(An extract from my old birdwatching diary “Crippling Views”)
I used to be a very keen twitcher, driving hundreds of miles to see a rare bird. It sounds really stupid now, but it wasn’t. It was exciting…
Saturday, July 23, 1988
A late-night phone call and by 10:30 p.m., I’m being picked up to drive overnight in an attempt to see a Terek Sandpiper, one of the very few birds to have an upturned beak.
At the time, this wader was extremely rare in this country, and for reasons best known to itself, this particular individual was a very long way indeed from where it should have been. Yellow is summer, and blue is winter…
Our target bird is a good drive from Nottingham, at Stanpit Marshes, near Christchurch, far down in deepest Dorset…
We go past all sorts of romantic dual carriageway turnoff signs, Oxford, Salisbury, all places I wouldn’t mind seeing one day, but not tonight, or rather today, for as we arrive at Stanpit, Rosy fingered Dawn is just beginning to lighten the eastern sky.
I feel terrible, truly awful. We all sleep for the best part of half an hour, slumped in the car. When we emerge the light is really quite good, but the drawback is that it is pelting down with heavy drenching rain, which is the worst possible thing for glasses and valuable optics. We walk out onto the marsh, where there is the normal selection of shelducks and black headed gulls, sitting out on a shingle bank, but anything more subtle is going to be difficult in this appalling weather. Cleaning off my glasses has already soaked my one and only handkerchief, and I am very loathe to get either my binoculars or my telescope out from under my old waxed jacket. I hate the rain.
In the hour before we left, I did a little bit of research on the Terek Sandpiper. The literature that I read said that they were not amazingly different from Common Sandpipers, especially when seen badly or from a distance. One particularly good point, though, is that they feed at a much quicker rate than the Common Sandpipers with which they often associate. Bearing this in mind, I take a closer look at three Common Sandpipers feeding in a creek….
One individual is pecking away a lot quicker rate than the other two, and seems rather dumpy and portly to me. Whether its beak is upturned or not, I just cannot see, the rain is coming down too hard. I call Paul, but he can’t penetrate the gloom either. The other two birdwatchers I’m with are a lot more experienced than I am, so I just meekly point out the birds to them, say that I think that they are worth looking at, but don’t labour the point. Neither of them seems to be particularly impressed, because they stalk off into the middle distance, without even a backward glance. Unabashed, I try to get closer to the three birds, but succeed only in flushing them, and they all fly off along the edge of the creek. I presume that that is the end of it.
It isn’t though, because we soon come across a group of birdwatchers, all intently watching a Terek Sandpiper.
It has just flown in with two Common Sandpipers apparently (LOL, you would say nowadays). It is visible at the edge of the main creek. We watch it for a good while. It’s a rather delicate, if pot-bellied bird, as it feeds rapidly in the shallows. It even bathes briefly, preening itself with what in the telescope is obviously a wonderfully upturned bill.
Our next port of call is a little village called Corfe Mullen, a really posh place, compared to our pathetic Northern Hovels. All great big mansion houses, with huge country gardens, all filled with exquisitely trimmed conifers. Here is a beautiful Southern Hovel…
There’s a small triangle of grass in the middle of the village, surrounded by lots of lovely telegraph wires, all eager to support the delicate weight of a Red-rumped Swallow.
Not today, though. We stroll along the surrounding lanes, turning up a few swallows and housemartins. It’s not a great day for hirundines, because it’s a bit drizzly still, and somewhat cold. There cannot be many insects up there for them to catch. After a couple of hours searching, we suddenly hear a cry. I look up and see the bird, completely distinctive with its dark rear end, and nobody is any doubt as it disappears over a distant line of trees.
After this, we return to the M3, M25 and M1, all equally delightful in their own way. By the time I get to the services at Leicester Forest East, I feel like one of the extras in “Return of the Zombie Twitchers”. Still, you forget the distance covered, and the discomfort, when you look at your life list. Soon be two hundred.
Last week I watched my heroes, the six Hillbilly Hunters, chase vainly after the Hell Hound of Pike County, Kentucky. As a European, though, I could not possibly be unaware of this fearsome creatures’s striking similarity to the so-called “Beast of Gévaudan”, or, in Occitan, the language spoken by the ordinary people in this area of France at the time, “La Bèstia de Gavaudan”.
Whichever language is used, this is the historical name given to the creature which ravaged an area of up to 300 square miles in the province of Gévaudan, in the Margeride Mountains in south central France. In those distant days, between May 1764 and June 1767, this entire area was completely agricultural, and it was common practice once winter ended, to send the herds of cattle or flocks of sheep up into the spring and summer pastures in the high mountains. In an era long before mass communication, news was slow to emerge from the region of an epidemic of killings by an unknown but huge creature. This animal preyed for the most part, usually in broad daylight, on the young boys and girls who were sent up into the mountains for months on end to look after their father’s animals. Sometimes its prey was the women who lived in lonely cottages and tiny villages, often as they tended their animals or gathered crops in open fields. These three categories constituted, of course, the easiest of targets. They were made even easier by years of failed harvests and famine during the period preceding the first appearance of La Bèstia. Indeed, during the many huge beats which were to be organised during the following months, a whole succession of high ranking officials from Paris were all astonished to see the peasants who were taking part, fainting and falling over, passing out from malnutrition and the physical effort involved in walking for any distance across fields or through woods.
The creature, for the most part, ignored men, and likewise cattle, sheep and goats. After the kill it would disappear into the dense patches of forest scattered across the granite plateaux and grass covered hills.
The number of victims differs according to sources. One study estimated there were 210 attacks, with 113 deaths and 49 injuries. Nearly a hundred of the victims killed were partly eaten. However, other sources put the number of fatalities at between sixty and a hundred, mostly defenceless children, or perhaps adult women, with more than thirty victims injured. Attempts have been made to compile full lists of his victims’ names. Click on “Attacks” on the left hand side of the webpage.
Here are some contemporary illustrations of the creature, nearly all of which depict girls or young women as the victims.
According to those who saw the attacks, the monster had formidable teeth and an immense tail. In general, La Bèstia resembled a wolf but it was huge, between a calf and a horse in size. Overall, its fur was said to be unusual in colouration, mostly red, but its back was streaked with black. It had a large doglike head, a snout like a wolf and a mouthful of large teeth. Its small straight ears lay close to its head, and it had a strong neck and a wide chest. The tail was immensely long, and somewhat like that of a panther. People who were struck by the tail said that it was a blow of considerable force. One or two witnesses said La Bèstia had cloven hooves, or that the end of its four limbs was tipped with a hoof. Others said the claws were so heavy that they merely resembled hooves.
Here is one early depiction of the creature. The text at the top of the illustration below means…
“This is the figure of the Monster which is ravaging Gévaudan. This animal is of the size of a young bull. It attacks by preference women and children. It drinks their blood, cuts off their head, and takes it away. £2,700 is promised to whoever kills this animal.”
(My own translation)
This is an entry in an unknown parish record…
« L’an 1764 et le 1er juillet, a été enterrée, Jeane Boulet, sans sacremens, ayant été tuée par la bette féroce, présans Joseph Vigier et Jean Reboul. »
“In the Year 1764, on the first of July, was buried, Jeane Boulet, without the Last Sacraments, having been killed by the ferocious beast, present Joseph Vigier et Jean Reboul.”
(My own translation)
My knowledge of Old French is limited, and I do not know whether the spellings are correct for 1764, or whether the priest was writing the words as he would have said them. They would certainly not be correct by modern standards of orthography.
Here is a legal document taken from the parish records in the village of Rocles, with the graphic description of the death of a little girl called Magdeleine Mauras, a victim of the Beast of Gévaudan…
“On the 30th day of the month of September in the Year 1764, Magdeleine Mauras was buried, the daughter of the late Jean and Pagès from Pierrefiche. She was about 12 years old and staying with her uncle John Baptiste Mauras from a place called Thorts in this parish. Her body was found on the 29th day of the month, gnawed on the neck and the breast by the ferocious beast which has been ravaging through this diocese for five months. It ripped her throat out when she was coming back to herd her uncle’s cattle homeward at 4.30 in the evening.”
“The rest of her body, which was lacking an arm, ripped off and consumed by the said beast, was laid in the cemetery of this parish of Rocles in the tomb of the ancestors of her father. Present at this were Jean TF, Jean, Jean-Pierre Bouet and Pierre Martin, the son of the late Antoine, from the place called Thorts, all of them illiterate.
I made these enquiries, the Priest at Aubignac.”
(My own translation)
At least one grave of a victim remains…
The French means
“Here was devoured by the Beast Carobal Gayon, June 13th 1765”
He must have been one of the very few adult male victims.
The horrific method of killing victims by ripping their throats out was frequently used by the Beast. Not surprisingly, the government eventually undertook to rid the area of this ferocious creature.
One of the first to try his luck, in October 1764, was Captain Duhamel and his dragoons from Clermont. They did not have an enormous amount of success, and the dragoons themselves were extremely unpopular with the people of the region, as they frequently damaged their crops, and refused to pay for their lodging when billeted with local families. Duhamel was supposedly responsible for this picture of La Bèstia…
Duhamel’s written description said that the monster had the chest of a leopard, the legs and feet of a bear and the ears of a wolf. He thought the animal was some kind of hybrid, but considered that its father was a lion. He did not know what the mother had been. He, like d’Enneval and his son, who were to succeed him in March 1765, refused to believe that it was just an ordinary wolf.
It was January 12, 1765, when twelve year old Jacques Portefaix and his little group of seven friends were attacked by La Bèstia. After several assaults, they drove off the monster by staying grouped together. The encounter came to the attention of King Louis XV who gave rewards to all of these gallant young men. including Jacques Portefaix who was given enough for his education. The King then decreed that the French state would help find and kill the monster.
At this time, of course, the population of France believed that Louis was king by Divine Right. In other words, he was directly appointed by God. Clearly, if Louis could not protect his people from the ravages of an animal that was initially supposed to be merely a large wolf, then questions would certainly be asked about his suitability to rule the country in the face of what might easily be called a punishment sent from God.
Three weeks later, therefore, a concerned King sent two professional wolf-hunters, Jean Charles Marc Antoine Vaumesle d’Enneval and his son Jean-François, to Gévaudan. They arrived on February 17, 1765, bringing eight bloodhounds trained to hunt wolves. Over the next four months father and son hunted wolves believing that eventually they would surely kill the beast. The attacks, however, continued and they were eventually to lose their jobs. D’Enneval père had previously been considered “l’un des meilleurs chasseurs de loups qui ait jamais existé“, “one of the finest wolf hunters who had ever existed”. He had killed some 1,200 wolves in his lifetime, the majority of which, amazingly by today’s standards, were in the Normandy region. His final departing judgement, though, was that, whatever La Bèstia was, it was no wolf.
On June 22 1765, therefore, Monsieur Antoine de Beauterne, the king’s arquebus bearer and Lieutenant of the Hunt arrived. They began immediately to organise beats by the local people, and set about the same policy of killing as many wolves as they possibly could, in the hope that one of them would turn out to be La Bèstia.
On September 20, 1765, Monsieur Antoine, as he was universally now known, killed his third and largest wolf measuring 31 inches high at the shoulder, 5 feet 7 inches long, and weighing 130 pounds. The wolf was named Wolf of Chazes after the nearby Abbey of Chazes. Strangely, though, this shooting did not take place where the Beast had ever killed anybody, and indeed, it had never been seen there previously.
Monsieur Antoine stated officially:
“We never saw a big wolf that could be compared to this one. This could be the fearsome beast that has caused so much damage.”
The animal was identified as the culprit by attack survivors who recognised the scars on its body inflicted by victims defending themselves. The wolf was stuffed and sent to Paris where Monsieur Antoine was received as a hero, receiving a large sum of money as well as titles and awards.
And then, OH NO!! Very soon, and certainly from the month of November onwards, there were rumours of fresh attacks. They continued throughout the whole of 1766, and then twelve year old Marie Denty was attacked and devoured on May 16th 1767.
On June 19th, 1767, a hunt was organized by a well intentioned local nobleman, the Marquis d’Apcher,
The supposed second beast was duly killed by a local hunter named Jean Chastel. The death of this creature seems finally to have marked the end of these appalling attacks in this benighted region of France.
Writers later introduced the idea that Chastel had shot the creature with blessed silver bullets of his own manufacture. This was probably so that it would fit in more exactly with the largely twentieth century tales told about werewolves, particularly in the cinema.
Upon being opened, the animal’s stomach was shown to contain human remains. Like the first creature, this second wolf was sent to Paris, but, because it had decomposed so badly and was extremely smelly, nobody was particularly interested. Even so, what seems a very thorough autopsy was carried out by the King’s Notary, Roch Étienne Marin.
One television programme, Australia’s “Animal X”, stated that this picture shows, according to Chastel himself, the animal that he shot.
Jean Chastel is nowadays commemorated as the saviour of the region. His signature is preserved, and so is his rifle…
His house is prominently labelled…
The French means
“In the country of the Beast of Gévaudan Here lived Jean Chastel who killed the beast on June 19th 1767. ”
He has a statue…
There are, as you might expect, any number of explanations of the identity of the Beast of Gévaudan. I will look at as many of these as I can in another blogpost.
One thing, however, remains indisputably true: La Bête du Gévaudan was only too real, and terrified thousands of people for a good three years.
Nowadays, La Bèstia is much more in favour. He has numerous statues dedicated to him…
I write today’s post with a very heavy heart. It is about a human tragedy in Northern Ireland. First though, I will need to explain one or two basics, for the benefit of my wonderful readers in Brazil, Bulgaria, Madagascar and Mauritius.
This is the flag of the United Kingdom…
And this is the flag of Ireland…
Northern Ireland, or Ulster, is not part of Ireland, but one of the four bits of the United Kingdom. The population of Northern Ireland, however, is a mixture of Loyalists, who wish to remain part of the United Kingdom, and Republicans, who would possibly prefer to be part of Ireland, which is not a kingdom, but a republic. Within Northern Ireland, political parties can often reflect these different groups, and the two flags have taken on an importance which is far greater in Ulster than they could ever have in the three other bits of the United Kingdom, namely, England, Scotland and Wales.
Over the past three or four days, the BBC have been telling a tragic tale about Bessbrook Pond in County Armagh, in Northern Ireland. I hope you will read their full first report here.
I have abridged it for you in case you haven’t got enough time to spend on the full version.
“25 July 2014
Sinn Féin calls for Irish tricolour flags to be removed from Bessbrook village.
Sometime this week, Irish tricolours have been erected on trees in Bessbrook Pond. Sinn Féin politicians have called for their removal. Sinn Féin member of the Legislative Assembly Mickey Brady said the flags could be seen as intimidating by Protestant residents in the village.
“The issue is causing contention because in Bessbrook particularly there is a mixed community. These flags, some may consider them as overtly sectarian, intimidating and threatening, and I think what we do not want to do in relation to this is perpetuate division.”
“The erection of the national flag in places like trees in the middle of a pond is effectively dishonouring it and also neither at any time should it be used to impose, intimidate or disrespect.
“I share the belief that our national flag should at all times command the highest degree of respect,” said the Mayor and he asked for those who erected the flags to remove them.
“29 July 2014
A 68-year-old man has drowned in an incident at a lake in Bessbrook village.
Oswald ‘Ossie’ Bradley was swimming to trees in Bessbrook Pond to remove two Irish tricolour flags from trees.
It is claimed Mr Bradley intended to replace them with a Union Flag when he got into difficulties. Police are not treating the death as suspicious.
A teenage boy managed to bring Mr Bradley ashore at about 5:00 p.m. on Monday and attempts were made to resuscitate him.
Emergency services took him to Daisy Hill Hospital in Newry, about four miles away, where it was announced that he had died.
Ulster Unionist MLA Danny Kennedy said “This is a very tragic outcome to controversies surrounding flags in this village. His untimely and tragic death is too high a price for any family and community to pay.”
For me, Mr.Kennedy has hit the nail right on the head. Flags might well be seen as important. They should certainly never be dishonoured. They should never be disrespected. And they should never ever be used to emphasise differences in the community, to intimidate, or to threaten. And most of all, no piece of cloth is more important than a man’s life, or the happiness of his family.
To conclude, though, may I pay my sincerest condolences to the family of Mr.Bradley and the village of Bessbrook.