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..

Thursday, 14 January 2010

OLL LEWIS: On the track of Unusual Tracks

When the current cold snap started about ten days ago, Jon and I were talking about things that we might investigate this month, and the subject of the report of the devil’s footprints we had investigated in the village this time last year came up. Our conclusion had been that a rabbit lolloping around in the snow in an unusual manner most likely made them but, Jon hoped, it would be interesting to see if similar tracks turned up in the snow this year in order that we could compare them. I said, “I don’t know about that, but I’d be interested in seeing if anyone sees any tracks from the Hartland cat.”

Several witnesses have seen the Hartland cat in the woods and farmland around the areas of Hartland and Woolsery for a number of years. (And yes, these sightings date from long before we moved into Woolsery before some armchair pundit with half the facts decides to act like an internet tough guy and accuse us of making the whole thing up). If local rumours are to be believed there is more than one of them too. Jon is currently making a film about the big cat sightings in the area and our friend Emily’s investigation of those in the locality that she began after hearing of a sighting of the cat by her uncle.

Around this time of year, two years ago, we received a ‘phone call from Roger Heywood from Duerdon farm just outside Woolsery about a sheep kill. He had seen the sheep happily frolicking about in the field the afternoon before, but the next morning found the animal skinned with most of the flesh removed. Roger did the sensible thing and called his local mystery animal investigation team and we sent Richard Freeman to take a look. After examining the corpse Richard was left in no doubt that a big cat had dispatched the unfortunate sheep.

Today (the 13th of January) Roger made another ‘phone call; he had some unusual prints in the snow. As the light was fading Graham and I quickly grabbed a tape-measure, my notepad, a torch, digital camera and film camera and hot-footed it (well ‘hot-four-wheel-drived it’ technically but lets not split hairs here) to Duerdon Farm, where Roger was waiting. We then followed Roger’s tractor to the field where the tracks had been found. By the time we reached the field, twilight had set in, but in the powerful headlights of the tractor we could see a line of tracks stretching from one end of the field to the other. Most of the tracks were in the deep, otherwise unbroken virgin snow that covered the field but when they reached tracks from a previous visit of the tractor they followed this track for a few paces. When I asked Roger when the tractor track had been made he said it was from yesterday evening and because he found the animal’s tracks when he had been out at about 2pm this means the tracks must have been made between around 5pm and lunchtime the next day. Not wanting to disturb the line of animal tracks, I walked down the existing tractor tracks to get a closer look at the animal tracks.

The tracks themselves were very interesting. One set in deep snow that I examined closely showed that the animal was placing its back paw in the imprint of the forepaw; this is not something canines do when they walk so that, along with the shape of the prints, meant that I could eliminate dogs and foxes from my list of possible culprits. There was no sign of webbing between the toes either, which was a good indication that the tracks were not made by otters. I hesitate slightly to say that these prints were definitely made by a big cat though because of the toes; there are five of them. However, a number of big cat researchers have found anomalies in the paw prints they’ve found in their area, including things like apparently non-retractable claws or polydactylism, which might be consistent with interbreeding among a very small group of individuals over several generations. Keeping it in the family can play havoc with feline Hox genes it would seem and polydactylism in felines it is not all that uncommon; my childhood pet cat, Tigger, started off life as part of a family of stray moggies on a farm and had more than her fair share of digits for example. As well as the possibility of it being a big cat, I would also consider the possibility of the prints having been made by a badger but there are one or two problems with this theory too as none of the tracks show evidence of claws as one would expect to see in a badger track. And then there is the size of the prints.

The print from the forepaw measures about 8cm by 9cm and the back paw print measures 5cm by 6 cm with a stride length of 71cm. This is rather larger than a badger where the forepaws would be expected to be around 4-5 cm and the stride would be about 50cm, so if it is a badger then it would have to be huge and such a large badger could perhaps be considered a cryptid in itself. As well as taking a number of photographs, Graham also made use of the digger scoop of Roger’s tractor in order to be lifted aloft to get some photographs of the tracks stretching across the field. Once we had obtained as many photographs as was possible in the fading light, we returned to Roger’s house where I filmed an interview with him and then it was home to Myrtle Cottage to inform Jon of what we had found.

If the snow hasn’t thawed by tomorrow morning we hope to be able to get plaster casts of some of the prints, but in the meantime take a look at the photos, what do you think? Is it a big cat, an abnormally large super badger, or something else entirely?

Here we should note that Dale had a look at them last night and wrote "Composite Kittycat tracks. Stepping in the same track makes the prints look bigger and with more toes. Last track in picture most accurate one of set." Time will, I hope, tell JD

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