The mysterious case of the irate gardeners, the phantom pigeon-fancier and the 70 missing cats

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The Independent Online

It is the birds that you first notice on a visit to the village of Newbold Verdon, near Leicester. There are hundreds of them. A favourite hang-out is the television aerials, where they sit four-abreast like fat full-stops against the white sky. Walk beneath a telephone pole and your feet crunch on their dried droppings. The din they make is incredible, but then the birds in Newbold Verdon have a lot to laugh about. During the past five years, 70 cats have disappeared. Eight are believed to have been poisoned.

The disappearances have shocked the otherwise tranquil village, a collection of old and new, private and council-owned properties. The only sound in the high street - apart from the racket of the birds - is the creaking of an old man's legs as he cycles to the post office and the comment he attracts as he sails past a friend: "Looking good, George!"

While stumped when asked what the village is famed for, residents are quick to extol its friendliness. Indeed, this is the kind of place where people smile at strangers and shop assistants bother to look up and say "hello". Not somewhere one would expect to find a catnapper.

The disappearances were brought to the village's attention by Julie Bailey, of Preston Drive. The Baileys bought their first cat, Ginger, five years ago. Six months later it disappeared. They then took in Sox, who went on to produce a litter. Within six months a kitten had gone missing. More litters and more disappearances followed. Over the past month, the Baileys have lost one cat a week. The toll now stands at 11.

"It's terribly upsetting," saidMs Bailey, 42. ''You go and call one in the morning and it doesn't come, and you immediately think: 'There's another one gone.' The lady round the corner locks her cat in the house she's so frightened of losing it."

The most distressing incident for the family was the demise of Mustard last September. "One day he came back home all lethargic, and couldn't even get onto the bed," said Ms Bailey, who lives with her partner, Darren Crofts, and three children aged eight to one.

''We took him to the PDSA [People's Dispensary for Sick Animals] and they thought he had a virus and gave him antibiotics. We took him back home but he went down hill and we had to have him put him to sleep. A poison test was done and they said his levels shot off the scale. It was very upsetting for my children."

Ms Bailey started asking questions around the village, and found that dozens of other residents had also lost cats. All of them seem to have disappeared from just three streets - Preston Drive, Gilliver Street and Cadle Street. There are now only 10 cats left in the 150-odd homes.

"All last week I've had people come up to me saying that they've lost a cat. I didn't realise how big it was until I started asking questions. Everyone is talking about it. It's not just distressing for us but it's distressing for my girls. It's horrible not knowing, and not being able to do anything about it," said Ms Bailey, who currently has four cats.

Could it be that the cats just wandered off? "Cats do go off, but not 70," she said. "It's too much of a coincidence, especially when they all come from loving homes."

Indeed, it is doubtful whether Ms Bailey's cats did a runner. Her pebble-dash council home has everything to fuel a cat's imagination. The lounge boasts two well-stocked aquariums, as well as numerous pictures of birds on the walls. Even the clock has 12 little birds instead of numbers. And the temptations do not stop there - in the garden is an aviary full of cockatiels and love birds to salivate over.

The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals is investigating Mustard's death and the mystery of the last three pets to slink out of Ms Bailey's cat flap, never to be seen again.

Nick Speight, the RSPCA inspector heading the investigation, has no time for the culprit: "If somebody is deliberately poisoning cats or any other animal, it is a very serious offence. If these cats have died as a result of poisoning, they will have been caused considerable suffering for which there is no excuse."

The Bradbury family of Preston Drive know all about the distress poisoning can cause after they lost Sooty last year. "We got a knock on the front door from a neighbour who said that Sooty was curled up under his bush,"' said Rachel Bradbury, a 27-year-old telesales worker.

"We took him to the vet who said he was 99 per cent sure that he had been poisoned. They tried to treat him but then he fitted and died. I thought it was disgusting. You do start to look at people differently. As you walk down the road and see people, you wonder whether they've done it."

So who is the cat-slayer? Ms Bailey is keeping the identity of her suspects close to her chest. "Three names have come up,'' she said. "When the third cat went I went round to someone's house and accused him face-to-face.'' He denied any knowledge of the matter.

"There are quite a lot of people around here who hate cats. Some of the old people think they're vermin. All the old men around here hate them. They're gardeners and have been growing Brussels sprouts and cabbages since the war. Whether that's got something to do with it, I don't know.

"Cats always bury their pooh. You would have thought they'd like the fertiliser."

Gossip has also been rife in Nicklin's Grocers in Cadle Street. "The first thing that people say is that the Chinese did it for cooking, but I don't think people would stoop so low," said the owner, Dave Nicklin. "I wouldn't like to say who's under suspicion."

"I reckon it's a gardener," said 63-year-old Brian Saunders, stalking up the high street, resplendent in tweed. "It's somebody who knows about poisons. Cats are very destructive when it comes to gardens. I used to have one and it used to go into next-door's garden and scratch up all the seeds. I don't like them but I wouldn't harm them."

Toby Norton, the assistant manager of the village newsagent, is also convinced of the gardener theory. "It's some old man who's into gardening and they pee in his garden," said the 19-year-old. "It's an evil old man with a personal vendetta. A woman wouldn't do that."

But one Preston Drive resident, inching up Cadle Street in his slippers, has another theory. "It's probably someone who has got pigeons. There are a lot of pigeons around here." And, like the birds on the television aerials, they are probably laughing their socks off.