On the trail of the Beast of Bodmin Moor

Glenda Cooper reports on moves to find the truth behind tales of a cat-like creature stalking Cornwall
It was a cruel but clean death. She died of a broken neck, her stomach ripped from sternum to leg. But the tell-tale signs were four long scratch marks which Rosemary Rhodes thinks identifies the killer of her ewe- the Beast of Bodmin Moor.

Mrs Rhodes and other north Cornwall farmers have complained for 12 years about the Beast - or beasts - which terrorise livestock. They believe up to 17 black and brown pumas, panthers and dark leopards could stalk the area.

And at last they are being taken seriously. The "man from the ministry" - Charlie Wilson, a wildlife biologist from the Agricultural Development Advisory Service - has £8,200 and 26 working days to assemble evidence of the Beast.

Walking down the pitch black lanes of Commonmoor, where branches hang over and drizzling rain obscures everything, even sceptics may find it easier to believe.

And if that is not enough, the first stop for any amateur sleuth is Goodaver Farm, which can only be reached by a rickety footbridge over the rushing river Fowey and a gate with a huge sign saying "Wild Big Cats - Keep Out".

The farmer, John Goodenough, a shiny, weatherbeaten man with tremendous whiskers, warns those on the hunt: "You'll know when the Beast's there. There'll be no rabbits or foxes about and the birds stop singing. That's the call for caution.

"And the way they kill. If it's a dog there's wool and trouble everywhere. A cat goes in, kills and eats. Very little mess," he said.

Mrs Rhodes, of neighbouring Ninestones Farm, adds to the description: "Its eyes are great yellow orbs. And it has a foul scream like a woman's but 100 times magnified.

"We sent off to the National Sound Archives for a puma mating call and when we heard the tape we fell about because that's what we'd heard through the kitchen window."

The Beast is charged with costing Mr Goodenough £1,000 in livestock. Mrs Rhodes sold her flock of sheep after losing 10.

She claims to have captured it on video near her backyard and also found hairs which she sent to the National Farmers Union for analysis: "No one will tell me what they found out. If it was a cow they'd say so, wouldn't they? I think it's been suppressed."

Few villagers dismiss the story altogether. Father Michael Cartwright, priest-in-charge of Altarnun with Bolventor, believes it exists: "Some reliable people who have seen it are not the sort who go into the realms of fantasy. People round here aren't given to lying," he said.

Les Humphreys, landlord of the Rising Sun Inn in neighbouring St Clether, added: "I know someone who's positive he saw it. There's a fair amount of scepticism but the Government have got to remember animals don't generally pose for photos."

At nearby Jamaica Inn, made famous by Daphne du Maurier, Steve Parkyn, a builder, could take Mr Wilson to the eerie gorse-covered moor near Outer Priddacombe farm where he came face to face with it at 1am.

Pointing to the fence where it stared at him and a friend, he said: "It jumped off there and went into the forest. It was making a squeaky, squealing noise so we decided to follow it. Well it seemed like a good idea at the time. We shone the lamp around, crouched down and caught its eyes. They were sort of bright white. Then it went off at a fair old rate and we saw it was about 3ft long, with a tail of 18 inches and was a pinky brown colour."

Meanwhile, Mr Wilson is doggedly carrying out his research. "We will investigate any reported kills suspected to be by cats," he said wearily. "We will watch Mrs Rhodes's videos and look at the proportions of the animals to determine what kind of cat it might be. We'll identify the banks the animals have been filmed on and measure them for size."

He is also compiling reports of "reasonably convincing" sightings to build up a pattern and looking at plaster casts of print marks.

This is not sufficient for Mrs Rhodes and Mr Goodenough: "Charlie Wilson is a very nice man but the ministry has given him a job without the tools to do it with," said Mrs Rhodes. "The ministry is taking the easy way - reassuring people there's no danger. In the last war Churchill told people to fight on the beaches. He didn't reassure them and say `go home folks everything'll be alright'."

Mr Goodenough agreed: "Tis rubbish, totally rubbish. Our masters should have the bottle to come and talk to us. They go to university and get their heads so full of academics there's not a bit of room for common sense," he said.

The two have their solution: "We need to tell people the difference between cat and dog prints. We need a national investigation and a central board of intelligence taking calls from all over the place," Mrs Rhodes said. "And we must give out information. If you meet the Beast you mustn't bend over or run. You must face it, shout, chuck things and become aggressive and it'll move off," she warned.

Neither farmer wants the Beast shot. "We should go to America and bring back the men and dogs who keep panthers under control there," added Mr Goodenough. "They can drive `em up and shift `em onto a reserve."

Mr Wilson sighs: "We're not doubting the honesty and sincerity of people but if we're going to submit a report and do something we need to see hard evidence," he said.

"All this Hound of the Baskervilles stuff - no one remembers the hound turned out to be a fake."

So you won't be wearing a deerstalker then? "No, and no tweeds either. I'll be wearing welly boots, jumper and jeans when I go out looking," he said.

Driving back across Bodmin Moor with Steve Parkin, a large brown animal appears 100 yards in front. Could it possibly be ...? Doubts finally removed? "Well now," said Mr Parkyn regretfully. "that was a fox. But a very large one."

But later, at 5pm, the sky is darkening over Jamaica Inn. Bodmin Moor stretches to the left and right, divided by rough stone walls. There is a flicker of movement to the left. No birds are singing ...

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