat may be lurking. As we broke through the very thin line of forest and into the quarry we smelt a very very very strong smell of cat urine. Well, I have never had a cat so I wouldn’t know what their scent marking smelt like, but apparently this is what it was so say the two gentlemen I was with. We carried on down the quarry and found a frozen liquid on the floor which (again apparently) had the look of cat vomit (it did have the sickly sweet smell of vomit I can confirm), but as this was frozen it was probably a few days old and was inconclusive. We marched on.

Down at the bottom of the quarry there were some slag piles which were much taller than a man (about 14” high) and arranged in rough rows. They terminated about 15’ away from a dense but small wood. We walked between two slag heaps, me on the left, the fellow with the big lamp in the middle and the other chap on the right (who, like me, had a headtorch on). The chap on the right suddenly called “There! Large eyes in the trees!”. We ran up to see them, but we saw nothing but heard something big moving away from us through the trees. Again, I cannot confirm that this was, but judging by my experience with deer, they move much more subtlety through thick vegetation than this did. We could not follow it though the undergrowth as it was far too thick, but we had a look around, and we found a deep impression in a soft stream bed, about 6” deep, 6” long and 4” wide. There were no markings at the bottom. By the size, this suggests that it was not a deer.

I did not photograph it because I am a pillock.

By now the fog was thickening up as fast as the torch light was dimming, so we headed back. We saw nothing on the way back, but did manage to get ourselves lost in the woods before using the torch to guide us out by triangulating it with the stalker with the rifle. Then, the radio sounded: “Guys, you hear that scream?”. We looked at each other confused as our heart beats began to rise. “What scream?” we replied. “A very loud one” was the answer, “it sounded like a deer being taken down. Get the **** back here now.”

So, as the adrenalin began to flow nicely, we cut the faffing and got back to the field. Now, a long time stalker who has shot dozens of deer, would surely know what noises a deer makes after it has been mortally wounded, but why did we not hear anything?

There and only two answers. Either the woods we were in were thick enough to mask the sound, but the field was open enough to let it filter through loud and clear, or he was lying. I am really not sure what to make of it.

Unfortunately, the head stalker insulted me quite nastily, so I will not be working with them again. It’s always a shame when you realise that someone you respected and wanted to work with for mutual advantage turns out to be a complete prat, but hey, that’s life.

Maybe on my next blog we will manage to get up to the present? You never know!

Tuesday, 20 January 2009

Beginning the cat hunt

Back in November I got involved in trying to prove the existence of a (or possibly more) big cat living and killing sheep about 15 minutes down the road from me. A farmer had had about 30 sheep killed within the space of just over a month and he wanted some help in verifying it as a big cat. He had seen it alone more than once, and had seen a pair (one larger than the other) once. A paw print had been found, and by the description he gave me it fits a large cat (possibly puma, possibly leopard). I photographed what I could see of the kills [one photo showing the hole from which the organs were eaten is attached] and went up to the field repeatedly to try and work out what was going on. For a while I was about 60% sure that it was dogs doing the killing, and that a big cat lived in the area.

Then something very interesting happened. In early December I was phoned up by my employer who told me that a big cat had been sighted by 3 people moving across the shooting ground’s (shotgun that is) land! I must add here that this was not a cat walking calmly amongst layouts where clay pigeon shooters stood looking on in disbelief. The cat had walked around the back of the layouts, through a field and onto a small private road where it was seen at a range of only 20 yards by 3 people in a car. Obviously I went up there as fast as I could to talk to the witnesses. They described it as being black, slightly larger than an Alsatian, fairly low to the ground, having a very long tail with a curl at the end and moving in the typical cat’s slink. These would suggest (particularly the tail) that this was a leopard. I had a look around the area, but saw nothing to suggest that there was a cat in the area (well, this was by now 2 hours after the sighting, so no wonder).

Everything was quiet until Saturday, 3 days after the sighting. I discovered a young roe deer (≈15kg) that had been killed [one photo is attached]. Hair (not skin) had been taken off from large patches on its abdomen, revealing the pale skin beneath. The hair was lying all around the deer, either in little clumps or as single hairs. This was especially interesting, as the body was still warm. Actually, it was more than warm; it was pretty much normal skin temperature. It would seem that I had disturbed the killer from eating its meal by roaring down the track on the quad bike (I actually get pair to drive a quad all day!). Footprints were abound around the mud next to the kill (these later turned out to be dog; verified by Richard Freeman).

I did not expect to have a big cat sat about 5 minutes from my house killing our prized deer! I say prized, rather, the 3 deer who lived partly on the shooting ground’s land had become used to us in the workforce and were not too bothered about us being near them. Near that is, compared to normal deer who bolt at the meer sniff of you. After chatting to a few people, it appeared that the cat had been pushed through from the area that it used to be in by the local fox hunt who by chance had swept through its territory pushing the cat in front of it. When the hunt stopped just after reaching the shooting ground the cat carried on and set up temporary residence in the woods one KM from the shooting ground.
This takes us up to December, I’ll update again soon to bring this straight up to January. That is, if I’m not killed by my exams.

A new venture

So, here we have it, my first blog post. I guess I have to introduce myself first. I am a student working to obtain some decent A-levels so that he can go to Bristol University to do a degree in Zoology. I am involved in a number of disciplines within the zoological cover, including entomology, ichthyology, palaeontology and cryptozoology. The last one I guess is fairly obvious otherwise I wouldn’t be in the CFZ blogs page! Hopefully I will manage to keep on a zoological track as I witter incessantly about hunting big cats in Britain, writing a book and general musings about nature. I guess it’s time to get some sort of back story up and running...