Friday, 27 August 2010

Shhhhh...we're hunting big cats!

We've spent almost a decade 'hunting' big cats Down Under, travelling all over the country to collect reports, set up game cameras in many locations in eastern Australia, investigate unusual animal kills, research historical accounts - we've lived and breathed anomalous felids.
So of course when we visited the UK we had to get a feel for the local terrain, and the 'indigenous' mystery cat phenomenon.
And who better to take us on our first big cat excursion than Dorset's top ABC (Anomalous or 'Alien' Big Cats) expert and naturalist, Jonathan McGowan.
We met Jonathan at the Weird Weekend, where he had set up a breath-takingly good display of tracks, predated remains, exotic cat skins and a stuffed Wildcat hybrid.
Jonathan is also a taxidermist, who also collects, stuffs and occasionally eats (!) roadkill from Britain's country lanes and busy arterial roads.
A few days earlier Jonathan and several other CFZ folk had gathered suspect animal hairs from nearby Huddisford Wood for testing by visiting Danish zoologist Lars Thomas.
While the hairs were being tested, and many Weird Weekend attendees were still having their breakfast, we embarked on a morning exploration of the area with Jonathan, Mark North, Andrew Perry, Silas Hawkins and Dave Baldwin.
At first glance, those gentle rolling hills of Devon were deceptive.

Easy, we thought. We'll be drinking ginger beer and eating lashes of tomato sandwiches before too long while we amble along level country lanes.
That was pre-bog.
Bogs aren't unique to the UK, but they're certainly uncommon in our part of the world where it seldom rains enough to create the kind of quagmire that could rival 'quicksand' as a possible way to die. OK, I'm exaggerating slightly.
But hidden behind the hedges and nature corridors lining the picturesque green fields were bogs of an unGodly nature, and we weren't really prepared.
In fact the only person who seemed to sense the mud before we were forced to walk through it was Silas, who had sensibly donned a pair of wellies.
On the plus side, mud is the perfect medium for preserving wildlife tracks and
we spotted many cloven hoof tracks indicating the local deer population was active and quite healthy. Actually, in the UK right now a deer explosion is underway - plenty of food for any big cats on the prowl!
Thankfully there were some nice level country lanes in the end, filled with native flowers and herbs that attracted a colourful array of butterflies and bumblebees - and perhaps fearsome felids.
Jonathan, who spends much of his time monitoring wildlife and rambling across rural properties and nature reserves, identified several cat scats choc-full of bone and fur.
And back in the lab, the hair analysis had turned up an interesting result.
Lars Thomas had identified the hairs as leopard!
Was there an exotic cat monitoring our movements that morning?

Of course hair analysis alone - while hair is quite unique, like a species fingerprint - is not enough. It should be followed up with DNA analysis, and it's my understanding there are moves afoot to do this, if it hasn't already been done.
In our own experience of blind-testing hair analysts in Australia with leopard hair, we have found the process wanting (the results came back Felis catus), but that's not to say it's without
merit. We believe in our case the net was not cast wide enough to include exotic species.
That aside, the announcement caused an understandable ripple of excitement at the CFZ's Weird Weekend.
Post-conference we caught up with Rick Minter, a big cat researcher based in Gloucestershire, who met up with us in Stroud and took us to a few big cat hot spots. He later shouted us lunch at a nearby gliding club, where he also took us through a presentation on the case for big cats in Britain.
It was a great day, and a very instructive one.
Both Jonathan and Rick are obviously doing some great work, and are quite passionate about the subject. And it was a nice postscript to our book launch, which was a sell-out!

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