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A field guide to the mystery beasts of the British Isles

An 'attack' in Sydenham is just the latest sighting of an alien Big Cat on these shores. Paul Sieveking goes on the trail of the strangest creatures to have been spotted across Britain

In 1830, people were harvesting seaweed at Sgeir na Duchadh on the Outer Hebridean island of Benbecula, when a woman saw a small human-like creature splashing in the sea a few feet away. Boys threw stones and one struck the creature, apparently scoring a fatal blow, because a few days later its body was washed ashore two miles away.

"The upper portion of the creature was about the size of a well-fed child of three or four years of age, with an abnormally developed breast," wrote Alexander Carmichael in his encyclopędia, Carmina Gadelica. "The hair was long, dark, and glossy, while the skin was white, soft, and tender. The lower part of the body was like a salmon, but without scales."

The local sheriff ordered a coffin and shroud, and the body was buried above the shore where it was found.

Hundreds of lakes round the world have lake monster traditions, with 29 in Scotland (including Morag in Loch Morar); nine in Wales (including Teggie in Bala); and 35 in Ireland. But only Nessie is an international star. The first sighting to make headlines was in April 1933, from the north shore of the loch. The image of a plesiosaur was fixed by the surgeon Kenneth Wilson's famous 1934 photograph of a long-necked, dinosaur-like creature; in 1999 this was exposed as a fake.

But there have been many more photographs, film footage, and thousands of convinced witnesses. Sceptics have explained the sightings as gas bubbles, wind-formed waves, diving birds and floating vegetable mats.

Over the years, Nessie has been identified as a giant newt, eel, or otter; an unknown giant squid species; a ghost; or even an elephant.

Irish Legend has it that the master otter or Sdobhar-chu is a huge, rarely seen otter. Even the smallest portion of its pelt is said to have the power to prevent gunshot wounds, horse injuries and shipwreck. Young Grace Connolly was allegedly killed by a Sdobhar-chu in Co Leitrim's Glenade Lake. Her killer was slain by her husband, but the creature's enraged mate emerged from the lake and pursued him until he killed it. Grace's gravestone in Conwall cemetery, dated 24 September 1722, bears a carving of the Sdobhar-chu with dog-like body and limbs, a long tail with tufted tip, large paws, a long neck and short head with otter-like ears. In May 1968, sightings of a beast resembling the one on the stone were made off the coast of Co Mayo.

Aged witnesses, whose recollections were recorded in 1909, said the woodland surrounding Penllyne Castle in Glamorgan once harboured winged snakes, regularly shot by farmers who believed they posed a threat to their chickens.

"Some of them had crests sparkling with all the colours of the rainbow," said one old man. When disturbed they glided swiftly, "sparkling all over", to their lairs. When angry, they "flew over people's heads, with outspread wings bright, and sometimes with eyes too, like the feathers in a peacock's tail". One elderly woman said the woods close to Porthkerry Park were infested with them. She said her grandfather had killed one and she had seen its feathered skin, which her grandfather had kept until he died, after which it was discarded. Of course, such a creature is a zoological absurdity.

Black dogs have figured in folklore since Saxon times. Typically, they are encountered at night in lonely places, with burning red eyes. Often seen as omens of death, they tended to vanish in a flash. In Yorkshire the creature was Barguest; in Lancashire, Skriker; on the Isle of Man, Moddey Dhoo; in Somerset, Gurt Dog; in Scotland, Choin dubh. Perhaps the most celebrated black dog story is one set in Suffolk, where the beast was called Black Shuck from the Old English scucca, a demon. During a storm on Sunday, 4 August 1577, Black Shuck is said to have appeared in St Mary's church in Bungay, Suffolk, and run between two worshippers, apparently wringing their necks and killing them. On the same day, a similar scene unfolded in Blythburgh church seven miles away. And still the stories come in.

This monster seems tied to the area round Mawnan church on the south Cornish coast. It is the size and shape of a man, covered in silvery-grey feathers with wings and crab-like black claws for feet, pointed ears, glowing red eyes and an owl-like face. It was first seen hovering over the church tower on 17 April 1976 by June Melling, then 12, and her sister Vicky, then nine. On 3 July, Sally Chapman and Barbara Perry, both 14, said they heard a hissing noise and saw Owlman rise straight up among pine trees and disappear. The next morning, Jane Greenwood and her sister also saw the monster rise, after which "there was crackling sounds in the treetops for ages".

In July 1979, Ron and Betty Harper saw bark had been stripped off an oak tree at their cottage on Brassknocker Hill at Claverton Down, five miles south of Bath. Their goat was badly frightened. Squirrels usually strip the top of branches, but the damage here looked as if it had been done by an animal hanging underneath. The bark had been stripped off all branches from 20ft up. The toothmarks were 10 to 20 times the size of a squirrel's.

All the birds seemed to have gone and the wood was silent. By 1 August, 50 trees had been stripped. A man driving through Monkton Combe at night encountered an animal 3ft to 4ft tall with bright white rings around its eyes, like a spectacled bear. The beast was never identified.

This past week, early on Tuesday, a large black cat-like creature attacked Anthony Holder just beyond his back garden in Sydenham Park, south-east London. He had been trying to coax his cat back after hearing it scream. Thinking it was being attacked by a fox, he jumped his garden fence to chase it away; but a large feline emerged from bushes and pounced on him, sending him flying.v
"It scratched down the side of my face and its teeth sank into my fingers," he said. "Its face was so close to me I could smell its breath." He managed to throw it off after about 30 seconds. He estimated it was about 6ft long and 3ft tall.

Police saw a large black cat-like animal "about the size as a Labrador dog". While paramedics attended to Mr Holder's injuries, armed officers conducted a fruitless search of a nearby railway line and allotments.

The first major news story about an alien big cat (ABC) in Britain was in July 1963 from a man in Shooters Hill, south-east London. Shortly afterwards, a "large, golden animal" jumped over the bonnet of a police patrol car in the area.

The big-game hunt for "the cheetah" covered 850 acres and involved 126 police with 21 dogs, 30 soldiers, ambulance men and RSPCA officials. Some 7in-wide pawprints were found, but no cheetah. Then police learnt several sightings of large cats had been made around Surrey since the previous winter.

A journalist coined the term "the Surrey Puma", public imagination was fired and scores of ABCs were reported across south-east England, answering to widely differing descriptions. To give an idea of the scale of this, the day-book of Godalming police station in Surrey listed 362 ABC reports between September 1964 and August 1966.

After the Surrey Puma had entered national folklore in the 1960s, large cats in other regions were given catchy titles, such as Cambridgeshire's Fen Tiger in 1978, Devon's Beast of Exmoor and Gwent's Beast of Brechfa, both in 1983, and Cornwall's Beast of Bodmin in 1992. In May 1983, 12 Marines with night-vision glasses scoured Exmoor in "Operation Beastie", after 80 sheep killings in the area since the summer, most with their skulls crushed and their carcasses eviscerated.

Similar livestock depredations grew to epidemic proportions across Bodmin Moor in the early 1990s. In 1995, the then Ministry of Agriculture conducted an official investigation, examining spoor, film, photographs and sheep carcasses. The experts found "no verifiable evidence", but they admitted they "could not prove a 'big cat' is not present".

Paul Sieveking is founding co-editor of 'Fortean Times, the Journal of Strange Phenomena'

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