It began with dark mutterings in the local pub, that a strange beast might be stalking the woods around the little village of Woodchester, savaging the local wildlife and frightening local dog walkers.
Now, even the National Trust is suspicious and experts are carrying out DNA tests on the carcasses of two roe deer found mutilated in the Gloucestershire countryside.
A local walker discovered the second carcass in the National Trust’s Woodchester Park, near Stroud, on Wednesday last week. Experts from the University of Warwick were called in on Friday to take DNA samples from the two carcasses, the first of which was found near the village of Dursley.
Dr Robin Allaby, associate professor of life sciences at the University of Warwick said he was “prepared to believe” that the creature that killed the deer was a big cat. DNA test results will be available by next week, he added.
Experts said that injuries to the neck, the plucking of fur and the removal of the stomach and the intestines from the carcass were all hallmarks of a big cat kill.
Stories of big cats stalking the British countryside – usually accompanied by grisly deer or sheep carcasses – are not uncommon, but this is the first time that the National Trust has become involved in an inquiry and the first time that DNA technology has been used to verify suspicions
A National Trust spokesman said: “This is a first for us – it’s quite exciting, an opportunity to solve a wildlife mystery through science.”
The man who discovered the second carcass, who asked not to be named, said: “I found it on Wednesday last week at about 9 o’clock in the morning. I was out for my daily walk. I found it in a coombe – I was on one side and could see a body of some description. I realised from afar that it was a deer and there was a lot of redness showing. So I walked over to it and as soon as I came close I realised what it was. It was very evident that it had been eaten by something – something rather large.”
Frank Tunbridge, 65, a local man who has been recording big cat sightings and suspicious kills for 25 years, said: “We’ve come across loads of similar kills – but this is much more exciting. Because we’re on National Trust land we’ve had a lot of interest and we’ll be getting DNA evidence – the best you can get. Nothing else in this country, other than a big cat, could do this to a carcass.”
“I’ve lived here for 20-odd years, and there’s always been a rumour,” said Ben Powell, manager of the Old Fleece pub in Woodchester. “But nothing’s ever been proved. It’s not often talked about – but you do hear the odd rumour”
Mr Tunbridge, who said there had been reports of big cats in the area for more than a decade, has set up camera trap devices around the site of the latest kill, hoping to photograph the culprit. The creature, whatever it might be, remains elusive.