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The story of the beast of Bodmin Moor

An article in Metro, the free newspaper that’s somehow always more interesting when you read it over someone’s shoulder, caught my eye earlier this year: “Roaming leopard snared by Cornish sheep farmer” ran the headline. A farmer down in Cornwall had set some traps for foxes after one of his sheep was killed. To his surprise, when he went to check them he found a clouded leopard, an animal usually found in the foothills of the Himalayas. It had escaped from someone’s garden in the vicinity of Par, a fishing-village on the south Cornish coast. Its owner had kept it in an enclosure – legally, for he apparently has a licence allowing him to keep dangerous wild animals, but evidently his security arrangements were lacking somewhat.

This got me thinking about one thing and one thing only. I take tour groups down to Cornwall, and one of the stories I like to tell when driving along the A30 is the tale of the ‘Beast of Bodmin Moor’, a modern-day local legend which would really be an urban myth were it not for the decidedly rural setting.

It’s one of many ‘phantom cat’ stories concerning alleged big cat sightings, of which there have apparently been over 2,000 in Britain since the Sixties, about one-fifth of them in the South West. On the other side of the Tamar, Exmoor and Dartmoor both have their own ‘beast’ stories but it’s the Bodmin Moor one which seems to get the most attention. The story would appear to have originated in the Seventies, not long after the closure of Plymouth Zoo whose owners are reputed to have released a couple of their pumas into the wild.

From then on, farmers attributed any dead livestock they found to some kind of wild animal of the large feline variety, and a rash of photographs appeared which purported to show a big cat of some sort out on the moor, rather like those photos taken at Loch Ness that claim to show ‘Nessie’. Most of these photos were of poor quality and may well have been doctored (this in the days before digital cameras and photoshopping) but some nevertheless made their way into the newspapers. The tabloids in particular were rather taken by any story they could find about what was dubbed the ‘Beast of Bodmin Moor’, especially during the summer ‘silly season’ when there wasn’t much by way of real news and which also happened to be when most of the photos were taken by holiday-makers. It was even reckoned that trainee reporters were sent down to Cornwall as part of their on-the-job training, just to see if they could get a new angle on the ‘beast’ story. The media’s fascination with this was satirised in an episode of the Nineties TV sitcom Drop the Dead Donkey, when one of the reporters went out of his way to fake some video footage of a big cat on the moor in order to boost his network’s viewing figures.

By the mid-Nineties, the volume of tabloid stories about sightings of the alleged beast was getting out of hand. In 1995, the government (in the form of the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries & Food) conducted an official investigation, which looked into several livestock disappearances that had been reported and examined the photos that had been taken. The men from the Ministry concluded that there was no real evidence for any wild cat on Bodmin Moor.

But the story didn’t end there, for a week after the report was published the skull of a big cat was found by the River Fowey, which rises on the moor! This was sent to the Natural History Museum for examination, and they came to the conclusion that it was the skull of a leopard … which had died somewhere in East Africa in the early twentieth century, and had most likely been imported into Britain as part of a leopard-skin rug. Although it could’ve just been thrown away, the fact that it was found so soon after the Ministry’s report means that it’s not beyond the bounds of possibility to suppose that it might have been planted by a journalist, looking for one last ‘beast’ story.

And, thanks to some idiot who perhaps shouldn’t have been keeping a big cat in his back garden, the story briefly surfaced once again earlier this year.

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