Beast of Exmoor

British Big Cat of southwestern England.

Physical description: Large, black cat or dog. Length, 3 feet—4 feet 6 inches. Shoulder height, 2 feet 6 inches. White markings on the head and neck. Squat head. Short neck. Powerful, muscular body. Short legs.

Behavior: Nocturnal. Moves rapidly from cover to cover. Kills sheep by breaking the neck at the second vertebra or crushing the skull.

Tracks: Large, doglike prints, 4 inches across. Smaller tracks may be a female's.

Distribution: Exmoor, in the counties of Somerset and Devon, England.

Significant sightings: Attacks on livestock gained prominence in Devon in the spring of 1983, though scattered reports of a black animal in the area go back to 1982. Eric Lay, of Drew-stone Farm near South Molton, thought he had lost at least forty lambs over the previous few months. Local police called in the Royal Marines, which held stakeouts in early May and June 1983 as part of Operation Beastie. They were able to observe the animal through night-vision equipment. Reports of both large cats and dogs were logged. By late June, there were eighty-six kills, but these dropped off in July.

Two boys, Wayne Adams and Marcus White, saw the Beast on May 29, 1983, at Willingford Farm on Exmoor. It was jet black with some white markings and powerfully built. Though its head looked like a German shepherd dog's, the animal moved like a cat. The same night, a sheep was killed at Ash Mill.

Trevor Beer saw a black cat measuring 4 feet 6 inches in the summer of 1984 at a cache of deer carcasses on Exmoor that he had discovered earlier in the year. It ran swiftly and had powerful forelegs.

In January 1987, Trevor Beer discovered nine lynx like pawprints 3 inches in diameter at Muddiford, Devon. In August, he took nine photos from a distance of about 100 yards of a black cat, 4 feet 6 inches in length, that stalked and killed a rabbit on Exmoor.

In 1990, Lars Thomas led an expedition (Operation Exmoor) to investigate sightings. At the site of a sheep kill, he found a tuft of hair that was identified as belonging to a puma. Possible explanations:

(1) Trevor Beer proposed that feral Domestic dogs (Canis familiaris) were killing livestock, but large cats of some kind were also in the neighborhood. He noted that about 20 percent of the sightings involved a fawn-colored cat.

(2) Large, feral Domestic cats (Felis silvestris catus) were suggested at first by Nigel Brierly, perhaps representing a hybrid strain that has attained puma-sized proportions.

(3) A black Puma (Puma concolor) was Brierly's later conclusion, though melanism is virtually unknown in this strictly American species.

(4) An unknown species of indigenous big cat, suggested by Di Francis.

(5) A Eurasian lynx (Lynx lynx) explanation was favored by Frank Turk after lynx hairs were identified at a sheep kill in 1986. Lynxes became extinct in Britain during prehistoric times. In May 2001, a specimen later nicknamed "Lara" was captured in Cricklewood, North London, following a reported big-cat sighting. It was believed to be

Black Beast Exmoor
The BEAST of Exmoor photographed in August 1987 by Trevor Beer. (Trevor Beer/Fortean Picture Library)

an escaped or abandoned pet. There are reports of lynxes on the loose elsewhere on the island, which has led to speculation about a relict lynx population. Sources: Hope L. Bourne, Living on Exmoor (London: Galley Press, 1963); Bob Rickard, "The Exmoor Beast and Others," Fortean Times, no. 40 (Summer 1983): 52-61; "The Beast of Exmoor," ISC Newsletter 2, no. 3 (Fall 1983): 7-8; Trevor Beer, The Beast of Exmoor: Fact or Legend? (Barnstaple, England: Countryside Productions, 1984); "Once More with Felines," Fortean Times, no. 44 (Summer 1985): 28-31; Graham McEwan, Mystery Animals of Britain and Ireland (London: Robert Hale, 1986), pp. 30-36; Nigel Brierly, They Stalk by Night: The Big Cats of Exmoor and the South-West (Bishops Nympton, England: Yeo Valley Productions, 1989); Karl Shuker, Mystery Cats of the World (London: Robert Hale, 1989), pp. 44-51; Chris Moiser, Mystery Cats of Devon and Cornwall (Launceston, England: Bossiney Books, 2001).

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