Big Cats in England - More Recent Encounters
Having moved away Angela is now back living in Somerset. She tells of more recent encounters with the big cats.
I am back living in Somerset again, and, sure enough, have had more Big Cat encounters. I don't walk at Orchard Portman much any more, but go to other forests in Devon and Somerset.
One September afternoon about 3 years ago, my solid black GSP male, was pointing at a big holly bush in woods near Wiveliscombe, and indicating fur. I was expecting a fox to flush from the bush, but, instead, out shot a black panther only about 10 feet away from myself! Rowan was off like a rocket after it, but it must have gone up a tree as he was straight back, casting around for the scent trail, so I caught him and decided we would return to the car. The following morning, at 8 am, I was pulling into a parking area at the same woods, when a Roe deer crossed the lane in front of us, slowing down from a canter to a trot and behind it was a black animal - the black panther!
In these woods, in the last 7 months or so, we have had further encounters with this creature. Rowan was petrified when we were walking through a field beside a hedge with high oak trees, between one part of the woods and another. He was so scared, that I took his genuine fear seriously, and we turned back to the car. A few days later, we were on a different route in those woods and he was, again, very scared and bolted back to the car. The following day, we had only just got out of the car and gone a few paces into the edge of the wood and he came racing back, petrified! I began to work it out: the big cat knew the time and route of our afternoon walk and had been waiting for us: perhaps fancying GSP on the menu, rather than rabbit, deer, pheasant, sheep and whatever else it normally eats. I think "it" may be male: it never seems to have cubs!
Other dog walkers reported their dogs behaving in similar fashion and one said beware of the dead, partly eaten, deer further along the path. Could that have been killed by the black panther? Highly likely. Another lady said her father had land close by the wood, had found a few sheep killed by the cat (completely different style from a dog mauling/kill) and also seen it crossing the road from one part of the woods to another on several occasions.
Rowan had also found a sheep, on the Blackdowns, a few years previously which had clearly been killed by a big cat only an hour or two before. It had been killed by one bite to the throat, then the skin neatly torn, a flap licked back around the skin and the meat of the should cleanly eaten by being rasped flat. I do have photos of this carcass. I think the cat had been sitting on a horizontal branch of an oak tree at the corner of the enclosure containing the sheep (in a wood!) and just waited for one to come along, so it could pounce, corner it by the fence and kill it. Not rocket science!
Are Big Cats a Threat ?
Are these big cats likely to pose a threat to people walking their dogs in woods and the countryside? Take a look at the website for big cat researcher and taxidermist, Jonathan McGowan, who mentions dogs being killed and parts of dogs being found with other cat kills. He tells the story of a Labradoodle killed by a Leopard.
"Lately, more and more vets are being confronted with injured animals, as the public bring in dogs and cats with injuries made by large cats, often unknowingly. Many vets are not qualified to assess such injuries and are often at a loss as the animal responsible. More often than not it is easier for a vet to assume that injuries are inflicting by other domestic animals especially dogs, and this is usually the case. With so many dogs being kept by irresponsible owners, many attacks are made by dogs on dogs but a few are made by large cats, often unseen by the dog owners. One such scenario from Dorset was a case of a dog that went missing, a Labradoodle, while being taken for a walk in a forest. A poster was displayed on a post, and a single telephone call revealed that the owner had found the dog, but dead under a tree no too far away from where she had lost it. It had run off with its other companion, a Labrador. The Labradoodle was muzzled as it was a bit boisterous and chased anything. The owners were at a loss as to what had happened to the dog when they found it days later. My enquiries revealed that it had been killed by a leopard. It was at the local vets, frozen. A check indicated that a very strong animal with large canine teeth the exact dimensions of an adult leopard had bitten through its muzzle and penetrated its skull and lower face. Also were thin deep scratches on its ear mantle where the cat had held it down and delivered the quick fatal bite to its face. Oddly enough, the owner had seen a huge black cat at the back of the small parking area as she got out of her car. She did not think anything of it! When the vet assistant was confronted with the logical explanation she was dumfounded. The vet declined any further investigations, or to comment. It pays for folk to be educated or informed, especially professional bodies".
Another Big Cat researcher, Forest of Dean-based Danny Nineham, on his website has the story of a big Alaskan Malamute dog which was attacked and left badly injured by a Big Cat in his own garden in Brecon, Wales. Danny also has the tale of a couple who let their dogs out one evening, and found them terrified by a big black panther, which then went very close to the wife’s head when she looked out of the window to see what was going on! Further stories abound and both websites have photos of paw prints, scrapes, scat and other evidence of the various species of feral, big cats living in the British countryside Danny Nineham’s site. There are many other websites of the Big Cats and dog walkers., for example, only a few days ago Sheri Bodley was walking her dogs on the dunes by Berrow Beach, Somerset, when they spotted a big black panther-type cat close by. Read the full story.
An excellent new book has recently been published, covering all aspects of the Big Cat phenomenon in the UK, and it alludes to the problems for dog walkers, particularly those who experiences have made them nervous about walking in the countryside. It is "Big Cats Facing Britain's Wild Predators" by Rick Minter. Of all the books on this subject I have read, Rick Minter's is the most thoughtful, thorough and sensible and right up to date. It has plenty of illustrations and even a diagram showing the territory distribution of four females leopards, whose territories are over-lapped by the bigger one of a male! There are many accounts of people riding horses or walking dogs in the countryside who have noticed their animal’s concern, only to find a big cat is on the path ahead of them. A list of "stakeholders" in the big cat scenarios is given: this includes farmers, landowners, crypto zoologists, Police, lampers, ramblers and (dog) walkers, vets, countryside amenity managers, etc. It is well worth reading!
Last summer, the dogs and I had been walking on the fringe of a wood, and GSPs tend to range a bit further ahead of one that, say, a Springer Spaniel, so one does not see them all the time or hear them. They may well be pointing at something, silently, like statues. I was therefore somewhat amazed and concerned, when I heard Rowan, obviously not very far away, suddenly screaming in terror! I blew the whistle and he reappeared – thinking he may have been hurt, I checked him over, but could find no wounds. He did, however, have a black whisker on the bridge of his nose – some 4" long and it was not his! There were no grazing cattle or ponies in this area. Unfortunately, not realising (as I now do) that it could have been sent away for DNA analysis, I just looked at it and threw it away on the ground. So – was it from a Big Cat – I will never know. But my dog is not scared of the usual animals one can meet in woods, i.e. foxes, the occasional badger, deer, squirrels, rabbits or other dogs. I don’t think this was a person or another dog, as they would probably shouted some comments! This reaction would tie in with the story from Sheri Bodley, mentioned above.
Only a few weeks ago, we were walking in an area of gorse bushes and grassy areas, in the middle of a wood, when I noticed a roe deer ahead. The dogs had not winded it, but it saw us and quietly disappeared. A minute or two later, I heard grunting. A leopard/panther must have had the deer "in its sights" and been somewhat annoyed that the deer saw us and moved off. On the way back, going alongside the barbed wire stock proof boundary fence, Rowan became really agitated and started looking around, very anxiously, and whining loudly. He is not a whiner, if anything, he is a barker, so this, to me, indicated that he sensed the big cat was lurking somewhere in the bushes on the other side of the boundary fence. We moved on quietly and speedily.
It may not be until you meet one, that you will believe this, but do take some time out to learn the signs and signals of possible close proximity of these creatures. You can hear the sounds that big cats make on many websites. Seemingly innocent little coughing sounds, grunts and growls made from cover and woods may indicate the presence of a Big Cat. I have heard such sounds many times, over the years, when walking with my dogs in woods and forests. I now realize that they have been more serious warnings than I thought! Particularly when one black panther suddenly ran right through my 6 GSPs on a hill in the woods. A couple of my males chased it away and it never repeated this exercise. A professional zookeeper told me, a few years afterwards, that it was probably trying to pick out a dog to take and eat!!
I found that the dogs were not fearful when I had six out at a time, but now I have only two, and there is not "safety in numbers", things seem to be different, but perhaps my present male, has had more frightening experiences than the others.
My advice to everyone walking dogs in woods remains the same: be vigilant!
Previous Article - Big Cats in England – Tales from a Dog Walker