I’ve said it before and I’m sure I’ll be saying it again: one of the best ways to invigorate your enthusiasm about a subject is to attend a conference on it, and to spend at least a couple of days talking with other people about that subject. I’ve (more or less) just returned from the third Big Cats in Britain conference, held at Tropiquaria at Watchet, north Somerset. What an amazing venue: picture, if you can, a 1930s BBC radio station [adjacent image shows the stonework above the main entrance] surrounded by gigantic towering antennae, the heat radiating from one of the antennae being used to warm a huge, glass-roofed central atrium, now serving as a fully planted tropical house with trees reaching to the roof, a waterfall and free-flying birds. The grounds around the building house numerous animals, from tapirs, emus, rheas, otters, maras and agoutis to lemurs, meerkats, tamarins, parrots and owls. After a period of gradual decline, Tropiquaria was taken over by new owners last year and they’ve clearly worked very hard to get the place back up on its feet.
I saw lots of species (or subspecies) for the first time, including Rough necked monitor Varanus rudicollis, Solomon Islands skink Corucia zebrata, Northern helmeted curassow Pauxi pauxi, Crested wood partridge Rollulus rouroul, Madagascar tree boa Sanzinia madagascariensis, Sudan plated lizard Gerrhosaurus major, and White-fronted brown lemur Eulemur
fulvus albifrons [shown below]. I actually got to go into the brown lemur enclosure during a tour, which was awesome. From Watchet, you can look north across the Bristol Channel: southern Wales is to the north; Steep Holm and Flat Holm to the east. I’ve mentioned Steep Holm before as it was home to the world’s largest recorded Slow-worm Anguis fragilis.
As for the conference itself, we looked at a mixture of reports on activity in local areas, on new field evidence, and on speculations about the identification and current population of British exotic cats. We were honoured to have Nigel Brierly, a veteran researcher in the field, attend and to speak briefly about melanism in pumas (while only a single melanistic puma has ever been reported [it was shot in Brazil in 1843], it has been widely speculated that dark cats seen in North America and elsewhere might be melanistic pumas). Richard Freeman spoke about controversial cats (and cat-like animals) from around the world, including the Sumatran cigau, Queensland tiger, mngwa (he pronounced it ‘mung-wa’), and Guyanan water tiger. Jonathan McGowan discussed the most recent field sign he has documented in his Dorset study area, including lynx tracks and scat from Portland, and hairs, scat and deer carcasses from several areas. Shaun Stevens spoke about experiences with camera-traps while Chris Hall discussed sightings in the Teesside region. A few people who we’d hope to see, not least the official organiser Mark Fraser, were unfortunately unable to attend.
In my talk – pretentiously titled ‘The deep time history of Britain’s felid fauna’ – I aimed to provide an overview of the fossil and archaeological history – the ‘deep time’ history – of Europe’s cats, concentrating on those of the British Isles. I don’t have time to sort it today, but in the next two or three or four articles, I’m going to reproduce the content of my talk, starting with sabre-toothed cats, lions and leopards, then doing pumas, cheetahs and lynxes, and finishing with jungle cats and wildcats.
I owe special thanks to Dave Mitchell, Jon McGowan and Terry Hunt for transport, to Rick Minter and Jon Downes for conference organisation, and to Tropiquaria’s owners Chris Moiser and Jane Bassett for hospitality and a venue!