In many ways we are very lucky. We get to travel around the world looking for mystery animals, and then write books about our adventures. Of course it isn’t quite as simple as that, because there is a whole slew of mundane administration and stuff, but on the whole doing what we do is a heck of a lot better than having a proper job. We live in Woolsery and we run The Centre for Fortean Zoology – the world’s largest mystery animal research group, and once a year we invite devotees of the weird and wonderful here for the internationally famous Weird Weekend.

We also write a monthly column for The Bideford Post and we decided that it was about time that we introduced Weird Torridgeside to the blogosphere..

Friday, 6 March 2009

There’s an old-fashioned phrase, “there’s method in our madness.”

Today was a day when I went for lots of method, and saved up all the madness for later on.

When I carried the CFZ rubbish bags out into the road Wednesday night, the 4th of March 2009, it was snowing. I was surprised: I thought we’d seen the last of the “Christmas postcard” look, this winter. But I shrugged (mainly to shake snowflakes from my shoulders) – and retreated back indoors and thought no more of it. Until…

Thursday morning, got a phone call at around 0950 from Mrs Wade - a resident of our village - that some strange footprints were in her back garden. I was the only one awake (it had been a long and difficult evening, yesterday), so I grabbed my camera and headed off to have a look.

On arrival, shortly after 10am, my early and non-zoological impression was that the the prints looked like they’d been made by a one-legged deer. Sometimes, people describe an animal that’s missing a leg as “one-legged” when really they mean “three-legged” – and I may not be a zoologist, but I know enough to dismiss the idea of a one-legged deer pogo-ing around the rural landscape.

Mrs Wade recapitulated for the video camera how she’d seen these footprints from her window, had wondered what they were – and had then decided to ring the CFZ.

I was in preliminary investigation mode: rather like Sherlock Holmes, who said it’s a capital error to theorise in the absence of data. So, I just improvised. I’m very unused to studying snowprints, as we don’t get much snow in Devon. Mud, yes. There’s plenty of that in Devon. But mud’s quite a different medium, as sloppy mud doesn’t retain imprint countours and firmer mud doesn’t compact nearly so readily as snow.

Anyhow, the tracks presented a markedly in-line appearance, ie there was no discernable left-right-left-right pattern straddling an imaginary centre line.

I inferred direction of travel from the fact that one end of each track was clearly defined, whereas the other end was blurred. Forward motion of a human in the snow usually shows a well-defined heel print and a scuffed toe impression, so I decided to allow myself that assumption. A working assumption, of course.

The track ran from the far end of the lawn, across the almost-pristine snowy surface (just a few bird prints showed), and petered out at the paved area adjecent to the house, where the snow had already melted. Another linear string of tracks headed back out from the patio area, across the other side of the lawn.

So, with my back to the house, and facing south across the lawn, the inbound track (on my right) approached from the SSW (ie, south-west, but more south than west: a bearing of around 190º, I’d say). On the other side of the patio (my left), the tracks resumed in an arc roughly SSE (bearing 170º) back towards the end of the lawn area. The patio distance between the arrival point and departure point was roughly 20 ft.

Each print was roughly horseshoe-shaped, as if made by a cloven hoof – or two elongated feet close together, that move in unison. A U-shape describes the track quite well; V-shaped equally so. Something inbetween, really.

Devil’s Footprints? Well, the area at the dead centre of each overall shape showed no discernable impaction in the snow. The snow was around 2cm (almost one inch) deep, and a cloven foot would have to have an unusually deep cleft to leave that portion of the snow untouched. However, the sun was already destroying the early-morning evidence, and it was difficult to be sure.

After taking a few pictures, I suddenly had the bright idea of following the prints. Remember, this was 10am in the village of the CFZ, and I’d only had one coffee so far, so I wasn’t firing on all cylinders yet.

I found the garden had a well-defined boundary fencing – nothing that would thwart an intact deer, but definitely one that would make a one-legged deer scratch its head… assuming it had any spare limbs with which to do that, of course…

Following what I felt were the departing tracks, I found they fizzled out at the boundary hedge: snow had fallen on the hedge itself, but none had fallen – or at least none remained – under­ the hedge. So that trail had run cold. As a second-best, I then back-tracked the prints approaching the house, and found they fizzled out in exactly the same manner. However, the snow on each hedge and its associated shrubbery showed no significant disturbance, so I concluded nothing had barged through the foliage since the snowfall.

Inference: something had passed under the hedge? Something pretty small? A Mad March Hare, maybe?

Well, yes - possibly: on considering the matter later on, I decided the entity had not jumped the hedge. There was no snow-scatter (or deeper impression in the lawn itself) that one would expect if something had jumped a barrier several feet high and then landed on the other side. Not that I had ever thought this was seriously the case, but one has to cover all bases – remember, I had set myself the task of gathering data, rather than jumping to conclusions.

Since the snow in the vicinity of the hedge was shaded from the rising sun, there had been little melting, and thus tracks were well-preserved. However, since the snow in Woolsery mainly had arrived on a south-westerly track, approaching the garden from its (roughly) southern aspect, the areas most shielded from the sun had earlier also been well-shielded from the snow! So tracks were better-preserved there, but also less pronounced, since there was less snow to do the preserving in the first place.

If the snow had been borne on a northerly wind, then ingress and egress evidence might have been a lot more conspicuous. Still, there you go: we don’t always get what we wish for, in life, do we?

Observing a crime scene and not jumping to conclusions has been drummed into me by watching many Forensic Detectives shows on Discovery. But I couldn’t help but feel that this was probably tracks of a rabbit or hare. Something that hops with its feet together, anyway. The alternatives – that either a one-legged deer was exploring people’s gardens, or that Woolsery had received its first cloven-hoofed emissary from the Devil – these were both too much to contemplate before my second coffee of the morning!

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