Report from Leo Martin
While reports of the Beast of Bodmin were being examined yesterday, Gavin Bell reveals substantial evidence of mysterious creatures attacking livestock in the Highlands. There has been so many sightings of big cats that we can't rule out that there is something unusual out there.
The beast came hurtling down a hillside, leapt high over a barbed-wire fence without breaking stride, and began ripping the guts out of a sheep's carcass. About 25 yards away, couched behind a bale of straw, retired gamekeeper Stanley Windsor levelled his 12-bore shotgun and took careful aim. With his first shot, the creature screeched and its long tail arched over its back in shock and pain. The second blast caught it just behind its front legs, but it managed to stagger out of the field and disappear under the cover of thick gorse.
Windsor is convinced that the animal he shot on a neighbour's farm near Banff last week was a species of big cat. He describes it as being jet black, larger than an Alsation, with small pointed ears, and a tail thick at the base with a curl at the tip.
While wildlife experts were discounting reports of a similar beast in the Bodmin area of Cornwall yesterday, the latest incident in the Grampian region was being taken seriously by farmers for livestock.
Tales of strange creatures prowling the Highland are as old as recorded history, but a spate of savage attacks on sheep that began last autumn has alarmed the North-east farming community. In each case the carcasses had been devoured - making the killings different from past instances of attacks by dogs.
A typical incident was reported at a farm near Huntly in December, when a sheep was literally torn to pieces. PC Neil Bunning, who was called to the scene, said: "It was quite horrific. All that was left was the backbone, which had been skinned along its length, a few ribs and its head."
Farmer Douglas Davidson blamed a cat, bigger than a Labrador, that had been spotted in the area by two neighbours a few weeks before. About the same time, people claimed to have seen similar beasts swimming across the River Dee near Banchory, prowling in the countryside near Turiff, and attacking a domestic cat at Skene. In February a professional photographer noticed cattle stampeding a field near Forres and was startled to see what appeared to be a large dun-coloured cat loping along the side of the field.
Unfortunately, he did not react quick enough to capture it on film; which has been a recurring problem with such incidents. Despite all the reported sightings by sober, serious people, no conclusive evidence has emerged of fearsome felines stalking the Highlands.
Perhaps Windsor came closest to providing it. Certainly his account has been the most graphic so far - because he claims to have seen three of the creatures in a feeding frenzy. The retired gamekeeper came within 50 yards of the creatures when he went at dawn to stake out the carcass of a savaged sheep on a friends farm. "They were snarling, spitting and kind of growling at each other as they were feeding. I'd never heard the likes of that noise before," he says.
"It was quite frightening. But as I climbed the wire fence to get nearer, my denims got stuck and made the fence twang which made the beasts run off" Within five minutes one of them returned, however, and it was this one he believes he shot with both barrels. "I was a gamekeeper for 28 years, and I've never seen anything like this before. They were definitely not dogs or foxes. They were big, black cats and they were hunting in a pack."
Windsor believes they were responsible for killing another of is friends sheep during the winter. "It was a big ewe heavily in lamb, " he recalls. "There must have been 200 pounds of meat in it. It was killed during he night and the next morning all that was left was the four hooves and a small piece of skin. Foxes don't feed like that, not in one night they don't.">/P>
in response to growing public concern, Inspector John Sellar, Grampian Police's wildlife liaison officer, launched a hunt for the killers along with experts from the College of Agriculture in Aberdeen, and the Institute of Terrestrial Ecology near Banchory. But, like the enquiry in Cornwall, the two month investigation was inconclusive.
"We found no evidence of any foreign or unusual species of cats being involved", he says. "What we found was, in the main, consistent with attacks by dogs or foxes. Having said that, there have been so many sightings of big cats that we can't rule out that there is something unusual out there."
If Inspector Sellar was to make an educated guess at what the mysterious creatures might be, he would suggest two possibilities - hybrids of wild and feral cats, or exotic species released by owners unwilling to meet the legal requirements for keeping them.
"There are certainly hybrid cats in the Highlands, although I would be very surprised if any of them had attained the proportions of a puma. There is also the possibility that somebody set a big cat free to avoid the provisions of the Dangerous Animals Act."
The legislation, which came into force in the 1970's, set stringent rules for keeping such animals and taking out a third party insurance.
The only recorded case of the kind was in 1980, when a tame puma was captured in Inverness-shire. It was cared for in the Highland Wildlife Park in Aviemore until its death in 1985, since when it has been exhibited at Inverness Museum and Art Gallery.
Inspector Sellar regrets that, for the moment, there is little more the police can do. "If somebody could tell us in which particular fields in Banffshire we might find a big cat at a certain tomorrow, we would be happy to come along with a tranquilliser gun. Failing that, we can only investigate sightings and incidents as they occur."
In the meantime, he wishes to reassure the populace that attacks on humans are highly unlikely. "Even if there are unusually large cats out there, there is an abundance of food for them in rabbits, hares, birds and so on. And I think we should keep a sense of perspective. We're not talking about man-eating tigers and grizzly bears wandering around the Grampian region."
Maybe not, but any sober motorist who sees large cats eyes veering from the centre of a Highland road at night is invited to inform the nearest police station.
Publication unknown: 20th July 1995
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