Big Cats in England Tales from a Dog Walker
The subject of Big Cats living and roaming around the UK is always controversial and excites public interest. Dog walker Angela Boyd tells us of her early experiences of Cougars and Panthers in Somerset.
The subject of Big Cats living and roaming around the UK is always controversial and excites public interest: people can be divided into believers, doubters and outright non-believers. Of course, their viewpoint may be influenced by their experiences, if any of big cats. I, for one, have had many encounters over the last 30 or so years, and so fall into the first category.
My first sighting, in the 1980s, was probably the best, in some ways. I had read a story in the Somerset County Gazette of a couple who had been driving up through Brown Down, above Corfe, in the Blackdown Hills and were amazed to see a huge black cat jump off a bank and run across the road in front of their car into the forest on the other side. I remember thinking that I might meet this beast some time...
One morning a week or two later, I took my American import German Shorthaired Pointer, Karl, up to the Forestry Commission woods by Wych Lodge Lake with a couple of puppies aged about 12 weeks old, for their first walk in the woods with their grandsire. Having gone on to the end of the main track past the Lake, I thought I had gone a bit far for such youngsters and turned round to retrace my steps. Right in front of us, only 75m or so away, was a big black animal, about the size of the big GSD Police Dogs we would meet up there. I was a bit anxious and thought it might, indeed, be a new solid black GSD Police dog, but could not see anyone with it, let alone another dog. We kept on going slowly towards it, and it looked at us, and I stopped, put the pups on the lead and waited for the owner, not being sure what sort of dog it was and how nice or otherwise. It then turned sideways on and I started to analyse its conformation: very deep, strong chest, sloping topline, fantastic hindquarter angulation and bone, long tail, very prominent withers, shortish strong neck and smallish head with flattish downface and pricked ears. Definitely not a GSD, nor the Gordon Setters we used to meet in the wood it did not seem to be any breed of dog I recognised, so perhaps it was not a dog! It then quietly slunk into the undergrowth beside the track and disappeared from view, so we walked back on the track and I asked the pups and Karl "what was it?" They seemed very interested in the scent of the animal.
The following day I had parked my car behind Taunton Police Station and started to walk into the town, when I was joined by a chap who also took his dogs beating on the same (Blackdowns) shoot that I did and I told him about this animal. It transpired he had also had a similar experience the previous day on another part of the Hills, when a big black panther had decided to have a drink at the trout pond where he had been fishing! We worked out (correctly, as it happened) that he had been visited by the local and very big male, while the dogs and I had been stalked by the female. The owner of the trout pond got plaster casts taken of the footprint of the male, and this was a fun topic for conversation at shoot teas it certainly made the hairs on the back of one's neck creep . That cat had big feet!!
We were absolutely correct; too, as on another day at Orchard Portman, I was taking some of my GSPs for a lunchtime walk, when I noticed a muck spreader coming along the lane. Knowing how delighted the dogs would be to have fresh manure sprayed on the field we were walking through, I decided to wait for a couple of minutes to see where it was going. It drew level with the bottom of the lane and I noticed a black "blob" by the gate to the field, which had just had its maize crop harvested and wondered if it might be our friendly neighbourhood panther. Well it was, but not just her. The black blob divided into two and two huge cats then loped across the field, the male being about twice the size of the female (who, in any case, was somewhere around the size of a big male Police dog) and I realised that they had been mating!!!
We got out walk without the panthers and the manure. When I got back to the car, I noticed the tractor coming back along the lane, and the two cats, which had stayed in the corner, then loped back across the big field. I went to the field with Karl, my US dog, but because the maize combine harvester had just been working there, I could not find any paw prints for the cats, nor did I see them again that day.
They were mating and the female raised one black cub and it could be seen playing with her on Taunton Polo Ground in the evenings This, I hasten to add, was back in the 1980s, so all those cats are probably long since dead.
For many years, we were stalked by the black female, as I took my first batch of GSPs out in the forest at around 8 am, and she would cough at us and Karl, who was the oldest, would walk beside me and keep looking behind us, as he knew were being followed by her. Once, I was walking with about 6 GSPs up the top of the ridge above the Lake, and she ran right through the middle of the dogs, only to be chased off by two of my males. I thought she was just being silly, until a professional zoo-keeper told me differently: he said she had been running through to pick out one dog to take to eat!!
Only very recently, with the availability of "leopard sounds, noises, etc" on the internet to hear, have I realised that some of the strange grunts and other noises I used to hear when walking in the woods early in the morning, were actually various warnings from the leopard. I distinctly remember a series of sawing noises, obviously made by the animal going off up the hill behind us, sounding rather agitated. Well, this turned out to be the classical "sawing" noise made by a leopard. I told a retired Ranger from Kenya, who lived in my then village, about this noise and his comment was just that it sounded like an annoyed animal!
Other people saw these cats, including anglers who would find that the big cats stopped off for a drink at fishing lakes. They have run through beaters' lines on shoots and people walking, riding and driving in the Blackdown Hills have seen them. Some horses were frightened by them and bolted.
One evening I decided to walk up to Wych Lodge Lake to hear the nightingales. Well, I never them. I heard some extremely loud deep growling from below the bridge over the outflow stream, louder than any dog could growl, and decided to return to the car! Clearly a big cat, perhaps, with a deer she had killed for her supper was lurking below.
On another occasion, I was driving up the Hills to walk the dogs at about 8 am one summer morning, when I saw a really huge tan-coloured Cougar just sitting in a field in the morning sunshine! He was magnificent, with a long, thick tail, so I stopped my van to try to get a photo of him, but, by the time I had got out the car, with my camera, he had silently disappeared into the bracken. A lady saw my parked van and the Cougar in the field: she looked at it and proclaimed it was a fox. This is a very good example of people who are not used to looking at wildlife making an on the-spot identification. A biggish dog fox would probably weigh between 15 and 20 lbs. The guy in front of us would have weighed about 15 stone! The "big cats do not exist in the UK" brigade would cite such identifications as being proof that the people who say they have seen Big Cats are not reliable witnesses. On the other hand, a local man had recently told me he had seen this Cougar sitting in the road as he was driving up to public house at the top of the hill. He had apparently been warned by his companion to watch out for big straw bales in the road, as a tractor with a trailer full of these had been going up the hill. The straw bale they saw ahead of them surprised them when it got up and walked into the adjacent woods. This man immediately recognised it as being very similar to the Cougars he had seen when living in Canada.
A couple of my GSPs also hunted out a Cougar if not two one Saturday morning at Orchard Portman. They were hunting in a very strange way, and dashed into the conifers near the lake and started baying up a tree. As it was summer and I was wearing summer lightweight clothes, I decided that they would have to sort out the situation for themselves. I walked on down the little track to the lake, and the baying stopped. What next? Well, I could hear feet padding towards me and I was expecting the black female panther instead, a tan-coloured medium-sized Cougar was coming towards me. I don't know who was more surprised the Cougar or me! I just said "oh you're brown" and it changed course and dashed up the hill. The dogs came back in a few minutes, looking very excited, and I decided that it would prudent to curtail our walk. Talking about this to a local game keeper who works on a big estate where the cats are seen, he reckoned that the dogs must have found two cats and I got sent one, while the other run off in another direction. The only other Cougar I have seen in the wild was beside us on the cliffs at Rinse in West Cornwall in early 2001.
These are a few of my experiences with the Big Cats. Although many people, particularly landowners, game keepers and others try to keep a conspiracy of silence about the Big Cats and their whereabouts, their situation is somewhat different from that of people like me, who are just walking their dog in areas to which the public have legitimate access, such as Forestry Commission woodlands, commons, etc. Of course they do not want crazy people with guns, cross-bows and goodness knows what else trespassing on their land, trying to shoot, and possibly wounding these big cats.
However, people who walk in the countryside, particularly in woods, should, in my view, take time to listen to the leopard sounds/noises available on the internet, and be alert and observant when outside. If my dogs and I have been stalked many times, then so, probably, have others.
Next Week - Big Cats in England - More Recent Encounters