There is something agreeably mysterious about the survival of major predators in an island as densely populated as ours. Where do they come from? Why is it that they are seen so rarely? And why has no corpse or skeleton ever been found?
Your correspondent has been fancying feral felines on and off ever since a hefty carnivore began to be seen about the thickly wooded country south of Godalming in the autumn of 1964. Early reports excited scepticism and derision, but first-hand accounts built up so fast that the creature soon became known as the Surrey puma, and the police opened a Puma Book in which incidents were recorded. For months the prize exhibit in Godalming police station was the plaster cast of a pug-mark more than five inches across.
Some witnesses were clearly over-excited - such as the woman who reported 'exceptionally loud purring' outside her window - but others were down-to-earth. Farmers had sheep killed, bullocks and heifers were savaged, and gamekeepers found roe deer with their necks broken.
So far as I can discover, no satisfactory account has ever been given of where the puma came from, or of what happened to it. Presumably it escaped from, or was deliberately let go by, some private owner, who then kept quiet; and presumably in the end it died a natural death. Reports of it continued for more than three years before petering out.
Yet, in its brief notoriety, the Surrey puma set the pattern for all the big-cat activity that has followed: streams of eye-witness reports, much evidence in the way of tracks and kills, but never a body or a photograph clear enough for unequivocal identification.
During the Seventies the main theatre of activity shifted to Exmoor, where sightings and incidents built up steadily, coming to a peak early in 1983. That spring so many sheep were killed on Drewstone Farm, near South Molton, that the owner, Eric Ley, called in independent hunters, the police and finally a detachment of the Royal Marines in attempts to shoot the marauder. Rumour had it that the Marines despatched several wandering dogs, but no big cat was accounted for and, although the massacre of sheep diminished, killings and sightings have continued ever since.
Probably the greatest living expert on the subject is Nigel Brierly, a retired biologist who lives on the southern fringes of Exmoor and has spent years collecting evidence. His 80- page paperback, They Stalk by Night, published in 1989, gives the fullest account of the phenomenon to date.
The subtitle of his booklet, The Big Cats of Exmoor and the South-West, reflects his belief that the sheep-killers are not, as some people have claimed, large dogs. Everything about them is feline, from their round heads, small ears, green eyes and long tails to their method of killing - which is to stalk and spring without any of the preliminary coursing practised by dogs.
Mr Brierly believes, further, that not merely several individual animals, but several different species, are at large. Multiple sightings report pumas both brown and black, and also lynxes, which are a different shape, and have distinctive tufts on their ears. A third possibility is that some of the animals are melanistic leopards.
Like most of the people involved in the hunt, Mr Brierly has no wish to kill the predators; but he does have a burning ambition to make an absolutely positive identification and to 'find out what the hell these things are'. To this end, he has grown extensive crops of catmint and refined extract from the plants into a concentrated oil, which he hopes will lure the elusive beasts of Exmoor. Attempts to trap one in a steel-mesh cage have so far proved fruitless, and he is now pinning his hopes on getting a good close-up photograph with cameras fired by pressure pads. In this he is being assisted by a police detective from London, and a colleague specialising in photography.
One persistent puzzle has been the failure of local hunts to pursue the animals. On several occasions, after sightings, foxhounds have been brought in and put on the line, but never with any success.
The answer may lie in
the fact that hounds do not recognise big cats as prey
but, on the contrary, have a natural fear of them. Many eye-witnesses have described how dogs bristle-up and bolt when they come across one of the felines, or even just its scent. Mr Brierly believes that the only way to bring one to book will be to import American hounds specially trained for puma-hunting: they, if they did their stuff, should be able to tree one of the British cats, and so solve at least part of the mystery.
Meanwhile, the focus of attention has switched to Cornwall, and in particular to Rosemary Rhodes, whose Ninestones Farm lies high on Bodmin Moor near Jamaica Inn. Although she took her video film only this month, she has been harassed by sheep-killing for almost three years, and in the summer of 1992 she rang Nigel Brierly for advice. His response was to send down John Lambert, a professional tracker who had been one of the Royal Marines deployed on Exmoor in 1983.
During the time that Lambert worked at Ninestones, he had several close encounters with cats, including one with a lynx, which passed under the tree in which he was sitting, and another with a larger animal which followed him home one night. Unfortunately, he has since died in Bosnia, where he went as a member of a volunteer medical team.
Like Mr Brierly, Mrs Rhodes does not want the wild cats killed. But she does want to establish what they are, and to demonstrate that she herself is not a 'hysterical, attention-seeking female'. She, too, has hopes of cornering one up a tree, and has acquired a bloodhound, which she proposes to train for cat-hunting.
Once regarded as a joke, the beasts of Bodmin and Exmoor are now causing serious concern. The sight of two pumas together on Exmoor, both wearing collars, strongly suggests that animal-rights activists have been making releases; and this, combined with the fact that the big cats already on the moor have bred cubs, threatens to produce a population of major carnivores larger than our fragile environment will stand. Roe deer and rabbits support a certain number, but if present trends continue, attacks on farm animals will rise to an intolerable level.
If the predators were all pumas, which rarely attack humans, people would be less worried; but leopards are more ferocious altogether. Small wonder that responsible fanciers are calling for an upgrade of the Dangerous Animals Act, which, in its present state, makes it far too easy to let a cat out of the bag.
Copies of 'They Stalk by Night' are available, price pounds 3.60, from Nigel Brierly at The Old School, Newtown, Bishops Nympton, South Molton, North Devon EX36 3QR.