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)

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Chvrches lead singer Lauren Mayberry in the band's new video 'Leave a Trace'

music
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Home on the raunch: George Bisset (Aneurin Barnard), Lady Seymour Worsley (Natalie Dormer) and Richard Worsley (Shaun Evans)

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Strictly Come Dancing was watched by 6.9m viewers

Strictly
Arts and Entertainment
NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton

film
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dormer as Margaery Tyrell and Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
New book 'The Rabbit Who Wants To Fall Asleep' by Carl-Johan Forssen Ehrlin

books
Arts and Entertainment
Calvi is not afraid of exploring the deep stuff: loneliness, anxiety, identity, reinvention
music
Arts and Entertainment
Edinburgh solo performers Neil James and Jessica Sherr
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
If a deal to buy tBeats, founded by hip-hop star Dr Dre (pictured) and music producer Jimmy Iovine went through, it would be Apple’s biggest ever acquisition

album review
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith is joining The Voice as a new coach

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Dowton Abbey has been pulling in 'telly tourists', who are visiting Highclere House in Berkshire

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Patriot games: Vic Reeves featured in ‘Very British Problems’
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Summer nights: ‘Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp’
TVBut what do we Brits really know about them?
Arts and Entertainment
Dr Michael Mosley is a game presenter

TV review
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 groundbreaking study of 'Britain's Atlantis' long buried at the bottom of the North Sea could revolutionise how we see our prehistoric past

    Britain's Atlantis

    Scientific study beneath North Sea could revolutionise how we see the past
    The Queen has 'done and said nothing that anybody will remember,' says Starkey

    The Queen has 'done and said nothing that anybody will remember'

    David Starkey's assessment
    Oliver Sacks said his life has been 'an enormous privilege and adventure'

    'An enormous privilege and adventure'

    Oliver Sacks writing about his life
    'Gibraltar is British, and it is going to stay British forever'

    'Gibraltar is British, and it is going to stay British forever'

    The Rock's Chief Minister hits back at Spanish government's 'lies'
    Britain is still addicted to 'dirty coal'

    Britain still addicted to 'dirty' coal

    Biggest energy suppliers are more dependent on fossil fuel than a decade ago
    Orthorexia nervosa: How becoming obsessed with healthy eating can lead to malnutrition

    Orthorexia nervosa

    How becoming obsessed with healthy eating can lead to malnutrition
    Lady Chatterley is not obscene, says TV director

    Lady Chatterley’s Lover

    Director Jed Mercurio on why DH Lawrence's novel 'is not an obscene story'
    Farmers in tropical forests are training ants to kill off bigger pests

    Set a pest to catch a pest

    Farmers in tropical forests are training ants to kill off bigger pests
    Mexico: A culture that celebrates darkness as an essential part of life

    The dark side of Mexico

    A culture that celebrates darkness as an essential part of life
    Being sexually assaulted was not your fault, Chrissie Hynde. Don't tell other victims it was theirs

    Being sexually assaulted was not your fault, Chrissie Hynde

    Please don't tell other victims it was theirs
    A nap a day could save your life - and here's why

    A nap a day could save your life

    A midday nap is 'associated with reduced blood pressure'
    If men are so obsessed by sex, why do they clam up when confronted with the grisly realities?

    If men are so obsessed by sex...

    ...why do they clam up when confronted with the grisly realities?
    The comedy titans of Avalon on their attempt to save BBC3

    Jon Thoday and Richard Allen-Turner

    The comedy titans of Avalon on their attempt to save BBC3
    The bathing machine is back... but with a difference

    Rolling in the deep

    The bathing machine is back but with a difference
    Part-privatised tests, new age limits, driverless cars: Tories plot motoring revolution

    Conservatives plot a motoring revolution

    Draft report reveals biggest reform to regulations since driving test introduced in 1935