Thursday, 23 August 2007

Welsh Lake Monsters - Giant pike

Up and coming cryptozoology researcher Oll Lewis spoke at the Centre for Fortean Zoology’s eighth Weird Weekend conference of cryptozoology Saturday session (18 August) on lake monsters in his native Wales.
There are Welsh water monsters in folklore and fact, and some of them have attacked people in the last ten years. Garbled mistranslating from the Welsh doesn’t clarify the picture.
Wyverns (dragon-like winged snakes) used to attack sheep a lot in the Penllyn region, an area so isolated from the rest of the world that farmers wiped them out, thinking they were fairly common, and only then realized they were anything unusual.

The avanq, also spelled ufanc and with five other spellings, was some kind of crocodile thing. Stories about it are confused by the fact that the word is the same or very similar to the word for ‘beaver’ and ‘dwarf’ in Welsh, with its many non-standard old spellings. The local kings around Llangorse Lake, also called Brecknock Meer are supposed to have worn a tartan which represents the avanq. There are records of something in the lake going back to Roman times.
Huge 68lb pikes have been fished out of the lake. In 1987 a local, Mike Tunnicliffe, met the ufance when out shooting on the lake. One of his three labradors attacked a ‘basking pike’ in shallow waters, which darted off. Witnesses have seen wildfowl ‘taken’ by something under the water on the lake. A 5-6ft long pike attacked a man in 1997, and he was hospitalized with bites to his foot. Large pikes can look crocodilian in appearance.
Tuncliffe found the rotting mask (skull) of a dead pike in Llangorse Lake. It was 18 inches long, which would mean a pike of an estimated 70lb, 6-8ft long. Olly is going to Llangorse Lake in October. I’m down to help with archive research of Brecon and Powys newspapers in the Newspaper Library, and possibly down for ‘stake out’ duty on the shore during toe October expedition.
Two years ago the ‘Welsh water wolf,’ whatever that is, attacked sheep and killed them with two puncture marks around Newport.
Jonathan Downes announced The CFZ is involved in the defence of Marshall Farm, a local beauty spot near their village of Wolfordisworthy, North Devon, threatened by a Center Parcs-style development of 94 chalets planned for the area. Discovering dormice, rare moths, rare vegetation or – possibly – great crested newts not normally native to Devon, but reported locally, could save the site. The CFZ will do a survey.

Introduction to cryptozoology

The Centre for Fortean Zoology’s eighth Weird Weekend conference of cryptozoology began its Saturday session (18 August) with ‘parish announcements’ and then an introduction to cryptozoology, the science of 'hidden' animals. This was mainly for the benefit of the citizens of Woolfordishworthy, North Devon, who while they had thrown themselves into helping out with WW with great enthusiasm, aren’t cryptzoological insiders.
Goth zoologist and former zookeeper Richard Freeman pointed out that ‘gorrillas were ogres from native folklore until about 1904.’ Before then, it was believed they ‘carried off women to rape them, and used clubs to battle elephants.’
The giant squid has been known since 1861, but only sick ones and dying ones have been filmed. They were mixed up with the Scandinavian folklore of the Kraken. There’s now known to be an even bigger version in the Southern Ocean – the Colossal Squid. Which, says Freeman, “begs the question – what else is down there?”
Prehistoric Australia had some very bizarre animals, including Nototherium – the fossil marsupial rhino, and a gaint flightless predatory duck. The early European settlers encountered the thylacine, also called the Tasmanian tiger or Tasmanian wolf. This dog-like marsupial was seen as a mythical vampire creature by early European settlers, because it ripped into sheep and drank their blood. It was demonized as a vampiric entity, which helped speed up its extinction. The last one died in a zoo in the 1930s. The mystery animal known locally as ‘dob senga,’ reported in New Guinea fits the thylacine’s description, and there have been recent thylacine sightings in mainland Australia and Tasmania. There could well be surviving thylacines.
An CFZ expedition to Guyana is planned for November, in search of the giant bull eating anaconda ‘manatora’ (literally ‘eater of bulls’) and the Dee Dee, an upright clawed creature that could be a ground sloth.
Alien Big Cat (ABC) sightings in Britain have been up in the last 30 years. Wolves, brown bears, lynxes, wild boars and wolverines were hunted to extinction, and the ABCs are filling these empty niches in the environment. There was a 1980s fad for wild boar sausages, followed by a 1987 hurricane that flattened the fences of the wild boar enclosures. There’s now a population on Dartmoor. Big black cats have been seen in woods two miles from Wolfordisworthy village.
There are cave paintings and ancient Babylonian sculptures of sea serpents. CFZ director Jonathan Downes says of the CFZ’s work, “we have good humour, we have funs while we’re doing it, but we do it in a scientific way.”

Britain’s secret wildlife – two new species of lizard, Alien Big Cats

Weird Weekend's Friday evening session (Friday 17 August, see below) was kicked off by Jon McGowan, who says he has seen puma cubs playing in a deserted quarry in Wales – twice. He’s also been on the trail of two new types of lizard on the Bournemouth cliff tops. Whether or not they are native is not clear. Britain officially has four species of lizard - the common lizard, the sand lizard, the wall lizard and a legless lizard - the slowworm. The wall lizard is found in the Isle of Wight, Sussex and Dorset, and has a more boring brown colour than continental variants.
In the 1970s, there was the discovery in Bournemouth of brighter wall lizards. They could have bred with the brighter coloured ‘races’ (variants) of continental wall lizards, that may have been introduced. These wall lizards live in the unusual environment of the cliff heathlands of Bournemouth.
The Bournemouth wall lizards have a black head, like a Northern Italian variant. This type is now common on the Bournemouth cliff. There are also a yellowish Bournemouth variant that doesn’t match any of the 30 or so races and 20 recognised species of continental wall lizard. McGowan thinks these yellowish version must have originated from pet lizards that had been released. Female lizards in all their varieties are generally not colourful, but in Bournemouth they are.
Another species not generally accepted to live in England is the Western green lizard, is also seen in the tiny area around Bournemouth. It’s very large, typically 35-45cm, with one example found at 49cm. They are much larger than sand lizards. Western green lizards were first described 120 years ago. They are green, unlike other UK lizards.
Some of the ones seen at Bournemouth could be of another species, the Eastern green lizard. They were seen for a couple of years, then they disappeared in a very cold winter. The contemporary Western green lizards have probably been reintroduced into the area sometime in the last 120 years.
On the subjects of Alien Big Cats (ABCs) in Britain, McGowan says that there definitely seem to be some ‘mega-sized’ domestic cats out there that have gone feral and evolved to a giant size, as they are known to have done in Australia. There are some footprints in Britain that are almost the size of a leopard’s, but with domestic-cat footprint characteristics.
McGowan has himself seen a Scottish wildcat in Dorset. ‘Small zoos keep them and they breed prolifically,’ some of them are clearly being released, as there are more and more sightings of them over a bigger and bigger geographical range in England.
McGowan’s own study of (known) big cats on heathland in India shows that several different species of big cats share the heathland, and they all find their own niches in it.
Cats could easily survive in a cool climate like England’s. They like cool climates. They suffer in climates of over 80 degrees in Asia and Africa. Ocelots live in mountains in the wild, where they grow longer fur. Several ocelots have been shot in the UK, with photographs of the shot carcasses taken.
‘Cats are masters of disguise, cats can keep themselves hidden,’ says McGowan. In Johannesburg, something was coming down from the mountains and killing dogs – they put out six traps in a night and caught six leopards.
Chris Moiser, of the group Big Cats in Britain, turned up late for his Alien Big Cats talk but by way of apology explained he’d been buying a zoo – Tropiquaria in Minehead. Mr Moiser has been acclimatizing to ‘First Gibbon,’ a rescued young gibbon whose loud whoops he suspects are not actually the usual gibbon calls, but his impression of the sirens of the ambulances that frequently speed past the main road next to the zoo on their way to Minehead Hospital.
When he eventually got to give his report on behalf of Big Cats in Britain, Mr Moiser revealed there have been several Alien Big Cat (ABC) reports from Cornwall over the past year, and that near Lyton, a big ram, with a reputation for chasing away dogs, had been savaged by something and received ‘horrendous’ wounds. South of Bodmin, a Shetland pony was killed by long vertical slash down its side, which seems to have been done by ‘human agency’ not an ABC. There are plans for a Beast of Bodmin theme park, which will feature a live black leopard. In Lodiswell, there has been a sighting of a black cat, which bared its ‘small, sharp teeth.’ In Leicester there have been raccoon sightings, with raccoon sounds recorded. At the Biblical-themed Noah’s Ark Zoo near Bristol, ‘the only zoo closed on a Sunday,’ two sheep were lost from the petting zoo despite a five-meter high fence around the property.‘ Paw mark slashes’ were found on a slashed horse in a field next door to Exmouth Zoo.
Moiser commented on the recent series of five or six photos of the mystery Beast of Dartmoor, some of which appeared in The Sun and Fortean Times. It was variously interpreted as a bear, a wolverine, a pony, or even a shape-shifting animal that changed from one animal to another from one shot to another. The CFZ outed it as a fairly obvious Newfoundland dog, ‘like the one in the old Dulux paint adverts’, according to Mr Downes. Moiser noted that ‘slightly eased quarantine regulations mean we’re beginning to see unfamiliar ‘giant’ European (continental) dog breeds’ that could be mistaken for something else. The Beast of Dartmoor was shot with a camera-phone designed for close ups, and we may be seeing weird distortions on out of focus camera phones of a sort that we’re not yet used to interpreting as just that, because camera phones are still quite new.
Moiser also reported the release of data following Paul Lyons’ Freedom of Information Act request on how much ‘licensed keeping of exotic cats’ has been granted permission, which revealed that number to be an alarming high, around 800 in the UK.

Weird Weekend 2007 – Weird FridayWeird Weekend 2007 – Weird Friday

The Centre for Fortean Zoology’s eighth Weird Weekend conference of cryptozoology opened (on Friday 17 August) with a dragon dance featuring the children of the North Devon village of Wolfordisworthy (aka Woolserey) carrying a huge Chinese-style red dragon. CFZ director and former music journalist Jon Downes (he used to specialise in writing about anarcho punk band Crass) said, ‘I think this is going to be a very weird weekend… People come from all over the world come to it, people from all the village get involved.’
A series of disasters dogged the run-up to WW 07.
‘Gregory (the star speaker who flew in from the Ukraine) got held in Zurich with hand-exercisers – they are weapons of mass destruction… Then one of the turtle tanks burst its banks’ and Goth former zoo keeper and curator of reptiles Richard Freeman twisted his ankle slipping in the ensuing slime. Downes twisted his ankle too, at the Thursday night pre-WW cocktail party. Champagne and margaritas flowed freely at the cocktail party, which I left around 11 at night to cycle back to my campsite. Only when I was out of the village did it become apparent how very drunk I was. Two falls from my bike and half an hour spent staring at the starry sky trying desperately to sober up, afflicted by a paranoia attack in which I believed all the village were vampires and would come flying after me, I somehow made it back down the A38 and to the campsite alive, after a diversion in which I went the wrong way to Clovelley. I blame the margaritas.
My near death experience was nothing compared to the Friday afternoon open day. Punters arriving at the CFZ’s office and soon-to-be museum were greeted with the words ‘Sorry, medical emergency.’ An exhibitor had been taken seriously ill, and an ambulance had to be called.

A casual tourist's visit to the Climate Change Camp

I paid a lazy, day-tripper tourist’s visit to the Camp for Climate Change just north of Heathrow last Wednesday (15th August). It was a nice easy journey on which I didn’t even have to change trains on the Tube, in contrast to so much activism that demands a lot of hard work and sacrifice and hassle.
I knew I was approaching the site when I saw the string of cars parked in the lane, which all had bored looking corporate news journalists checking their emails on laptops plugged into the cigarette lighter. The Sky News lady was powdering her nose, and a Canadian journo at the ‘gate’ (it’s just a piece of thin rope strung across posts in some places) was asking if there were any Canadians in there he could interview. There was one guy in a car with a jacket over his head. Either he was one of the few photographers who still uses film, or he was the Evening Standard’s undercover reporter trying to keep a low profile.
There was none of the anticipated hassle from the cops getting in, apart from being photographed by the Forward Intelligence Team – the FIT team of the Metropolitan police. Happy campers told me that thirty ‘FIT’ officers – which is about the total strength of the FIT, had barged onto the site the night before. About two hundred campers ‘kept pouring out of tents’ and pushed them back off the site, according to this source. At about this time, ‘silver,’ the copper in operational command of the whole operation on the ground, reportedly showed up and ordered the FIT to withdraw. It seems as if the FIT’s action was not authorized by their overall command. This is an accusation that activists often been make against FIT by – that they deliberately wade in, sometimes against specific orders from on high.
By the time I arrived, it was a happy peaceful camp with a really nice vibe. Old sofas were out by the ‘gate’, and a pair of police constables were taking a slow stroll around the camp with their Climate Camp minders. It didn’t seem to be any kind of inspection or search, just a ‘routine’ foot patrol. I was told that Commander Richard Broadhurst – the man in charge of public order for the entire Met – had come to take a stroll around the site. Broadhurst is ‘gold’ for the Climate Change Camp operation, meaning the buck ultimately stops with him, and it’s highly unusual to see him on site. ‘Gold’ is usually to be found no closer to the operation than Scotland Yard’s control room.

It’s possible ‘gold’s’ appearance had something to do with damage control of the ongoing Climate Camp media disaster. This being the silly season, there’s been an enormous amount of coverage of the site, much of it positive towards the campers, and the letter pages were full of nothing else. Everyone’s having a laugh at the expense of the British Airport Authority (BAA), who ‘run’ Heathrow, and who demonstrated their incompetence to me last Christmas, when I spent a day in a freezing cold tent with a thousand stranded passengers whom they wouldn’t even let into the Terminal 2 building, and all because of a little bit of fog.
BAA’s bizarre application for an injunction of the protesters demanded that every member of the National Trust be arrested, and it was heavily watered down at court. The local people of Harlington and Hayes have suddenly found their houses have become worthless overnight due to plans to build a new runway on the site where the camp now is. The Harlington people had already set up their own ‘barrio’ (miniature neighbourhood) in the camp, and their banners mentioned BAA by name.
Two coppers seemed to have nothing better to do than to stand around at the entrance to the next field to stop the camp expanding onto it. Imperial College, owners of the land, had put up signs instructing campers that they owned the freehold to the land, but it’s a dubious argument, as a camp paralegal advised me that in law the tenant is the landowner for eviction purposes, and there is a mysterious tenant who leases the site, and who hadn’t yet identified themselves.
The scruffy anarchists at the Camp could probably make a better job of running Heathrow than BAA. It was a beautifully organised camp, with 12 different types of recycling bin, compost toilets and wind turbines. It was the perfect size, small enough that you could still meet people, and big enough that there was always something going on. The cheap food was excellent, and it all had more the air of a festival than a heavy serious activist event. The Lancaster posse had a bike library where you could sign out a free bike to cycle around on, and the Bicycology tent’s workshop on fitting brake blocks to your bike was so busy I couldn’t see what they were doing through the press of punters. And I was back home in an hour. There was a steady trickle of arrivals as I left, two of them all the way from Chile via Manchester. The Climate Camp could well become a major London tourist attraction.