Cat in hell's chance

On Exmoor they hunt the Beast with onion bags and tins of Kit- e-Kat. Siobhan Dolan takes up the trail of the Big Tabby

with childlike enthusiasm, the naturalist clutches a plaster-cast of an animal's footprint. "Look at the three lobes on the heel pad of this cast," he says. "This to me is conclusive evidence that this was made by a big cat."

But it is not Sir David Attenborough. For one thing, Attenborough's animals always appear on cue. The creature which Nigel Brierly, a retired biologist, is stalking may not even exist. The Beasts of Exmoor, Bodmin Moor and elsewhere, have lived and thrived in the tabloids for more than a decade but to date remain as elusive as the Loch Ness Monster. Farmers in the area regularly find the carcasses of sheep which appear to be the victims of "clean" cat kills rather than the indiscriminate savagery of dogs. Others claim to have come face to face with the Beasts, though cynics might add that most of these incidents seem to occur after closing time.

Despite its title, Encounters: the Call of the Beast does not present us with a single puma, lynx, panther or bobcat, or even so much as a large domestic tabby, but the assortment of characters on its trail is so odd that you never really notice. As well as Brierly, the acknowledged expert on the phenomenon ("I've been looking a bit longer and am a bit madder than the rest"), and his loyal sidekick, Jacky Cullingford, we meet two London policemen who spend their weekends bringing their forensic and surveillance skills to the hunt. Graham Quick, a freelance photographer, is determined to take the first incontrovertible snap of the creature, and sets off in pursuit with an empty onion bag, two tins of cat food and a large supply of toilet paper for long nights in the wood. "The fact that I've been trying for so long makes it important to me," he says. "I'd be really pissed off if someone else went out and snapped it tomorrow. But I know that I've as much chance as winning the lottery."

Also out there somewhere is John Waters, who originally researched the programme and whose interest in the Beast is professional, not obsessional. Waters is a full-time wildlife photographer, well used to spending days or weeks in his hide before his quarry appears. Even he, however, eventually returns from the moor admitting defeat.

And defeat remains the only characteristic which unites these people, though it is something you feel they will happily endure if it means that no one else gets there first. If a disinterested hiker or birdwatcher were to stumble across a puma corpse one morning, life would suddenly cease to have meaning for most of the Beast fanatics. Yet the very fact that no one has ever found a dead puma suggests that Brierly and the rest are chasing a fantasy.

Brierly, author of They Stalk by Night, will not be deflected by those resisting conversion. He regularly sets traps and boils droppings, looking for a result in the cause of natural history. His dedication is such that recently he and his wife heard what they believed to be a puma howling outside their bedroom window. They rushed downstairs to try and mimic it on the piano.

Frances Berrigan, producer of the film, is no wiser as to the existence of the creature even after making the programme. "I suppose it's conceivable that there's something lurking there,'' she says. "I'm tempted to say that Bodmin and Exmoor are full of legends of highwaymen and pirates and things that go bump in the night. It's just the sort of place you'd expect to find a `monster'."

Together with director Norman Hull she was determined not to send up the cat hunters too much. "We wanted to put a bit of oomph into these people's amateur efforts," she explains. "It's nice to see a film amid all the blood, gore and misery on television that turns up a smile, yet doesn't debunk the whole thing."

That the documentary throws up no further evidence has not disappointed her. "What we really wanted to say was that the Beast of Exmoor in its romantic appeal can be compared with the Loch Ness Monster," Berrigan explains. "People like to think that there's something out there larger than themselves - it adds shape and colour to their lives. When we were down there almost everyone had a story. So whether or not it's true, it's still important because it's dominating so many people's lives."

Encounters (Sun 7pm C4)

Arts and Entertainment

Film Leonardo DiCaprio hunts Tom Hardy

Arts and Entertainment
And now for something completely different: the ‘Sin City’ episode of ‘Casualty’
TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    A Very British Coup, part two: New novel in pipeline as Jeremy Corbyn's rise inspires sequel

    A Very British Coup, part two

    New novel in pipeline as Jeremy Corbyn's rise inspires sequel
    Philae lander data show comets could have brought 'building blocks of life' to Earth

    Philae lander data show comets could have brought 'building blocks of life' to Earth

    Icy dust layer holds organic compounds similar to those found in living organisms
    What turns someone into a conspiracy theorist? Study to look at why some are more 'receptive' to such theories

    What turns someone into a conspiracy theorist?

    Study to look at why some are more 'receptive' to such theories
    Chinese web dissenters using coded language to dodge censorship filters and vent frustration at government

    Are you a 50-center?

    Decoding the Chinese web dissenters
    The Beatles film Help, released 50 years ago, signalled the birth of the 'metrosexual' man

    Help signalled birth of 'metrosexual' man

    The Beatles' moptop haircuts and dandified fashion introduced a new style for the modern Englishman, says Martin King
    Hollywood's new diet: Has LA stolen New York's crown as the ultimate foodie trend-setter?

    Hollywood's new diet trends

    Has LA stolen New York's crown as the ultimate foodie trend-setter?
    6 best recipe files

    6 best recipe files

    Get organised like a Bake Off champion and put all your show-stopping recipes in one place
    Ashes 2015: Steven Finn goes from being unselectable to simply unplayable

    Finn goes from being unselectable to simply unplayable

    Middlesex bowler claims Ashes hat-trick of Clarke, Voges and Marsh
    Mullah Omar, creator of the Taliban, is dead... for the fourth time

    Mullah Omar, creator of the Taliban, is dead... again

    I was once told that intelligence services declare their enemies dead to provoke them into popping up their heads and revealing their location, says Robert Fisk
    Margaret Attwood on climate change: 'Time is running out for our fragile, Goldilocks planet'

    Margaret Atwood on climate change

    The author looks back on what she wrote about oil in 2009, and reflects on how the conversation has changed in a mere six years
    New Dr Seuss manuscript discovered: What Pet Should I Get? goes on sale this week

    New Dr Seuss manuscript discovered

    What Pet Should I Get? goes on sale this week
    Oculus Rift and the lonely cartoon hedgehog who could become the first ever virtual reality movie star

    The cartoon hedgehog leading the way into a whole new reality

    Virtual reality is the 'next chapter' of entertainment. Tim Walker gives it a try
    Ants have unique ability to switch between individual and collective action, says study

    Secrets of ants' teamwork revealed

    The insects have an almost unique ability to switch between individual and collective action
    Donovan interview: The singer is releasing a greatest hits album to mark his 50th year in folk

    Donovan marks his 50th year in folk

    The singer tells Nick Duerden about receiving death threats, why the world is 'mentally ill', and how he can write a song about anything, from ecology to crumpets
    Let's Race simulator: Ultra-realistic technology recreates thrill of the Formula One circuit

    Simulator recreates thrill of F1 circuit

    Rory Buckeridge gets behind the wheel and explains how it works