Sunday, 14 May 2017

Encounter with a Bengal cat

Henry the Bengal cat

I've heard a lot about Bengal cats, and how Britain's big cats are supposed to be misidentified Bengal cats, how the genes of Bengal cats and other exotic breeds are supposed to have got into the feral cat population and turned them into something altogether different... and bigger. I heard that Bengal cats were real characters, they liked to go for walks on leads, and that they were such a handful behaviourally that they were often abandoned. I recall reading Big Cat Rescue saying that they used to get call-outs from people saying there was a "Florida panther" on the loose, attacking Alsatians and in some cases frightening old ladies, but when they got there it was often just an ever so slightly bigger than usual Bengal cat that had gone AWOL or been turned loose.

Legends tell of how the original Bengal cats, hybrids of the Asian leopard cat (Prionailurus bengalensis bengalensis) were named after one that was found in the Bay of Bengal on the approaches to Bombay (Mumbai) by early East India Company sailors, swimming out towards them. Like most exotic stories on the origins of exotic cat breeds, it's probably nonsense. (Burmese cats weren't originally from Burma, but from Thailand, "Bombay" cats were bred in Virginia, and so on.) We know they were deliberately crossbred. The UK Dangerous Wild Animals Act 1976 came in largely because Bengal cats (and wolf dogs, crosses between dogs and wolves) were turning up in the country, with the authorities unsure how they would turn out, the law banned wolfdogs (they're now legal) and required a license for Bengal cats that had more leopard cat genes than "F4" (fourth generation). Bengal cats are known for their "confident" temperament (a bit of an understatement!) Breeders sell them for anything up to £800 each.

I finally got to meet a Bengal cat face to face. He lives somewhere in the Blyth Valley in Suffolk, looked after by a fosterer. He came from a smaller house at the other end of the same village, but he obviously decided he didn't like his accommodation and fancied living in a bigger house and garden nearby, so he abandoned his humans and moved on in his new chosen home - fairly typical Bengal cat behaviour, I am told!

He is very vocal, quite friendly, and the two things that really struck me about him are that he is very muscular - at first glance he looks a little on the overweight side until you see that he is all muscle. Secondly, his fur is very short and shiny, it has a different feel to most cat fur. His back is also different to a mainstream domestic cats - a bit more arched. His toes seem a little longer too. The vestigal pad that most cats have towards the back of their paws is much more pronounced.

And check out his markings - quite unlike anything you'd see on a domestic cat - those leopard-like rosettes!

Bengal cat rosette markings

And impressive-looking cat indeed, but if I hadn't been told he was a Bengal I'd have difficulty distinguishing him from an ordinary domestic cat. As for his size - a large, muscular cat but not even as huge as some of the long-haired, captured black feral cats I've seen in the county. Suggesting that British big cats are misidentified Bengals is a bit of a stretch but for one characteristic I've noticed - we British are absolutely hopeless at identifying big cats.

There are also regular reports of an "Ocelot-like" big cat in Cambridgeshire. From a long way off, could this be a Bengal? And any possibly already huge feral cats out there would definitely start to seem more big cat-like a few generations after an injection of genes from those shiny, muscular, arch-backed Bengal cats.

Wednesday, 12 April 2017

Back cover image for Mystery Animals

Here's a draft back cover image for Mystery Animals of the British Isles: Suffolk. It's waiting for some text, the CFZ logo and the ISBN bar code. All provisional, of course. There will be an explanation of the photos inside the back of the book. Copyright: Matt Salusbury 2017

Tuesday, 28 March 2017

Mystery Animals of the British Isles: Suffolk update - new accounts of sightings, maps

Mystery Animals of the British Isles: Suffolk should be out soon - I'm currently grappling with pdf pre-sets for print and the pagination. Here's on the last illustrations I've done for it, a map of sightings of "lynx-like cats" in Suffolk.

I've heard testimony from several people recently who've seen big cats in Suffolk, regrettably in most cases these won't make it into the book, it's just not possible this late in the day to squeeze in additions. A taxi driver recalled seeing a black leopard in Wrentham about ten years ago (there have been other such cats in the neighbourhood), a local woman thinks she might have glimpsed a big black cat on the Blyford Road towards Dunwich Forest (again, other sightings locally).

There have also been some curious goings-on involving a video said to have been received by a famous red-top national newspaper of a video of a black leopard from Hintlesham (just east of Hadleigh). For whatever reason, it's not been published and the journalist concerned hasn't got back to me.

I'm still surprised to be receiving testimony from people whose family members (usually their dads or grandads) claim to have had encounters with Black Shuck. The latest was from a man from Rattlesden (near Bury) who says his dad "many years ago" collided with Black Shuck one night on the A140 somewhere between Ipswich and Stowmarket. He got out to take a look, and found... nothing. He also described, in daylight the next day, finding some strange deposit "like eggshells" on the bonnet of his car.

I'll keep you posted on the progress of the book, with hopefully an announcement before too long. Meanwhile, you can follow developments at @MysteryAnimals on Twitter.

Monday, 16 January 2017

Fortean Traveller: The Cutty Wren, Middleton Suffolk

This Fortean Traveller article first appeared in Fortean Times, FTFT 348, the Christmas 2016 issue

‘Twas the night after Christmas…

Old Glory molly side asssembles in The Bell Inn car park

Boxing Day, the day after Christmas, also known as St Stephen’s Day, is named from the “box” (a monetary tip for the past year’s service) traditionally given to the postman, the dustman, the paperboy. It was the day the poor box in the church was opened and distributed, hence the name. (Nothing to do with a pugilistic sport, in case you were wondering.)

But there was one group usually left off the Christmas card lists of respectable folk and who weren’t given a box on St Stephen’s Day. These were agricultural labourers, the lowest of the low. They had no choice but to go in disguise at night and extort some sort of tip by means of what officious railway station announcers call “aggressive begging”. Following a recent revival of a possibly ancient ceremony in a village not far from the Suffolk coast, St Stephen’s Night has become the night of the morris dancers gone bad. In Middleton cum Fordley on Boxing Day, it’s all gone a bit Wicker Man.

On a night illuminated by a Suffolk moon so bright it blinded you to look at it, I was among a crowd of around a hundred punters gathered in some excitement to witness the St Stephen’s Night ritual that is the Cutty Wren.

Originally, young agricultural workers would scour the local hedges and furze (an old English word for gorse bushes, still in use in East Anglian place names) in search of a wren. Sometimes the wren would be put in a cage among a thicket of foliage on the end of a pole. More often they’d kill the wren and nail it to its pole among its foliage. Wrens spend much of the time close to the ground in hedges, so this simulated its habitat.

The wren on the pole would be paraded around the village at the head of a troop of blacked-up molly dancers, molly dance being morris dancing’s evil twin from the East of England.

The East of England “molly” variant takes its name from the “molly”, one of the lead pair of the “side” – the team. The side performing the Cutty Wren at Middleton go by the suitably chilling name of Old Glory. The molly is a usually a terrifying-looking, blacked up older man in drag, wearing a poor Victorian woman’s long dress and bonnet, with some distinctly male boots to match. Forget embarrassing Black and White Minstrel Show blackface, molly dancers blacked up look more like SAS commandos ready for a murderous night mission. The molly’s usually the orchestrator of clandestine molly mischief.

The molly dancers’ sinister look is emphasised by the fact that during their whole grim performance, the molly dancers never, ever smile. Members of the side who aren’t in a particular dance stand right in front of the audience starting straight ahead but avoiding eye contact, like a line of cops on “public order” duty. One member of Old Glory told me that in days of “pre-modern dentistry”, you’d avoided smiling at all costs during “muggings” (begging expeditions) as a smile was “like a bar-code”, the gaps in your teeth allowed your landlord or the vicar to identify you. Another feature of Old Glory that sets them apart from the more genteel morris teams of a traditional English summer is that Old Glory only ever dance on winter nights.

The Cutty Wren in progress - molly dancers of the Old Glory side perform in the moonlight, under a "no flash photography, lanterns only" policy. Someone's broken the no flash rule here!

How old is the Cutty Wren? “Cutty” is believed to be an ancient word of Celtic origin. The famous tea clipper ship the Cutty Sark at Greenwich is named after the way too short – “cutty” is “short” or small”– child’s linen undergarment or “sark” worn by Nannie Dee, the witch in Robert Burn’s poem Tam ‘o Shanter who appears on the ship’s figurehead. Some trace the Cutty Wren ritual back to the Iron Age (possibly mythical) “Year King” who ruled for a year and who was sacrificed – probably not literally – at the end of each year to renew the crops.

There’s a whole catalogue of Cutty Wren songs and poems, the English one is thought to date back to at the 14th century or possibly much earlier. The oldest written version is a 17th century Scots song and there is an (English-language) Irish Cutty Wren ballad and versions in Welsh, Breton and Manx. Before the Middleton Cutty Wren’s opening dance, the man in blackface in a flat cap carrying the wren on the pole shouts out the best-known Cutty Wren song:

“We’ll hunt the wren!”/Says Jack-of-the-Land/”We’ll hunt the wren!”/Says everyone/The wren, the wren, the king of all birds
/On St Stephen's Day was caught in the furze
/Although he was little, his power is great
/So up with the kettle and down with the plate!” The kettle is a pub tankard, and the plate is the molly dancers’ collecting plate, although it’s now a box on a strap carried discreetly under the arm of the “box man” who also carries the wren on a pole. He’s extra tall for the purposes of gentle intimidation.

Old Glory’s revived Cutty Wren at Middleton can be traced all the way back to 1993. We seem to be in the middle of a Cutty Wren revival, days before I attended the Middleton Cutty Wren, Poet Laureate Carol Anne Duffy’s new poem The Wren Boys was published in the Guardian, describing lads from the turn of the twentieth century - the glory days of the Cutty Wren tradition – catching a wren and going begging. There’s even an obscure short story from a BBC Worldwide official Doctor Who adventure book, in which the Second Doctor and his assistants Jamie and Victoria land in a suitably atmospheric Middleton on Boxing Day 1906 to find themselves in some sort of terrifying scenario. (FOOTNOTE: “The Cutty Wren”, Doctor Who Short Trips: The Ghosts of Christmas, BBC Worldwide, London 2008.)

But going back (or forward) to our 2015 Middleton Cutty Wren, the absence of small children was noticeable. They’d been locked up to stop them getting nightmares at the sight of the terrifying Old Glory side on their silent, torch lit funeral procession, interrupted only by the occasion single, solemn drumbeat. (When I enquired about the Cutty Wren at The Old Bell pub earlier, one of the regulars described the forthcoming “frightening the children” procession.) Some dogs shut indoors saw the silent blackface march of the torch-wielding molly side pass by their living room window and went nuts.

The male molly side were scary enough – the dancer from the lead pair who wasn’t in drag wore a suitably gothic horror top hat, as did the deliberately non-entertaining master of ceremonies. But the all-girl band that accompanied them (molly “orchestras” were traditionally all-female, and the women used to teach the dance steps) was just bizarre. They were blacked up and wore long black trench coats, with black veils around their broad-brimmed hats, which were decked with generous mounds of ivy and other foliage. This gave them the appearance of an evil chorus line from The Muppet Show, and the orchestra played from deep in the shadows, adding to their sinister mystery.

After the short procession through the village, the molly dancers and punters formed up in the car park in front of The Old Bell pub, which has a noisy gravel surface for some of the dances that involve deliberate stomping. “Stomping the Ground” is the title of one of the dances. Others include “Nelson’s Revenge”, and then there’s “The Buck” which realistically simulates rutting stags with horns locked in combat, complete with shouts of “Ooh!” that mimic the bellow of a red deer stag. The deer rut throughout October, just down the road on the Westleton Heath RSPB reserve, is an annual tourist attraction.

“The Buck” is, of course, another excuse to unnerve people by simulating a fight. The dances are purposely graceless, jerky and plodding. A lot of dance moves involve burly blokes grappling each other, because this whole performance is really a subtle show of physical force and intimidation designed to get the vicar, the squire, the landlord and the respectable shopkeeper to put some money in the box you thrust towards them so they can be on their way.

The master or ceremonies in his undertaker’ s top hat introduces the first dance by explaining that “We are but poor ploughboys… under my arm I have a small box.” These days, though, proceeds of the Cutty Wren go to charity.

The eight-strong female orchestra hidden in the shadows has a few “proper” instruments - tin whistles, accordions and a kettle drum, but the percussion section plays the sort of deliberately shambolic equipment you’d expect the families of “poor ploughboys” to come up with – a skiffle, washboards and an Australian-style “lager pole” – a broom handle with tin lager bottle tops loosely nailed to it, which jangles when struck on the ground.

When the Cutty Wren’s “wick lanterns only, no flash photography” convention is occasionally broken, the Old Glory dance team are fleetingly illuminated, revealed as men in late middle age in blackface, wearing the waistcoats and neckerchiefs of farm labourers circa 1900, with some horse brasses with the wren design from the old pre-decimal farthing coins. In their white shirtsleeves and trilby hats, they molly dancers look more like one of the “ultraviolence” gangs escaped from A Clockwork Orange than Wicker Man.

A final circle dance with the crowd as The Cutty Wren comes to an end. Molly dance side members in blackface, the wren is on a pole surrounded by foliage

The man carrying the Cutty Wren on its pole tells the story of how Britain’s migratory birds chose a King via a competition to see who could fly the highest. When the golden eagle showed up, all the birds dropped out, leaving only the wren, who’d just made it through the scrum of onlookers by accident. The wren won by riding on the back of the eagle, and became the Friend of the Poor, symbol of resourcefulness triumphing over power. The retelling including some very modern references to bird focus groups and the Home Office granting Leave to Remain to bird migrants.

The Cutty Wren is part of an East Anglian revival of morbid morris dancing. Old Glory sometimes team up with the local Rendham Mummers, whose performances include the play Death Comes A Knocking. And also from Suffolk Coastal District comes the blackface mixed morris side Pretty Grim, inspired by the dances of the Welsh border but with a goth-punk vibe. Its name comes from the fact that “the boys are pretty and the girls are grim.”

The Cutty Wren usually assembles at around 8pm on St Stephen’s Night (26 December) at the Village Hall, Middleton, Suffolk IP17 3NG (also known as Middleton cum Fordley, not to be confused with the other Middleton just over the Essex border). There are no trains or buses on Boxing Day. Old Glory’s website features a calendar of events and some unsettling video from their previous Cutty Wren performances.

Matt Salusbury is regular FT contributor and author of Mystery Animals of the British Isles: Suffolk (CFZ Publications, 2017)

(More photos and links to be added shortly)

© Matt Salusbury 2016

Friday, 23 December 2016

The Cutty Wren, Middleton, Suffolk - in Fortean Times FT 348

"The wren, the wren! The King of the Birds!" The Cutty Wren - a wooden model of hidden in foliage on the end of a pole - is paraded as the Old Glory Molly dance side prepare for their final circle dance with the crowd in the car park outside the Bell Inn, Middleton, Suffolk.

My "Fortean Traveller" article on the Cutty Wren, Middleton, Suffolk is in the current issue of Fortean Times, FT 348, the Christmas 2016 issue, on sale in newsagents now - but not for much longer! When the "First British Serial" rights have expired (when the January issue's out), it will be on this blog in full.

I regret I won't make it to this year's Cutty Wren in Middleton (Suffolk, IP17 3NG, as ever it's on St Stephen's Eve, the evening at the end of Boxing Day (26 December). There are regrettably no trains or buses on Christmas Day or Boxing Day, and add at least an extra hour to get you back on the Abellio Greater Anglia holiday season replacement bus services. If you can get wheels to get you there, it's just off the just off the A12 at the Sizewell turn, just north of Yoxford, assembling at around 8pm at the Village Hall for a sombre torchlit procession through the village to the Bell Inn car park. Leave your dogs and kids at home, they'll be terrified!

Old Glory continue their No Respect tour with performances exclusively in the dark on winter nights in the region until 3 February. A programme is here.

Sunday, 18 December 2016

Mystery Animals of the British Isles: Suffolk - an update

The Hay Wain with Melanistic Leopard - with apologies to John Constable. Many of Suffolk's big cat reports come from the area of South Suffolk known as Constable Country along the Suffolk bank of the River Stour, on the border with Essex. Constable's original Hay Wain depicts Flatford Mill on the Suffolk bank of the Stour, seen from the Essex bank, not far from his birthplace at East Bergholt. Illustration from the forthcoming Mystery Animals of the British Isles: Suffolk

There's already a front cover. It shows a 15th-century panther gargoyle from St Peter's Church, Theberton

Oops! Better make that 2017! Sorry! "Author biography" from the current Fortean Times issue FT348, which includes my article on the Cutty Wren from Middleton, Suffolk

I've been asked for a progress report on my forthcoming and long-awaited book Mystery Animals of the British Isles: Suffolk.

Why has it taken so bloody long? Recent - now resolved - health issues aside, the flow of regular, paid-at-the-end of the-month work I can't turn down has rather got in the way. Also, when I started on the book at the end of 2014, I foolishly imagined big cats weren't really a big thing, and that a short section of big cats in the book might turn out to be a bit disappointing. Well over 170 reported or recorded Suffolk big cat sightings later, going back to 1974, this has turned out not to be the case!

My map of Suffolk showing nearly all the locations in the book, I'm about to add the big cat sightings!

I've been laying out the book myself, and I have the following still to do: one more illustration, some maps (a completed one is below, it needs some tweaks as it was bit faint on a test-print), bibliography, adding page numbers to the index and contents pages, finding some space to squeeze in some last-minute big cat reports if possible, moving around some pages in the layout, back cover illustration and then all done. At that point, hopefully soon, I will have some proofs to go to the proofreaders, and to Fortean Times co-editor Paul Sieveking, who is writing a short foreword. (He was born and bred in Snape, it turns out.)

There will be a book launch when the book's out, in Ipswich. To get on the "guesty" (guest list), email mysteryanimalsof There are other Suffolk events around Mystery Animals planned, Moyse's Hall Museum, Bury (Bury St Edmunds) and Dunwich Reading Room are already interested.

Meanwhile, announcements are on the Twitter account at @MysteryAnimals

A tongue-in-cheek take on the fate of the Beccles Lynx, shot in Great Witchingham in 1991, found in a freezer in Beccles by Defra and Norfolk Police, and rumoured to be on display in a stately home somewhere in the Beccles area (there are lots of them!). Illustration form the forthcoming Mystery Animals of the British Isles: Suffolk

Monday, 25 July 2016

Why the alleged release of three pumas in the 1970s doesn't solve the mystery of the Beast of Bodmin

Melanistic leopard (left) and puma (right). Pumas are not black

A recent article in the Telegraph claims the "mystery of the Beast of Bodmin" is "solved." The story, which came to the Telegraph via Danny Bampling of the British Big Cats Society, goes that Mary Chipperfield, owner of Chipperfield's Circus released three pumas of a consignment of five on on their way to "their new home" in Dartmoor Zoo back in the 1970s. (The story goes that she'd been forced to close down her zoo in Plymouth, and that only two of the three pumas destined for Dartmoor Zoo arrived.)

Shown in the article is a library photo of what's clearly a brown puma on Dartmoor, said to be a photo of the Beast of Bodmin. Mystery solved?

Not exactly. I'm not disputing that it's a photo of puma, and I've no reason to think it's not genuine. Some of the sightings of the Beast of Bodmin - Britiain's best known "Alien Big Cat", frequently seen on Bodmin Moor - are clearly of pumas. The Beast killed a number of sheep, and has the distinction of being the only British big cat on whose account the Royal Marines were mobilised on the Moor on an operation to go and find it, with "shoot to kill" rules of engagement. (Some Marines claim to have caught a brief glimpse of the Beast while on patrol.) There was also a bizarre unsuccessful employment tribunal case brought by a newspaper photographer who claimed he was made to fake Beast of Bodmin photos, about which more later. (Let's just say it involved someone who's about to in the news again, so I'm being coy about the details while I gather evidence for a story.)

The problem with the Beast of Bodmin, though, is that most sightings were of a large, BLACK cat, closely answering the description of a melanistic (black) leopard. For some reason, nearly all the reports of leopards seen in the wild in the UK are of melanistic leopards. I've been documenting big cat sightings in Suffolk for over two years now, and, yes, plenty of sightings of black leopards, and quite a lot of sightings of pumas too. Pumas are from the Americas originally, and they vary in colour from sandy light brown to grey, red brown or a dark chocolate brown.

The point is that pumas are almost never black. There were two cases of pumas shot in Costa Rica in the early 20th century that were black, but they weren't black all over like the black big cats (melanistic leopards?) seen in the wild in the UK. The Costa Rican black pumas had light undersides. Early European explorers in North America in the 17th century reported something they called a "jaguarette", something puma-like with a light underside. It's possible this was either a misidentified black jaguar or some variety of puma that may since have become extinct or very rare. Generally speaking, no black pumas.

Some of the sightings (a minority) of the Beast of Bodmin are pumas, then, but most are black leopards. They look similar, particularly in silhouette, and my experience of talking to about 30 big cat witnesses in Suffolk has shown that we British are very bad at identifying big cats. There is a dark chocolate variant of puma coloration (we think they may even change colour during their lifetime) so one or two black Beast of Bodmin sightings may be one of these. But the great majority of Beast of Bodmin sightings are almost certainly black leopards. Where they came from remains unexplained, not "solved" then.

I've spoken to a couple of witnesses in Suffolk who've seen - on different occasions - a puma and and a leopard in the same area. Where there are sightings of pumas or lynxes, there are often local sightings of leopards too. These animals are just passing through, and the habitats that attract pumas will attract leopards as well. The proportion of puma sightings to leopard sightings in Suffolk that I've documented is roughly the same as the pattern in different regions nationally - from a sample of just under 100, just over half are definitely pumas, a little under a quarter are definitely pumas, another quarter are some sort of indeterminate "puma or lynx" (we're not very good at big cat identification in the UK) and let's not forget another 6 per cent or so that are lynxes. If anything, the Suffolk figures have proportionally slightly more lynxes than pumas. So the sightings of the Beast of Bodmin being mostly black leopards and a few pumas would seem to follow, as it were the national average.

Sample of big cat sightings in Suffolk 1976-2014, copyright Matt Salusbury. Reports after 2014 generally confirm the same pattern.

What about a possible hybrid between a black leopard and a puma? There's a problem with that - these are known, and you can go and see a stuffed "pumapard" at the Natural History Museum in Tring. But the pumapard (leopard-puma hybrids) were dwarves - not much bigger that the terriers that acted as their foster mothers. See here.

I'll be adding links and illustrations to the above over the next few days with references. It'll all in the forthcoming Mystery Animals of the British Isles: Suffolk.