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.

Friday, 10 June 2016

The ruined woodwose of Letheringham

Letheringham is only a couple of miles by bike from Wickham Market and the nearby train station at Campsey Ash, but it feels like it's in the middle of nowhere. The church is down a track made from flints and gravel, it's in the middle of a field, surrounded by paddocks with thoroughbred horses. There was a foal skipping around the field adjoining the churchyard when I visited.

Letheringham Priory Church used to be part of a priory (a monastery) and still has a rather impressive wall around it for such a small church, and there's a shed in the corner of the churchyard that's made from stone, strongly suggesting it was one of the monastery outbuildings in bygone days. The church itself is a shortened version of the main monastery building.

Over the years, the church has seen hard times. The powerful Wingfield family lived locally - there are a few brasses under rugs still in the church showing some of the Wingfields, hands clasped in prayer, wearing the armour of a 15th century knight. There used to be stone tombs of the Wingfields too, but they survive only in an 18th century drawing, which shows a temporary, barn-like roof of most of the church, but the church still being open to the elements in places. A local land dispute led to the church going to rack and ruin.

A visiting antiquarian in 1780 described the "roof entirely down" and ruined "antient and curious monuments". A restoration ordered by church authorities went seriously awry, with churchwardens instead selling of the entire contents of the chancel to a contractor, presumably for building materials, stone being rare in these parts.

There are some shelves by the door (the church is usually unlocked) which has some alcoves for some of the rescued remains of those "antient and curious monuments. This includes two kneeling Elizabethan figures and the top half of a woodwose - about a foot high, very eroded but with his curly body hair still visible, with a forked beard and big, staring eyes. A snapped-off, curved club is held up over his shoulder in one hand.

We owe the Letheringham woodwose's survival to his chance discovery in a local garden, where he was being used as a garden ornament. He may once have been on display on top of the porch, like the woodwoses and Yaxley, Mendlesham, Kelsale and possibly the ruined woodwose at St Mary's Woolpit. There's more on them, and many other woodwoses from around the county, on the extended online version of my article "The Woodwoses of Suffolk", originally for Fortean Times.

This creature on the tower at Letheringham is described only as an "animal" in the church's guidebook. It could be an ape, symbol of sin and evil in Medieval imagery.

Letheringham's village sign commemorates the mill that once stood there. It's a repurposed mill stones.

The sign that time forgot, outside Letheringham

A fire-breathing salamander on a coat of arms in nearby Easton church

Tuesday, 29 March 2016

Mummified cats in He Say Land

The magnificent mummified cat at the Mill Hotel Sudbury

"He Say Land" is named after the sing-song language of the corner of southwest Suffolk and all the way down to Halstead over the Essex border. That's according to the older inhabitant of Sudbury on the number 11 bus while we were waiting at the queue on Ballingdon Hill going into Sudbury. There's one bridge to get you over the Stour into Sudbury, and on Saturdays the queue is backed up at the Ballingdon Hill traffic lights all the way up to the top of the hill and the "Welcome to Suffolk" sign.

It's called "He Say Land" because a lot of local dialect conversations begin "He say" this and "He say" that.

The same man also told me the river delineating Suffolk from Essex, the Stour, is pronounced "store" by the locals, while only newcomers pronounce it with two syllables to rhyme with "hour." So unmoving was the traffic that I asked the driver of the no. 11 bus, stopped at the top of Ballingdon Hill, if he could let me out to unfold my folding bike and cycle into Sudbury to save time. I'll be lynched, mate!" he told me.

The "Welcome to Suffolk" sign at Ballingdon Hill, through the window of the no. 11 bus, which could do with a clean!

Driving around the hairpin bends and narrow medieval streets of Sudbury, you meet some of the world's most patient and chilled drivers. I never once heard a car honk. As soon as any of the local drivers rounds one of the hairpin bends, they automatically pull in and let oncoming traffic pass. They pull over as soon as they see an approaching car (or bike, even), although it can be quite a long way off.(Suffolk drivers generally have the reputation of England's most polite and laid-back, although try telling that the the volunteers with their speed guns monitoring the maniacs charging along the Westleton to Blythburgh road at 40mph. See also the Coastal Scene hyperlocal newspaper, a large part of which is taken up by news of high-speed collisions on the A12, usually involving deer.)

My trip was another "two fingers up at Abellio Greater Anglia" expedition, as they wanted to charge me the usual fare for making my own way out to Manor Park tube (somewhere on the Central Line but not central at all), bus to Ingatestone, then train the rest of the way, that'll be an extra hour. I took the train to Stansted airport, then three buses to Sudbury - they all lined up rather well, with only short waits in between, despite the bus to Halstead no longer existing and all the bays for buses changing.

On the way from Stantead to Sudbury on three bus journeys, I passed through Braintree. It's where you get offered a house straight away if you put your name down for a house in Suffolk, has a confusing bus station. Just when you think you have a half hour wait ahead, you work ouand t that another bus will get you there sooner, and then another bus altogether, not on the timetable, puts in that's going to Halstead. Braintree also has a large statue of Neptune or somebody, which features a large bronze otter.

The lady at reception at the Mill Hotel in Sudbury - on the Stour - didn't bat an eyelid when I asked if I could photograph their mummified cat. It's in a hole in the floor, covered by glass. Apparently it was taken out after it was found, but the hotel suffered a fire so they felt it best to put it back.

The top of the road immediately outside the Mill Hotel was one of the very few places in Suffolk I've been to where the hill was so steep I had to get off my bike and walk.

When swans attack? Spotted in Ballingdon

I also briefly got to see Siam Gardens, the tiny Sudbury town centre park where the Sudbury Wardens had a call-out regarding a tiger, which turned out to be of "the soft-toy" variety.

Siam Gardens

I also spotted what looked like a woodwose on the top of All Saint's Church, Sudbury. Barry Wall of the Sudbury Society later confirmed to me that it indeed was a woodwose. It blew down in a storm in the 1980s, and you can just see the top of a steel rod protruding from the top of his head, which presumably was put there to stop him falling off the tower again. It's one of only three woodwoses on Suffolk church towers I know - the others being Kelsale and Haverhill.

Woodwose on the tower of All Saints, Sudbury

View from the Beestons bus from Sudbury to Ipswich

From Sudbury it was the Beestons double-decker bus all the way to Ipswich, just over an hour at high speed. Between Hadleigh and Ipswich we shot past what appeared to be an emu in a field, watching us through the fence. I found it later on Google Street view, watching the Google car go by.

Is that an emu on the A1071 near Hintlesham? (Photo copyright: Google 2016)

Needless to say, much of the above material will make its way into the imminent Mystery Animals of the British Isles: Suffolk, now between two and three months away from publication by my cautious estimate. I'm now struggling through the second proofs.

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. ( 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.