I’ve said it before, but it’s worth saying again: we live in exciting times. When new Cretaceous theropod dinosaurs and bizarre fossil lizards come out of the woodwork thick and fast; when highly obscure, recently discovered birds are relocated or reported for just the second or third time; and when new technology and forms of analysis allow us to realise – for the first time – that ordinary animals do the most extraordinary things. I’m referring there to a whole slew of recent discoveries that I’d blog about if I had time. I don’t. And I’m here, as you know full well, to write about cats. British cats. Of multiple species. Finally, here are my various thoughts on the Big Cats in Britain conference that I just attended in Hull, East Yorkshire (website here). Since returning I have thought of little other than cats, cats, cats, and here’s why…
I’m not, I regret, going to provide a review of the entire conference; rather, I’m going to discuss some of the key points and areas that interested me in particular. I’ll begin with the usual disclaimer-type stuff. Because I’ve spent some considerable time learning about the evidence, I am firmly of the following opinion: the evidence indicating that large felids are present within the British countryside is scientifically compelling, and we can now accept without doubt that several non-native species are present in the country. For convenience, these animals are termed ABCs (Alien Big Cats), though this term is problematical as, not only are some of the species involved actually small cats, it now seems that some of them are not aliens. Shock horror. ABCs include several non-native species, such as Jungle cat Felis chaus, Leopard Panthera pardus and Puma Puma concolor, some old natives that seem to have returned, such as Northern lynx Lynx lynx, as well as various others that are rather more mysterious. If you find the concept of ABCs objectionable and/or surprising then you are either unaware of the relevant data, or have decided to be an unscientific ‘rejectionist’. For previous discussions of mine on the subject of how good the evidence for British ABCs is, please see British big cats: how good, or bad, is the evidence? and The Cupar roe deer carcass.
My journey up to Hull – I was accompanied by Jonathan McGowan and David Mitchell – was eventful. We saw Red kite Milvus milvus, Chinese water deer Hydropotes inermis, dead muntjacs, and a ton of other stuff. The M1 wasn’t working, so our trip took about four hours longer than it should. And we stopped to help at a crashed car that had just smashed though a barrier and into the woods, adding further to the delay. But no dead ABCs on the roads [on the subject of corpses: don't read too much into the photo at the top of the article as no one is sure what it is. Photo taken by Jon McGowan].
The conference itself, kicking off on the Friday night, involved not only a great many talks about the British felid fauna, but also several round-table discussions, several screenings of video footage, and much examination of relevant specimens. On the discussions, one subject that particularly holds my interest is that of rewilding: there are a great many rewilding efforts now underway in Britain, and the existence in our fauna of large felid species – some alien and some ‘old natives’ – has not been missed. In fact a special issue of the conservation journal Ecos (website here), devoted to rewilding, was available free at the conference. A quick look through reveals that three of the contributions consider the role of ABCs (Jeeves 2006, Sidaway 2006, Taylor 2006), and such animals do seem to be taken seriously by those working in this area. The general feeling at the conference was that there is enough ‘space’ in the British ecosystem to accommodate ABCs, given our current unnatural lack of large predators and the enormous surplus of suitable prey we now have (including non-native rabbits and sika deer).
The video footage shown at the meeting was awesome, and I was finally able to see several sequences that I’d only heard about until now. Believe it or don’t, a large ABC (apparently a leopard) was captured accidentally on film during the filming of the movie Calendar Girls and even made it into the final cut of the film. I’ve seen the film twice and have missed the animal on both occasions, but it’s there if you look hard enough. Also particularly memorable is a piece of footage taken from a hot air balloon. A big black cat, of unidentified species, is clearly visible running for its life: it was presumably terrified by the balloon. It races across fields, through a gap, and along hedgerows at incredible speed. Unfortunately exactly when and where the footage was taken remains unknown. We now know that some cats are being brought into the country for use in canned hunts, and we watched the video where two lynxes – discovered locked in a garage – were captured and confiscated. We also watched some of the Australian footage, including the sequence of the Lithgow mega-cat.
For me, among the most rewarding experiences I ever have are those when I finally get to ‘meet’ a specimen, or a member of a particular species, that I have only previously encountered in the literature. Anyone who knows anything about British mystery felids will have heard of Kellas cats: the black, wildcat-sized felids named for Kellas in West Moray, Scotland; the place where the first specimen was shot in 1983. Kellas cats were brought to recognition by mystery cat researcher Di Francis, and she not only wrote about them, but eventually kept and bred them (Francis 1993). Kellas cats are generally thought to be introgressive hybrids between Scottish wildcats Felis silvestris and feral domestic cats F. catus (Shuker 1989, 1990, Kitchener 1993), though at least some of them are true melanistic wildcats. Di contends that black wildcats have always existed but, because naturalists only thought of the striped wildcats as ‘true’ wildcats, the black individuals that were shot or snared were conventionally discarded [thanks to Mark North for the photo].
As you can see from the accompanying image, we had a real live – well, stuffed – Kellas cat at the conference. And we also had the real, live Di Francis too. It was great to finally meet her. I’ll talk a lot more about her and her ideas in the next post (sorry, I had to split it: I had a lot to write about). She is not content with bringing one new British felid to attention, but also has a second, and it’s this animal which, for me, was the most amazing revelation of the conference. Actually, she has a third too, but I can’t talk about that yet.
One criticism sometimes levelled at the subject of British ABCs is that the right kinds of field sign are missing. In other words, where are all the tracks, droppings and predated carcasses that should be there if these animals are real? As I’ve stated before, such arguments are very naive and come from people who clearly have no knowledge of the sort of evidence that now exists. This subject formed the focus of Jonathan McGowan’s talk and accompanying poster display. Jon is assistant curator of the Bournemouth Natural Sciences Society and an extremely competent, highly experienced field naturalist (he is, incidentally, involved in the discovery of the Boscombe cliffs green lizard colony).
Working in Dorset and parts of Hampshire, Jon has photographed, documented and collected a vast amount of field evidence produced by ABCs. We’re talking deer carcasses wedged in trees, numerous large felid tracks, Sika deer skulls bearing circular entry holes matching the exact diameters of leopard canines (and with no exit holes such as would be caused by bullets), and undoubted big cat scat. If anyone can think of a British animal that produces droppings 15-24 cm long that not only smell and look exactly like cat droppings, but also contain swan and goose feathers, and the fur of fox, deer and badger.. well, I’d like to hear from you. Together with David Mitchell, Jon is currently getting various alleged ABC hairs DNA-analysed. A few previous British ABC hair samples have been checked, and in at least one case have come back with results showing that a non-native felid (in the case concerned, a member of the genus Panthera) was indeed involved [adjacent photo, from the Scottish big cats site, shows Di Francis with the famous Tomas Christie Kellas cat specimen].
Many of these pieces of evidence have been discovered by simply looking around in the places where the cats have been reported by eyewitnesses. While there are now a great many researchers who are collecting and collating eyewitness accounts, all too few people are looking in the right places for the right kind of field sign. The take home message is that field sign for British ABCs is – contrary to some statements – abundant, well documented, and not particularly difficult to find if you know where to look and what to look for. This data is known to everyone in the ABC research community, but is mostly unpublished and hence poorly acknowledged by interested people outside of the community.
More to come in the next post, which I aim to publish within the next 24 hours. I’ll finish by mentioning the fact that I dislocated my right shoulder – again – on Sunday morning. This time I managed to do it while sitting at breakfast. I was imitating a chimpanzee spearing a bushbaby at the time, my wails of pain assumed by those around me to be my attempts at replicating the calls of a speared strepsirrhine.
Refs – –
Francis, D. 1993. My Highland Kellas Cats. Jonathan Cape, London.
Jeeves, M. 2006. Rewilding Middle England. Ecos 27, 8-16.
Kitchener, A. 1993. Investigating the identity of the Kellas cat. In Francis, D. 1993. My Highland Kellas Cats. Jonathan Cape, London, pp. 211-213.
Shuker, K. P. N. 1989. Mystery Cats of the World. Robert Hale, London.
– . 1990. The Kellas cat: reviewing an enigma. Cryptozoology 9, 26-40.
Sidaway, R. 2006. Alladale’s fenced wilderness – making a breakthrough? Ecos 27, 30-35.
Taylor, P. 2006. Home counties wildland – the new nature at Knepp. Ecos 27, 44-51.