Tuesday, 19 January 2016

Wickham Market expedition - following up on big cat sighting

As Centre for Fortean Zoology regional rep for Suffolk, I now am supposed to send in reports of mystery or out-of-place, according to the latest issue of Animals and Men. So here is my first report.

Carrying out investigations at Wickham Market sports ground

There was a report in the East Anglian Daily Times and the Daily Mirror of a sighting of a melanistic leopard by A-level student Eliot Evans, who was out jogging on the village sports ground in his native Wickham Market last Thursday evening just before dusk. The Mirror's version was in its "Weird News" section. But given that 25 per cent of British mammals (including us) are introduced to these islands, yet another introduced species like a leopard isn't that "weird" after all. (Wickham Market's in the Suffolk Coastal District of the county Suffolk, it's a train stop between Woodbridge to the south and Saxmundham to the North, and it's near the west bank of the River Deben. People in Suffolk Coastal sometimes refer to it as just "Wickham", as there's little risk of confusing it with the village of Wickham Skeith at the northern end of Mid-Suffolk.)

When I went to take a look I hadn't yet been able to track down Eliot Evans or David Galvin, who said there was a black leopard locally that had been seen before. A quick look at the internet reveals that Galvin, former British Big Cats Society rep for Suffolk, who saw a black leopard in a local forest some time before 2003, was also a witness to a UFO over Wickham Market High Road in 2009.

Wickham Market sports ground

The short cut past the pavilion - a route for big cats too?

Wickham Market FC

There had been a football match on Wickham Market FC sports ground between the sighting and my arrival on Saturday, judging by the marks from football boot studs that had considerably churned it up, so there was little hope of finding any big cat prints. Parts of the edge of the ground was a bog anyway after a lot of heavy rain. The ground has a path going off to a short-cut through a little bit of woodland that was in use when I dropped in, going past the Wickham Market FC pavilion. I have to admit I only had an hour between trains to stop at Wickham Market station - actually nearer the village of Campsey Ashe two miles away by folding bike, so I really only had time to stop at the location and take pictures then rush back to catch the next train.

Bridge over the River Deben near Wickham Market, where it's a trickle

I did notice that Wickham Market's near a riverbed - the River Deben is a trickle here, near its source, but it looks like typical "big cat country" - wetlands, reeds, out of the way and the sort of place you'd expect deer or waterfowl to drop in for a drink, providing a readily accessible food source.

My earlier research showed that there was a cluster of multiple big cat sightings around a decade ago around Bredfield, a couple of miles to the south. These were of a non-specific "big cat" whose witnesses couldn't confidently identify it as either a leopard or puma. There was a black big cat with "tufted" ears seen on Ufford Park golf course a few miles to the north in 2009. Suffolk's earliest known (by me at least) big cat sighting was a black leopard seen in Rendlesham Forest in the 1970s, not far from Wickham Market.

Loudham Hall's Suffolk big cat, tucked away in a secluded spot by the Deben just outside Wickham Market

Wickham Market used to be a rail terminal for live cattle brought from Ireland to be grazed locally in the water meadows, with a major cattle auction. The auction house now does mostly antiques and vintage cars, I was told that during busy periods there will be three auctions going on simultaneously. It's known as a "large village," it's certainly the only village I've seen with its own bike shop.

The area around Wickham Market has been the stomping ground of other out-of-place animals. A rhea was seen near the railway line at Wickham Market in 2010, it died probably of a stress-induced heart attack after being shot with a hypodermic by the RSPCA. Another rhea on the line briefly delayed the Ipswich to Lowestoft East Suffolk Lines train service in 2012, and was never accounted for. Might it have ended up being eaten by a local big cat, assuming a big cat could keep up with a rhea running at up to 40mph.

Ending up as big cat food may have been the ultimate fate of the wallaby seen by a cyclist at Pettistree, immediately to the south of Wickham Market, in 2004.

Passing under pylons at Campsey Ash. You know you're approaching Wickham Market station by train or along the A12 road when you see the pylons. You can navigate by these pylons in Suffolk Coastal, as they march inland and southwest from the nuclear power station at Sizewell.

It's all in the forthcoming Mystery Animals of the British Isles: Suffolk.

Quick update (28/1/16) Elliot Evans contacted me via Twitter to tell me I'd photographed the wrong sports field in Wickham Market! He sent me a Google satellite image with the field where he'd seen the big cat ringed. It was further out of the village, just beyond the little crossroads on its northern edge, in what seems to be a set of three little five-a-side football pitches they're so new they don't even feature in my Collins Street Atlas of Suffolk, which is just under 18 months old. The random Wickham Market resident I asked for directions on my most recent trip directed me to "the village sports ground", presumably thinking I meant the Wickham Market FC ground, which isn't far from the new sports ground where Elliot saw the melanistic leopard. I hope to photograph the correct location soon.

Friday, 1 January 2016

North Suffolk mystery mutant moggy misidentification

Early one morning at the beginning of September 2015, I got a call from a free range poultry farmer in a secret location in North Suffolk who told me their CCTV security camera had captured what looked like a big cat.

The North Suffolk mystery mutant moggy - but read to the end!

We convinced ourselves we had seen some sort of young puma, or possibly some long-legged, pointy-eared lynx or serval. (Whatever it was appeared to have a long, slim body with a relatively short tail. At first we thought it had a dark patch at the end of its tail, like a puma's, but on closer inspection this seemed more likely to be some kind of shadow.) The footage began with a cat-like animal, shot in infra-red on a dark night at around 1am, walking towards the farm gate. Its eyes were two huge blobs that reflected the infra-red light. Then it walked towards a building just out of shot, at which point it tripped the visible light motion-sensor light and more details became visible. Possibly reacting to the light coming on, the mystery cat did a turn and casually walked out of view at the bottom of the shot. (It's a CCTV camera bolted to a wall, it doesn't move.) The whole sequence lasted just under a minute.

Its eyes shining in infra-red, the North Suffolk mystery mutant moggy approaches

It was an odd-looking cat - long limbed and long-bodied with a small head. My first reaction on seeing it was that I wasn't immediately convinced it was a big cat, but I felt that it couldn't be an ordinary domestic cat because its proportions were completely "wrong."

The CCTV records the footage on a desktop PC, it's not very high resolution and it was filmed mostly in infra-red in darkness. It was hard to make sense of the footage. Sometimes the mystery cat appeared like a stripped-down, wiry whippet-like slim puma, a bit like the pumas you see in South America. In a couple of frames, just after the light hit it, it appeared mottled or spotted. In one frame we thought we saw long pointed lynx-like ears. I realised most of this "data" was in fact artefacts produced by a low-resolution camera in low light.

Are the spots or is its coat mottled? Or is it just an artefact of a low-resolution camera struggling to capture data in low light in infra-red?

And are those pointed ears? Or is it another digital footage artefact?

The biggest problem with the footage is that it's filmed in just a featureless tarmac yard - there's absolutely nothing to give any kind of scale, except for a black rubber doormat in front of the door of a just-out-of-shot building. (We measured the length of the doormat - just over 1.83 metres.) When the light comes on, you can see in the footage the shadows of the bars of the gate, and various people suggested some complicated maths involving the length of these shadows and the length of the shadow thrown by the cat, and the distance of the light source from the camera. For various reasons we had to discount this.

As the creature walks out of the shot, the shadows of the bars of the farm gate are visible

My witness said his CCTV had some months earlier shown a "big domestic cat" (a feral?) that looked "nothing like" whatever showed up on his CCTV that early September night. Unfortunately, the software automatically overwrites footage that's not saved, and he didn't realise at the the significance of the earlier footage might have in offering some kind of comparison for scale.

Within a few days I was on the scene with the farmer, and we started doing some measuring, based on our estimate of how near the mystery cat got to the mat. It appears to walk alongside the mat for a second. From the farm office where the monitor for the CCTV cameras is, we were able to set up some crude markers based on shouted instructions out of the window in the approximate (emphasis on approximate!) distance from the edge of the mat that the cat got to in its walk.

There was some maths and some measuring the screen of the monitor and the proportions of the shot, and working out where to place markers based on this. We were warned by an expert at this point that just going out and measuring in real life features that animals walk past in the footage often isn't a reliable enough guide - there are all sorts of factors like perspective to take into consideration as well. This is especially true if the animal walks towards you in the shot.

We realised this was not very scientific and further study would be needed. Our very tentative estimate was that we were dealing with an animal that was just under a metre long, minus the tail. This would make it the size of a not very big puma. The way it hung its tail - pointing downwards then upwards at the end - seemed uniquely "big cat"-like at first, but in the following months I noticed some domestic cats - marmalade cats in particular - held their tails like this too.

We decided not to release to the media any footage until we'd got some more expert opinions and definitive measurements. Jon Downes, director of the Centre for Fortean Zoology, advised caution, and recalled some red faces when some previous footage of a "big cat" turned out to be just an ordinary domestic cat. A room full of close to a dozen big cat experts at a gathering of British Big Cat Research Group people came to the conclusion that our footage was more likely to be a "mutant moggy" than our hypothetical "North Suffolk young puma." The prospect of a mutant moggy feral domestic cat close to a metre long, though, was an exciting one!

British Big Cat Research referred us to Mark Fletcher, a wildlife filmmaker who works both in the UK and the US (his work includes filming North American pumas in the wild). He was happy to do some "scaling" work for us, overlaying video images from the footage on something that could give an idea of scale (he's done this sort of work before). First we needed, though, to get some measurements - to go back to the location in the CCTV with some measuring poles and ideally some big cat cut-outs with stands that could be positioned at various points in the yard for comparison.

After various delays (other - paid - work for me, mostly) I finally turned up at the secret North Suffolk location with my improvised archaeologist's-style measuring pole - one metre long, with a 50cm stripe in red and a 50cm stripe in white. (I'd talked to real archaeologists at the Dunwich Dig in August, they told me it should be two metres long, but I had to transport it by bike part of the way. (My previous cryptozoology trip to a nature reserve in Kerala, India, was much easier than getting a mere 30 miles across Suffolk by folding bike and public transport!) I'd sent the cardboard cut-outs ahead by post.

Me with the original one-metre long mystery mutant moggy cut out. It was way too big and the legs were far too long, as it turned out.

The cut-outs I'd made were a one-metre long, long-legged slim big cat (based on trying to make sense of the footage), which I gave a triangular chin and a short tail. Our first trial run with the cut-out in front of the CCTV camera showed that I'd over-estimated the legs - so we did the "big cat cut-out run" again, with the legs of the cut-out tucked in and taped back so they weren't so ridiculously long.

The "shortened-legs" version of the big cat cut-out, with a one-metre measuring rod for comparison

Our second cut-out was inspired by one that appears in a photo in Big Cats: Facing Britain's Wild Predator (page 51). This is a 75cm-long cat with a more domestic cat-type body, 75cm being the point at which big cats become "of interest." I named this cut-out the "biggest possible domestic cat" cut-out. (Photo to follow.)

Our third and final cut-out was a domestic cat cut-out, intended as some kind of control. Curiously, both the domestic cats at my home declined to be measured for this - I eventually got the "average" domestic cat measurement of 50cm long excluding tail from a reference book. My own domestic cat completely freaked out when they saw the "big cat" cut-out too. My partner's cat was as unfazed as he is by everything else, and walked up to the domestic cat cut-out to demonstrate that is was about the right size.

Domestic cat cut-out compared to one-metre measuring pole

The whole thing was nearly called off because our measuring day coincided with a gale, but I managed to persuade our man in North Suffolk agriculture to let me go an in, measure, out quick-as-possible expedition. It's a part of North Suffolk where everybody knows everybody, so I had to do the "cut-out runs" in front of the camera literally at a run. There were occasional cars going past his farm, and I didn't want to compromise his anonymity with any suspicious goings-on with big cat cut-outs.

Simulating a big cat walking around the same yard as in the above nocturnal footage. Just visible on the right is the same doormat (covered in leaves) that's the only discernible feature in the night-time footage

So finally we had some footage of me marching around a yard with a one-metre measuring pole, following as best I could the path taken by our mystery mutant moggy. This was followed by "runs" with our one-metre-long big cat cut-out (with and without modified legs tucked in), our 75cm-long "biggest possible domestic cat" cut-out and, finally, our domestic cat cut-out for comparison.

I'd abandoned placing the cut-outs standing up in various parts of the yard because the gale meant they'd blow over, so I just walked them across the yard, not always able to ensure they touched the ground, as the wind was so strong. We also had to be quick as the rain would quickly turn the cardboard they were made from into papier-mache. Footage of me doing all this recorded on CCTV, my partner in crime said he'd been inspired to return at a later date after dark (as in the original night-time footage) and repeat the exercise.

Performing for the benefit of the CCTV camera again, this time doing the walk with a "legs shortened" big cat cut-out

I sent off our little films of me briskly walking around the yard with cut-outs to Mark Fletcher, who very quickly got back to me with "overlays" that revealed that our mystery mutant moggy was, beyond doubt...

an ordinary domestic cat! And a small one at that!

Oops! The ghostly overlaid cat (bottom right, superimposed on measuring stick) is awfully small!

The above still from the video shows me with a measuring pole, placed on the ground as I reconstruct the walk of the mystery mutant moggy in the original footage. Superimposed on it is the ghostly outline of the big cat from the original footage, in exactly the same spot. (It's a fixed CCTV camera, the camera doesn't move.) The ghostly white rays are the illuminated gaps between shadows in the night-time footage, which show up on the overlay.

The "North Suffolk mystery mutant moggy" affair shows how easy it is to misidentify animals as big cats, particularly in the dark. I feel it's been a useful exercise, and the outcome shows the value of getting your mystery animal footage and photos checked out before you release them to the media. (I'd run it past Dorothy Byrne, head of Channel Four News, who'd past it on to ITN, and I'd contacted BBC Radio Suffolk who'd past me on to the BBC East Anglia bureau, but we'd all agreed to hold our horses for the time being, as it were.)

We had applied scientific methods and, as the police would say, eliminated from our enquiries one mystery "big cat." The best evidence for a big cat in Suffolk remains an ambiguous and faint 1990s photo of a big paw print from Dunwich Forest. (Elsewhere in the UK, the evidence for big cats is much better.)

The North Suffolk mystery mutant moggy didn't even come close in size to the "biggest possible domestic cat" cut-out

I'm also now much better equipped to respond to any other footage or photos from a particular location that come my way from Suffolk - or from East Anglia. I'm getting reports of big cat sightings, both recent and in the last few years, from North Norfolk as well.

My North Norfolk informant says there's a rumour going round that someone shot and killed an black leopard in North Norfolk in 2013 and in traditional East Anglian fashion, kept quiet about it. I couldn't help noticing that my database of well over 100 big cat sightings in Suffolk and just over the Norfolk border has a significant dip around 2013, the only year in which Suffolk Police recorded no big cat sightings at all.) My cut-outs will have pride of place at the book launch for Mystery Animals of the British Isles: Suffolk, which will be somewhere in Ipswich early this year. (mysteryanimalsofsuffolk@gn.apc.org for enquiries about the "guesty" for this.

I also have convincing testimony from a witness who's seen a different type of big cat - a black leopard - through a telescopic rifle sight in the immediate vicinity, and heard several other reports of a sandy big cat in the immediate neighbourhood. So there is, it seems, something big out there. As a result of this exercise, I'm in talks with some people about the possibility of setting up some camera traps on my North Suffolk informant's land, in what could be a possible "big cat corridor."

Thanks to Mark Fletcher, Rick Minter, Jon Downes and others who will have to remain nameless for their help and advice on the "North Suffolk mystery mutant moggy" and to the drivers and bookings team of the excellent Suffolk Links Pathfinder Demand Responsive Transport service for getting me most of the way there and back.

And finally... what about the weird proportions of our skinny, long-bodied, long-legged mystery mutant moggy, whose shape first led me to believe it couldn't be just an ordinary domestic cat? I showed the footage to someone in East Anglian animal rescue, who told me he though it could be a savannah cat - a cross between a serval and an Abyssinian cat.

They're "legal" from F3 - the third generation of being crossed with "domestics", but anything that's got more serval in it and you need a licence to keep it, and only a very small number of people in the UK are licensed to breed F1 and F2 servals. My East Anglian animal rescue source tells me he's heard from one of these legal breeders that there are unlicensed breeders out there in the East of England too, who are still breeding - and releasing - hybrid domestic cats with an awful lot of serval in them. So our small North Suffolk mystery mutant moggy could in fact be a mystery mutant hybrid exotic.

There's more in the forthcoming Mystery Animals of the British Isles: Suffolk, which is on Twitter.