As with any wild expanse of land there have been many reports and sightings of ‘Big Cats’ on Dartmoor. People talk of ‘The Beast of Dartmoor’ when more likely as not it should be ‘The Beasts of Dartmoor’. Talk to any body that spends a lot of time on the moor and the chances are that they have seen or heard something related to a big cat or know somebody that has. I have never seen a big cat but near Dick’s Well I have seen paw prints. The old story is that paw prints are usually left by a big dog and rain has enlarged them. The ones I saw were large and clearly showed long claws, the rain could not have enlarged them because they were frozen and the edges of the print were ‘crisp’ and showing no sign of deterioration. I have seen ponies and sheep with their throats torn out down by Dendles Wood. A friend has been lucky enough to have spotted one near the ruins of Doe Tor Farm. He related how he was returning from a days walk and it was getting towards dusk when he came past the old farm. Something made him stop and look back and he clearly saw a large light brown cat. It had climbed up onto a low wall about a 100 yards away and stood for a couple of seconds looking directly at him. The animal then slowly flicked its long tail a couple of times and in his words, “nonchalantly leapt off the wall and loped off.”
Considering the size of Dartmoor and the numbers of livestock that graze there it has everything for a big cat to survive. The isolation would mean that very little would disturb such a creature and the sheep and ponies would provide an excellent meat source. It is thought that the introduction of the 1976 Dangerous Animals Act was a contributing factor in the appearance of the big cats. The act required any owner of such an animal to obtain a license from the local authorities and ensure it was kept in secure conditions. Some owners did not or could not obtain the licenses and so simply released the animals in the wild. It is not known whether any of them actually bred or how many survived in their new environments but sightings regularly occur.
Dartmoor sightings have varied from big black cats through big beige cats to a lion. In November 1998 a young male lion was spotted near to Wrangaton and a paw print was found which was deemed to be that of a lion by a big cat specialist from the Dartmoor Wildlife Park. At the time the police had to deter would be ‘Big Game Hunters’ who were stalking the beast with shotguns, armed officers then conducted a fruitless search of their own, no more has been heard of the ‘Dartmoor Lion’. Listed below are just a few of the reported sightings and big cat stories.
Dartmoor – Large skull found on the moor, possibly that of a Puma – later thought to have come from a big cat skin rug.
May – Widecombe-in-the Moor – Farmer shot a Leopard Cat that was attacking his poultry. The animal was thought to have escaped from a travellers camp.
March – Holne – big cat sighted.
July – Between Two Bridges and Princetown – big cat sighted.
March – Butterdon Hill – big cat sighted.
October – Giant’s Basin – Boys were camping on the moor and were awoken by strange noises. In the morning they found evidence that two big cats had clawed through the outer tent.
November – Cheston nr Wrangaton – lion sighting.
November – Dousland – huge tooth marks found in a tin of cat food, rubbish sacks torn apart and large paw print left which wildlife experts believe to be a puma’s.
November – Cornwood – a large ‘puma-like’ cat sighted.
April – Large black cat was spotted on Manaton Green and it’s supposedly responsible for the deaths of 14 hens in the area.
July – A ‘puma-like’ animal spotted by two Dartmoor walkers about ½ north east of Drewsteignton.
August – Legis tor – A large jet black cat was observed for about 20 minutes as it stalked some grazing sheep. It was reported that the beast was about a foot taller and twice as long as the sheep.
June – Hound Tor – A large black/grey stocky beast said to resemble a, “bear”, seen ambling along a track below the tor.
June – Longaford Tor – A puma-like figure photographed, see below.
Nobody knows when the first reported sighting of a big cat was made but it is a well known fact that exotic animals were brought into this country to go in ‘menagerie’ collections as early as the 1600’s. Therefore it just could be that the legends of the ‘Wisht Hounds‘ and ‘Black Dogs‘ have there roots in an escaped animal from the early menageries. It would certainly explain the ‘green eyes’ that appear in many of the stories.
There are many times on Dartmoor when out of the corner of your eye you spot a dim and distant figure darting between the granite rocks. But you only get a fleeting glimpse and it is impossible to be sure what you have seen. I often imagine that somewhere like the photograph below would be an ideal spot to see The Beast of Dartmoor and wouldn’t it be nice to actually get a photograph of the elusive animal?
It appears as the ‘Beast of Dartmoor’ is still alive and well in 2008 as the following communication demonstrates:
“Dear Sir or Madam
I have just returned to London following a three day solo trip to Dartmoor. I arrived Saturday morning and set off for the North Moor from Okehampton. I took in a number of my favourite tors and by 1730 hours I had reached Black Tor. The light was fading so I decided to find a suitable place to camp. I walked down to the West Okement River and pitched my tent by the Sandy Ford Spring. This is situated between Steng-a-Tor and Lints Tor (grid ref: 574 877). As I was collecting some fresh water I came across the fleece of a slaughtered sheep. Scattered around the area were several bones, some with meat still attached. Spookily no sooner had I wondered what might have killed the poor creature than I heard the sound of barking from the hill above. At first I thought it was probably someone walking their dog but what convinced me otherwise was that it continued intermittently until 1930 hours and it had become dark by about 1745 hours. The barking was mixed with loud growling and howling like no domestic dog I have ever heard. As ridiculous as it may sound, the only time I have ever heard a similar sound was when watching ‘An American Werewolf in London!’ As a result, by about 1900 hours, I began shouting and banging my pots in an attempt to scare it away. By this time I had heard it coming from three sides. It started above me, between my camp and Kitty Tor, then moved down to the valley to the north of me and then moved up the other side towards Black Tor. At this point I could make out a small heard of sheep running fast up the hill. I would estimate from the proximity of the sound that the dog came to within 150 metres of me but unfortunately at no time did I see it. Each time I heard the barking I walked in the direction of it, shouting at it to try and ward it off. I don’t scare easily and have walked and camped on Dartmoor alone on numerous occasions. For the first time though I was very unsettled. I did not hear it again after 1930 hours and thankfully enjoyed a beast free, albeit chilly, night camped at Black-a-Ven Brook near Oke Tor last night.
I have received an email from Duncan Rogers who kindly enclosed a photograph he took at 9.30pm on Saturday the 14th of June 2008. He walked up to Longaford Tor (OS grid reference SX 61558 77946) and took a photograph of what he presumed was the sun setting on Dartmoor. However, when he got home and downloaded the picture he noticed that not only had he captured the sunset but also what appeared to be a puma on the nearby southern outcrop of the tor. As can be seen below, at first the mystery figure is not obvious but the more the picture is enlarged the more the puma-like figure becomes clear, so my thanks to Duncan for allowing me to put the ‘Beast of Longaford’ on this page.
Things seemed to go quiet for eight years until the July of 2016 when a two year old lynx called Flaviu escaped from the Dartmoor Zoo, his story can be read in full on the Flaviu the Lynx page. Also what came to light was the revelation that back in 1980s three pumas were released by the same zoo which would more than explain the puma-like sightings listed above. It appears that these beast roamed and bred on Dartmoor where they raised about three generations of offspring. For some inexplicable reasons the sightings and reports stopped in 2010, very possibly because the pumas did not manage to survive the harsh winter of that year. Once this story came out many local people have now confessed to seeing the pumas and farmers have reported livestock attacks during that period.