Over time there have been numerous stories of ‘exotic’ animals roaming Dartmoor, the latest being the adventures of Flavui the lynx who escaped from the Dartmoor zoo. Previous to that were the many sightings of pumas roaming the moorland wastes, possibly leading to the Beast of Dartmoor sightings.. In 2009 a piranha was found swimming in the East Okement river by some fishery experts then there was the mysterious story from 1823 regarding the Tavistock Boa, a huge snake terrorising the locals. This brings me on nicely to this story about another monster snake that stalked a farmer’s field at Throwleigh which was reported in The Western Morning News on the 3rd of November 1932. The entire article was talking about ‘exotic’ animals found on Dartmoor, after a brief mention of a tortoise found beside the river Taw it went onto the subject of this webpage.
Picture a tranquil farm near Throwleigh with sheep contentedly grazing the northern slopes of Dartmoor, early one morning the farmer and his trusty dog went out to inspect his flock. This mist lay low and rolled across the dewy grass as man and dog quietly made their way amongst the sheep. All seemed well until they came across an old ewe lying motionless in the wet grass, after close inspection it was clear that the animal was dead but there were no clues as to why. Now it’s no secret that the favourite pastime of sheep is to die for no particular reason, I remember an old shepherd once telling me that during the lambing season his ‘sheep’s first-aid kit’ consisted of a bottle of whisky and a hammer. I’m not sure whether the whisky was for the sheep or himself but am certain who the hammer was for. Anyway, although frustrated at the loss of one of his flock these things can be expected but as a precaution he decided to move the rest of the flock to another pasture just in case the death was disease related. All was well until a few months later when it was time to put his sheep back into the fated field but by then his first loss was but a dim and distant memory. The very next morning when man and dog did the daily flock inspection he found two dead ewes, again with no obvious sign of why they had died. Being the second time such a loss had occurred the farmer put it down to an unfortunate coincidence. As before the whole flock were moved to other grazing grounds as a precaution and life went on – minus three members of the flock. The grazing rotation continued and eventually went in full circle when the sheep were back on the fated field. The very next day the farmer found another ewe laying prone and lifeless, again there was no obvious signs of what may have caused its death.
A few days later one of the farmer’s labourers reported that he had seen what looked like a ‘gert big serpent; slithering in no particular hurry through the ‘fated’ field. Soon further reports of the snake came in which added credence to the theory that something out of the ordinary was living in and around the field. It did not take long before the whole neighbourhood got to know of the strange goings on and to a man (or woman) they avoided the area like the plague. OK, the farmer had kept his flock well away from the field but that meant part of his grazing land was virtually redundant. Anybody who keeps sheep knows that you can never have enough grassland no matter the size of the flock and in this case the time came when that particular field was desperately needed. So the farmer reluctantly took the decision that the time had come to hunt the ‘serpent’ down and put an end to its predations. Having drafted in a very reluctant posse from his workforce the men began an exhaustive search of the field, its hedgerows and any other place the serpent could be hiding – sadly all to no avail. Over the next few days lookouts were posted at various vantage points to sit silently and watch for any sign of the snake. Finally the day came when one of the men dashed frantically into the farmyard yelling that he had; “sin the gert big snake a slitherin’ across the meadow‘.” The farmer dashed into the farmhouse and grabbed his trusty shotgun which hung over the fireplace shoved a cartridge into both barrels and made his way down to the field. Luckily the grass was fairly long and still damp from the morning dew so it was not hard to see the meandering tracks left by the snake as it made its way across the field. It was obvious that the snake was heading for the hedgerow so speed was of the essence if it was to be caught before slithering into a dense hawthorn thicket. Finally man and snake came face to face and the farmer could see that the reports of; “a gert ‘uge serpent,” had been no exaggeration. Slowly raising the shotgun to his shoulder the farmer took a big breath and squinted down the barrels then gently squeezed the trigger – boom went the gun and a dense blue cloud of gun-smoke wafted out of the barrel end. Seeing as it was such a huge snake the farmer gave it the other barrel just for luck – boom it went. Thus the days of the Throwleigh Serpent came to an end, where it came from nobody could offer an explanation other than; “it twern’t no long cripple or nought else of the likes ev’r sin afore.”
The original article was written by Douglas Gordon, a regular wildlife writer for the newspaper and according to him the remains of the snake were bought by a visitor for half a crown and never seen again. You have to admire the farmer’s philosophy, having lost several sheep to the serpent he made the best of a bad job and sold the dead snake to recuperate some of his financial losses. In Gordon’s opinion the snake was probably a large grass snake as from its description it was too large to have been an adder. Male grass snakes of over 6 feet have been recorded in the United Kingdom although it’s rare to find them growing to such a length. In which case the cause of the sheep’s deaths was down to a mystery disease of some sort. If this was not the case then it could have been a large poisonous snake of some description that had either escaped or had been released from/by a collector of such things. This meant that the sheep had truly been bitten by the snake and it was the poison that caused their demise. Despite an effort to track down the person who bought the dead snake in order to identify the snake nobody was forth coming. To this day the story of the ‘Throwleigh Serpent’ still resides in the library of Dartmoor’s unsolved mysteries.