Tag Archives: Lake District

Deadly Deer (5)

There are apparently 75,000 collisions between cars and deer every year in the UK. This results in 450 injuries and, the latest figures allege, as many as twenty fatalities, both drivers and passengers.
It is not surprising that these traumatic events are so frequent. The United Kingdom has more than two million deer. This represents the highest total since Saxon times:

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A few years ago, there was even a muntjac deer in our staff car park, right in the middle of Nottingham:

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With over-browsing, deer cause enormous damage to our woodlands, and especially the birds who breed there. Too often deer consume the low vegetation which hides their nests and in general, they have a hugely negative effect on trees, shrubs, plants and flowers. This circular destruction of the bark will kill the tree:

deer-damage

Recently a group of scientists suggested that half of England’s deer should be shot to help preserve our woodland landscape. Several species are actually foreign immigrants to our countryside, namely muntjac and Chinese water deer:

Chinese_water_deer_

Another introduced species are Sika , which manage to get absolutely everywhere:

Sikadeer

Overall, this enormous population of deer causes around £4.5m worth of damage to plantations and woods in Scotland alone. In England, it is not so much the trees which suffer, as the cereal crops, mainly in east and south-west England, where deer cause £4.3m worth of financial loss annually.
I can’t find out the overall cost of deer culling but I suspect, given our successive governments’ ability to spend other people’s money, it will be approximately £14.76 squillion pounds per year.
So let’s do it for free. Here in Nottinghamshire, let’s encourage petty criminals to clear off out of the city and live in groups in the forest, armed only with bows and arrows. They could wear green for camouflage and shoot the King’s deer on a regular basis.  And on Bank Holidays why not have great big barbecues for everybody to go to ?

robin hood- heroes
And bring back the lynx. We could have every single animal sponsored by the aftershave company. Lynxes are so shy you wouldn’t even notice them in our local woodland.

lynx a

You would obviously notice Brown Bears, but so what? They eat deer by the freezer full. And furthermore, it would make enormous financial sense to have a great big bear eating the contents of all the rubbish bins in our country parks, rather than buying gigantic expensive specialised vehicles and paying humans to empty them.

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And think of America itself. What do they have in the woods that eats deer? I’ll give you a clue. It’s totally nocturnal. It’s very shy, especially given the fact that it’s nine feet tall. You would never see them and when you did nobody would believe you. All you’d see would be a gradual diminution in the deer population.

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If that’s a step (or should I say, a Big Foot) too far, then let’s look back a little in time to the Middle Ages.
As recently as 1433, Sir Robert Plumpton was granted a piece of land in Nottingham by King Henry VI (Parts 1-3) if he could manage to blow his horn and thereby frighten and chase away all the wolves in Sherwood Forest. The piece of land he held in Nottingham was called “Wolf Hunt Land” (The clue’s in the name). In this way Sir Robert probably helped the wolf towards its eventual extinction which occurred, supposedly, during the reign of Henry VII (or Henry VI Part Four, as he was occasionally called).
At this time, back in early fifteenth century, wolves were limited to just a few areas, anyway. Some forests in Lancashire such as Bowland, the Derbyshire Peak District and the Yorkshire Wolds.
So let’s reintroduce them now. Two million deer to cull. Let Wolfy have a go. We know that they are harmless. Two deaths in North America in 129 years? Negligible!! They’d take care of the deer problem for us:

wolf pack one

And what better sight than watching a pack of wolves  chase down a mountain bike rider over the romantic fells of the Lake District?

wolf baby

Or another pack pursuing quad bike riders in the New Forest? Perhaps a whole wolf family practicing their hunting techniques on somebody else’s badly behaved and loud mouthed kids.

eyes wolf
What’s not to like?

Just watch this video, which comes, literally, from the “HeartOfTheWilderness”:

Or if you are a child, why don’t you let the Smithsonian Channel teach you to howl like a wolf? Ideal for relieving the monotony of those tedious car drives to school. Better even than the counting songs from French lessons:

 

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The Beast of Ennerdale: Part three

This is the third instalment of the story of the Beast of Ennerdale, a strange creature that rampaged across the Lake District in north western England in 1810. In five months, it killed almost 300 sheep, often just eating their soft organs and then lapping up their blood. The story of its ravages is told in the first two parts of this series:

eyes wolf

Nowadays, we have almost an almost unbelievable ability to make contact with each other instantly right across the globe. Furthermore, we have immediate instant access to unbelievable amounts of knowledge and information.
Until very recently though, that was just not the case. There was no television. No radio. No access to books. Most people were illiterate, especially in the countryside. Nobody knew very much at all about natural history outside their own country. Contrast our situation with life outside London in 1198. Richard the Lionheart was the English king then, and he was the proud owner of his very own private zoo in the Tower of London. Richard had been on the Crusades and he must have known a little bit about some of the wildlife in the Middle East. Perhaps that was the reason that he had a pet crocodile in his collection of animals:

crocs

One day, the animal escaped. It somehow made its way to the marshes of north Essex. The reaction of the locals, of course, was that a dragon had come to visit them:

alli

And what would the shepherds of the Lake District made of a giraffe? The very first one ever to be seen in England had only arrived on August 11, 1827, less than 200 years ago, and well after the début of the Beast of Ennerdale:

holle
During the period of the Beast of Ennerdale, the whole country was visited by many travelling zoos. The cages were transported on wagons which were pulled around the countryside by horses. Conditions, of course, were appalling. The cages were cramped and the horses that pulled the wagons were grossly overworked.  No animal rights in those days. The Church taught that animals had no souls, so what you did to them was simply irrelevant. Work them until they drop and then leave them to die. And then you can eat them.
The most famous of these travelling zoos was Wombwell’s Travelling Menagerie, which had a total of fifteen wagons and a large number of exotic animals. Wombwell bought them directly from ships as they arrived in England. They included elephants, giraffes, a gorilla, a hyena, a kangaroo, several leopards, a number of lions, llamas, monkeys, ocelots, onagers (what?), ostriches, panthers, various snakes, tigers, wildcats and zebras:

wombwerr

Wombwell had a number of snow leopards and his rhino was publicised as “the real unicorn of scripture”. Other faulty labelling is actually known to have cost him money. What he exhibited as a chimpanzee is now thought to have been the first ever Gorilla to be seen in Western Europe.
Here is a link to the story of George Wombwell told by Wikipedia. It really is worth a look, with some really funny anecdotes on offer:

Menagerie_wombwells_1910

All of these menageries were rather careless with their animals and escapes were not infrequent. In 1835, for example, a lion and a tigress escaped together and four people were killed. And that is what takes us back to the Beast of Ennerdale.
Apparently a number of the different travelling menageries had creatures which were exhibited as “tiger wolves”. Nowadays these animals are thought to have been thylacines, the so called “Tasmanian Tiger” or “Tasmanian Wolf”.

Here is a brief film, thanks to the Thylacine Museum:

The Museum also has a video where the extremely talented animal is apparently playing a piano, harpsichord type of thing:

So that is it! Mystery solved! The Beast of Ennerdale was an escaped Thylacine.

Nowadays, the Thylacine is extinct, of course. The last known specimen, “Benjamin”, died in captivity in Hobart Zoo on September 7th 1936:

thyl four

The Thylacine had dark stripes over its back and could be up to eight or nine feet in length:

thyl one

It was a marsupial which looked vaguely like a wolf and it ate flesh. It preferred the softer flesh to tougher meat such as the muscles.
The Thylacine was an apex predator and it was mainly nocturnal. Its behaviour was just like the Beast of Ennerdale because it retreated to the hills and woodlands in the daytime, avoiding contact with humans. It spent the daylight hours in caves or hollow tree trunks, sleeping on twigs or plant stalks. At night, it hunted the open heathland:

thyl two

Supposedly, back in the wilds of Tasmania, it happily preyed upon farmers’ sheep and poultry and apparently liked to drink the blood of its prey.
And with that information, I really thought that I had found a solution for the identity of the Beast of Ennerdale. I really did. I really, really did:

Thylacine-tring

A second level of internet research, though, shows that more or less all of the answers which have been suggested by the many websites which discuss the Beast of Ennerdale are most probably entirely wrong. The explanation of an escaped Thylacine is a very neat one, but modern science just dismisses it totally and completely.
Firstly, the blood drinking story seems to have originated merely from a single account heard at second-hand by Geoffrey Smith (1881–1916) in a shepherd’s hut in Tasmania. Not exactly a proven piece of Thylacine behaviour, certainly not enough to identify this creature’s presence in Ennerdale.
And killing and/or eating sheep? Well not really, apparently. Modern studies have now shown that the creature had the jaws of a wimp, not a wolf. It couldn’t have dealt with a dead sheep. Advanced computer modelling in 2011 showed that its prey size limit would have been in the region of only five kilos, animals such as the tiny possum:

thylacine_berlin_museum_10th_september_2011-167306

And here is a link to a second study from 2012, “Tasmanian tiger was no sheep killer”. These are not just amateurs’ guesses picked out of the air, of course. These are both scientific papers, published for the judgement of the zoological world. They would not have been published in reputable journals if they were not serious research carried out by serious scientists.
Instead, the Thylacine is seen nowadays as having been just a scapegoat for the widespread mismanagement of sheep farms in Tasmania. Furthermore, the killing of sheep was far more probably carried out by the European dogs which had first reached Tasmania in 1798 with the arrival of the explorer George Bass and a number of seal hunters:

George_bass

These men’s sled dogs interbred and their offspring subsequently dispersed into the temperate rain forest of the island. Some dogs were befriended by the aborigines but the majority just went wild.

During the period when Europeans were first coming across the Thylacine, therefore, there was already a population of feral dogs in Tasmania. They are far more likely to have been the animals responsible for the killings of sheep on the island, rather than the Thylacine. It was just easier for Europeans to blame a weird new animal than “man’s best friend”.
And what about the time schedule? How could a Thylacine have reached Cumberland for May 1810? At this time, the very best ships took a minimum of three months to reach Australia and a further three months to return to England:

SS_Dunedin_by_Frederick_Tudgay
The first thylacine had been seen by the French on May 13th 1792. They would not have told the English because, surprise, surprise, the two nations were at war with one another.  More than ten years later, the Lieutenant Governor of Tasmania sent the first full description of the animal for publication in the Sydney Gazette of April 21st 1805:

wild-thylacine-large

At that time, it was not a particularly familiar animal to the European people on the island. In June 1805, five convicts escaped from the only recently established penal colony. The establishment’s pastor, Robert Knopwood, wrote in his journal on June 18th 1805, shortly after the convicts had been recaptured:

“Am engaged all the morn, upon business examining the 5 prisoners that went into the bush. They informed me that on 2 May when they were in the wood they see a large tyger that the dog they had with them went nearly up to it and when the tyger see the men which were about 100 yards away from it, it went away I make no doubt but here are many wild animals which we have not yet seen”

thyl three

At this point, in 1805, no Thylacine had been captured. It had only been briefly glimpsed at a hundred yards’ range. Tasmania was the size of Ireland and more or less completely covered in forest, with only one small settlement of convicts. How on earth could a Thylacine have reached Ennerdale by 1810? Just look at the timetable:

“Captured in Tasmania, in 1806 at the earliest—shipped to Sydney—sent to England—didn’t die on the three month journey—bought by a zoo keeper in London—taken by horse drawn cart to the north (three or four weeks?)—escaped—seen in Cumberland, doing things we now know a Thylacine could not do”

Not very likely is it?
Anyway, here is a nice longer film of a Thylacine from LINCTasmania. It dates from 1964 and is a wonderful period piece, well worth watching, just for the accents and the product placement :

And finally, here are two videos about the Thylacine from my hero, MK Davis, the man who has been called “The Hippy from Mississippi”. He is a photographic analyst and is well worth your time. The first film is an analysis of a modern home movie, purporting to show an animal which may be a living, surviving Thylacine:

The second film from MK shows his thoughts on where Thylacines may survive nowadays:

And the Beast of Ennerdale? Well, the locals at the time thought it was a feral dog, and they may well have been right:

“No one knew to whom the dog had belonged, or whence he came ; but being of a mongrel breed, and excessively shy, it was conjectured he had escaped from the chain of some gipsy troop. He was a smooth-haired dog, of a tawny mouse colour, with dark streaks, in tiger fashion, over his hide ; and appeared to be a cross between mastiff and greyhound. Strongly built and of good speed, being both well fed and well exercised, his endurance was very great.”

On the other hand, unlike most dogs that I know, the Beast was never heard to bark, growl or howl. And why would you go to the considerable expense of stuffing the corpse and displaying it in Hutton’s Museum in Keswick if it were just “a cross between mastiff and greyhound”. Perhaps the Beast of Ennerdale was the Beast of Gévaudan on his holidays.

“C’était comme un chien, mais ce n’était  pas un chien”…

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The Beast of Ennerdale: Part One

When I was researching the Beast of Gevaudan, and his many, many friends, both in France, Italy and a number of other countries, I was amazed to find “England” in one of the lists. I couldn’t believe it! An out of control animal rampaging in our well-ordered and generally wonderful country? A piece of slander by a lying, jealous foreigner, surely!

Well, apparently, no. The whole unfortunate business has been kept very quiet, of course, but in 1810, a mystery creature certainly did rampage across the wild countryside of the Lake District in north western England. Here is that beautiful area. Look for the orange arrow:

north of englasnd

The parallels with the Beast of Gévaudan were striking, the only difference being that the English victims were not pretty young shepherdesses or even little boys, but the sheep themselves.
The animal was dubbed at the time “The Girt Dog of Ennerdale”. To me, though, this is a singularly inappropriate name, certainly from the point of view of anyone who wants to attract tourists, rather as they do with the Loch Ness Monster.

“Where is Ennerdale?” you can hear all the tourists asking. “What does ‘Girt’ mean?” and “What is so special about a dog?”
The saga of “The Beast of the Lake District” or, a more striking name perhaps, “The Beast of Ennerdale”, began in spring, or more precisely May, of 1810, when the body of a half consumed sheep was found on the bleak hillside above the lake called Ennerdale Water. On May 10th, Mr Mossop, who lived at Thornholme, to the south of Ennerdale Water on the way to Calderbridge, had a brief glimpse of an unknown animal far away, up on the mountainside. The orange arrow indicates his farm at Thornholme:

arrow = thornholme

Soon after this, an increasing number of sheep began to be attacked. Every night, at least one sheep would be killed.

Clearly, a  monster was at large in the county, known at this time as Cumberland. At first the locals walked the hills, trying to find the animal. They had no success, which was not really surprising, given the extent of the hills, and in some cases, the extent of the forests in the valleys between them. One or two of the men had fleeting glimpses of the Beast, which always seemed to emerge just as night was falling. All they could make out was the animal’s size, which was extremely large. In the local dialect, “girt”, or “gurt” meant “great”, so the Beast was christened “The Girt Dog of Ennerdale”. This is Ennerdale. It is very wild country by English standards:

1280px-Ennerdale
The ferocious Beast killed large numbers of sheep, far beyond what it would have needed for food. Furthermore, it killed its victims in a very unusual way: the corpses of the sheep had their internal organs consumed or even removed, and their blood was apparently drained from their bodies. This was no ordinary dog, feral or otherwise. It was not a fox either. No canid drinks the blood of its prey, and this planted a seed in the minds of a superstitious local population.
Indeed, if these 19th century farmworkers had had wider access to satellite television, I am sure that the spectre of cattle mutilation and UFOs would have raised their ugly heads:

ufo-585761_640

As the situation worsened, more and more men had to leave their ordinary work and their farms, take their dogs, and begin to comb the hills and woods in an effort to find and kill the monster.

Without any success whatsoever. The Beast of Ennerdale was just as elusive and cunning as the Beast of Gévaudan. It did not, on any occasion, stay in an area long enough to attack the same flock of sheep on two successive nights. Its self-secreting powers, the ways it could avoid capture and above all, its propensity for drinking blood soon had the superstitious locals believing that the animal was supernatural. It was soon christened, if that is the word, “The Vampire Dog of Ennerdale”:

snarling

Just like the Beast of Gévaudan, it seemed to have a power over ordinary dogs who normally would have been reasonably courageous. Instead, the locals’ dogs would shrink away when asked to follow the Beast’s trail and, as dogs apparently do with Bigfoot, they often just refused to track.  The dogs were clearly scared stiff of something that they could understand, but their human owners could not.

Sometimes, when the dogs were a little more positive and were actually pursuing the Beast, it would occasionally let just one catch up and then seize it and crush its forelegs in its powerful teeth.  None of the other dogs would then go near it. The Beast was so fleet of foot that it usually only had one dog to deal with at any one time, as all the pursuing dogs would be chasing it at different speeds.
The death toll of sheep continued to mount by the day. Eventually, as a minimum, the unknown killer was slaughtering half a dozen sheep every night. Occasionally the total would mount to eight or ten. This only added to the villagers’ superstitions, of course:

sheep bones zzzzzz

The Beast clearly took sadistic pleasure in ripping sheep to pieces, often to leave them uneaten. On occasion, he would even leave them alive. One of a particular farmer’s favourite rams was watched by the dawn’s first light as the Beast attacked it. The latter ripped out and ate great lumps of best quality mutton from the poor animal’s rear quarters. The crippled victim was then left in the field, unable to fight back, unable even to walk, as its hind legs were paralysed.  Another sheep suffered even worse. The shepherd drove the Beast off as it was feasting and then found that the mutton had been stripped off the ribs behind the shoulder to leave visible the poor animal’s still beating heart.

Soon a prominent local, John Russell, put up a £10 reward for what he thought was a huge dog, “Dead or alive” as they say. An even better offer was free beer for the people who kept watch for the Beast. Mr Russell, of course, owned his very own brewery in Whitehaven. He also had a direct interest in the Beast as he was the owner of 3,000 acres of sheep farming land in Ennerdale. Here is a general map of the valley:

ennerdale water

The offer for the combatants of free food and especially, alcoholic drink, was taken up by other wealthy sheep farmers who provided as much as £12 for refreshments. Others showed their willingness to provide free meals for all Beasthunters over a certain fixed period of time at a certain location, such as their farm or large house.
Nothing succeeded. And then, just as with the Beast of Gévaudan, a feeling of panic began to sweep the area. Parents would keep their children indoors all day long, too scared to let them go out and play.
The Beast seemed just so calculating and so shrewd. Cleverer than a mere animal. Cleverer than a fox. No traps ever came close to catching it. It was wary and watchful:

yello eye
People thought that it spent the day high up in its look-out place, watching the scared natives far below in the valley make huge but vain efforts to catch it. The animal’s senses of sight, hearing, and scent, were so acute that it was a rare event indeed, for anybody to come upon it unawares during daylight hours. When it was accidentally approached in daytime, surprisingly perhaps, the animal never did anything vicious towards humans, and always took to its heels. The Beast never uttered the slightest sound, not a single bark, growl or howl.

As happened with its French counterpart in Gévaudan, the dead sheep were all poisoned and left out on the hillside. The Beast was no more attracted to these carcasses than it was to the many traps which were optimistically set to catch it.
One of the more subtle sheepfarmers even tried leaving out a dog on heat to attract the Beast within musket shot, but he had no success with this cunning plan:

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The male dogs, of course, as soon as they caught the distant scent of the Beast, still continued with their policy of cowering and whimpering. They refused absolutely to follow this strange, ferocious animal.
As the weeks went by and the summer drew towards its close, the Beast was beginning to have a very negative effect. While the men were all off chasing it, the poor cows often had to wait to be milked. Horses too were not looked after properly and often went hungry. Fields were neglected. Years before computer games, the poor little children were confined to their homes as their parents were too frightened to let them out of their sight. And all this neglect had its impact on the womenfolk of the area who tried (I almost wrote ‘manfully’) to make up for their absent husbands and servants.
Finally, a shepherd out on the hillside, watching his flocks not by night but in the cold grey light of the early morning, caught a clear sight of the monster. In actual fact, his description was not desperately helpful, but to anybody who had ever heard of the Beast of Gévaudan, it had some strangely familiar elements:

p_AD48_gravure_bete_14Firstly, the Beast of Ennerdale was pale brown or sandy coloured. It was well built and solid. And it was very large. Its jaws seemed unusually large and wide and it had dark stripes on its back. It was a strange mixture of the features of both a very big dog and a very big cat. It was really quick, and, as they found out later, it possessed enormous stamina.  The Beast was not like anything the scared shepherd had ever seen before.
After this, the Beast seemed to be spotted more frequently. Shepherds and the bravest of their sheepdogs would chase after it up the hillside. Occasionally a group of some fifty or so locals would assemble, seemingly at the drop of a tricorn hat, to set off following their various hunting hounds, racing across the mountainside.
That princely reward of £10 plus free beer for everybody who kept watch for the Beast attracted scores, if not hundreds of professional hunters to the land around Ennerdale Water. Beer, money and undying fame! What was there not to like?

Edinburgh

The would-be hunters, of course, had no success whatsoever. The phrase “Wild Goose Chase” might have been invented for their efforts. At one point there were more than a hundred men and several hundreds of their dogs racing back and forth across the desolate hills. Useless. The killing and the blood sucking and the soft organ eating all continued as before. By the end of the summer, more than 300 sheep had been killed.

Next time: “Chapter Two: This isn’t going to end well”.

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