Saturday, 26 February 2011

Spring migration or just showing well?

There did seem to be a bit of a spring rush end of jan,first few days of feb.with 4 of our Sussex big cats showing well.Ok,so maybe the Offham cat doesn,t actually seem to have a,strictly speaking,winter holding area but the Midhurst and Horsham cats have acted as predicted.I,ll start with the Midhurst cat and as already blogged it moved west from it,s winter holding area of Lavington Heath/Goodwood forests/Heyshott and passed north of Heyshott(to be seen in a tree)presumably heading to the Iping area and maybe a little more north.The Horsham cat has been moving steadily south out of St.Leonards forest where it apparently spent the last 3 months (blogged 11.12.2010)The Steyning cat showed up at Lancing on the 29th for the first time since the october sighting at Wiston though i would not dare to hazard a guess where she has been all winter as these open downland cats don,t show the same form as the Hinterland ones proved by the Offham cat who was sighted on Kingston ridge in the 22nd and has been popping up her pretty little head occassionally all winter but then this is typical of first year females(i will explain my theory on this in a later blog)
The one that sticks out though is the Ashdown forest cat not actually seen but has been trimming out the local fallow(typical prey of huge males)with the evidence found.Coughing was heard here end of jan and a fellow researcher managed to retrieve several good sized pawprint plaster casts,seen with the deer slots and we all saw them at the Talk nite recently in Lewes.
So,my theory is that in october when the mad rush gets finished by final leaf fall there then follows 3 months when most cats are strictly crepuscular/nocturnal.They have long,long dark nights to get their hunting done and the dusks are very short,only the most visible of cats get seen.They emerge when the duck are flighting which is very late into dusk and so unless a person is right on top of them they won,t get seen.Humans divide the year up into 4 parts and so do animals but in slightly different ways.Spring starts end of jan unless cold weather holds it back.There is a different smell in the air and in a mild start like we are having this year the grass is growing already and they could,not all,but some of the cats be positioning themselves ready for the rabbiting season when the young rabbits are born which varys in it,s start from year to year.This year it was bang on cue being just after Valentines day(see the connection?)last year it wasn,t until the start of april.When the young rabbits are in full flood literally every predator is out gorging themselves on them and i just can,t see why the big cats would be any different.For a start the roe and fallow deer have been moving right out onto the arable crops nipping the tips off the winter wheat and so are harder to catch being out in the open,they no longer spend vast amounts of time in the forestry blocks with finds of deer carcases over the years always tailing off in febuary.It,s this time of year when i,ve found the most fox carcases with cat kill signs especially in a late bunny breeding year like last year and the year before,this year i would expect the foxes to take a bit less of a hammering unless a cat has cub/s and she,ll take them along with anything else she can get hold of.That rush of sightings did occur on the moonless nights when travelling rather than hunting can be more on a cats agenda but what usually happens is that as the year progresses there won,t be that much of a peak until late july which is 6 months time and 3 months before the october migration.I can find no patterns though in the april/may time but i suppose that means this time of year is patternless or i,ve just overlooked the obvious........

Thursday, 17 February 2011

Bigcat Evening Talk. Lamb inn,Lewes 22feb.

We are holding the evening talk at the Lamb inn,Fisher street.Meet at 7.30pm for 8ish start.Evidence never seen before in public will be on view like photos of the possible Offham cat(i will reveal more on the night),photos of deer killed by big cats in Sussex,plaster casts of pawprints.We will be talking about what the bigcats get up to on the downs and surrounding countryside of Lewes and why we think they are intrinsically linked into the ecosystem.Allsorts of other stuff will be going on like a question and answer session.Entrance is free but we will be passing the bucket round for charity and Merrily Harpur with her publishers,Roving press,have very kindly donated her book "Roaring Dorset"for the raffle.....

Sunday, 13 February 2011

Do bigcats in Sussex eat badgers?

There has been a distinct lack of badger pictures coming out of the trail cameras,in fact out of 7 different camspots this winter only 1 has showed badgers with any frequency.Of the others,2 now have just picked up these stripy things for the first time.Badgers are on the move a lot at this time of year as the yearlings get booted out of the main setts about now and the young boar badgers are forced to find areas well away from their familys sett.This is supported by the large number of roadkills seen at this time of year but this doesn,t explain why they have been absent from being in the picture so to speak.As the cameras are plotted up where bigcats are known to frequent it has left me wondering,wildlife groups have told me that they do notice a decline in badger activity in deep winter but they are still active and still show up on their cameras with frequency.

For some years now i,ve noticed that there are fewer signs of badger when i,m looking for bigcat evidence however i,ve always found it hard to believe that they are being preyed upon.For a start the adults are large,heavy,powerful animals with strong jaws,they are Mustelids like ferrets and their claws can rip up tree roots, dig the ground like JCB,s and so would cause damage to any animal foolish or unskillful enough to tackle them.Foxes usually give them a wide berth and their jugganort like run would shrug off any pursuier.

The subject of bigcats preying on them is something i have thought about and touched upon in previous blogs but i,ve had no hard evidence to back it up like carcases eaten in a cat-like way to prove anything.The occasional anecdotal statement by someone saying they saw a half eaten badger is no good to me unless i,ve seen either the carcase or good photos of the corpse.As regards the absence of them being in the trailcam pics it,s best,i find,to distinguish between evidence of coincidence and cause but everything happens for a reason in nature.........

Saturday, 5 February 2011

The type and history of the British bigcat

In understanding what types of big cat are out there it is necessary to make a giant intellectual leap in our observations of the evidence available either in photographic form,from eye witness statements or on the ground forensics.
It is only by the bold acceptance of these facts that we can begin to understand what has really been happening in so far as to how the types of cat have developed in the British countryside.

It is quite clear when researching the sightings of big cats that extremely few are actually described by witnesses as "it was a black panther"or"i saw a sandy coloured puma the size of a labrador"(a very tiny puma this must be).In fact the majority describe a large panther-like animal the size and colour of a black labrador or the height of an alsation and in other descriptions of the other many variants of cat out there.I say many variants because even the ample,mostly fuzzy photographic evidence mostly show a particular type of large cat that cannot be pigeon-holed into known species-specific descriptions, however,especially in Sussex,the descriptions and photos i possess do follow a particular format that is:from labrador to alsation size which is 20"to 26" tall at the shoulder having a long,sleek well muscled body,chunky legs,very long tail curled up at the end which is thickly furred in winter,a longish neck with a small head,green eye or yellow eyes,small ears and the face has a boxy appearance.

The colours seen are mostly black and occasionally, when the witness has a close up view,the coat has a mottled appearance with an undercoat of brownish-grey rosettes which is typical of black panthers.Other colours are brown or sandy and very occasionally grey,rarely cream.

They are called British big cats a term coined by Di Francis i gather,who did much work with Scotlands own bigcat,the Kellas cat, a 20"tall wild cat-domestic hybrid.These British big cats or BBC,s are certainly nothing like any other species known,what,s more,they couldn,t of got here by natural selection alone.These cats as a whole seem to display an adaptation to the variability and fluctuation of enviroments as well as natural selection of specific enviroments.In other words they seem to show a process that distances them from one enviroment that they could of come from such as ,for argument sakes,South East Asia as i don,t believe they are native to this country in the truest sense of the word,they have adapted themselves to where they live,a process that cannot happen over night and takes many,many generations to hone and develop into something that is as perfectly adapted as they are.Centuries in fact.

Of course there are very rarely classic,thick set,large headed black panthers and possibly also pumas but these have prefered other,remoter parts of the country and not in Sussex though they may have passed through.Many people who say"i think it was a black panther"then go on to describe an animal that quite clearly wasn,t one but fits the bill of a British bigcat.When not knowing exactly what they have seen witnesses,in my experience,often fill in the gaps so to speak and proffer a name they know will be recognized ,this catalogueing is well meant but blatantly flawed.
So,these British big cats are what exactly?Well it may be that they are some sort of bred down version of leopards,capable of mating with them,a sub-species,but it,s blindingly obvious even to the most casual of bigcat enthusiasts that they are visibly distinct.The many releases from last century merely topping up if at all an already existing population that are more suitably adapted to living in this country than the leopards per se as there would surely be more actual 100%,24carot black panthers around.

It,s often said that to account to sceptics for big cats existance they were "released on the "70,s after the dangerous animals act and that,s that" but i,m convinced by the lack of evidence of sightings of actual black leopards that this is only a tiny part and an almost irrelevent part of bigcat history.

For a start,the Romans brought massive amounts of big cats of all shapes and sizes over for their gory,prisoner maulings and gladiator fights,in Yorkshire recently,Archeoligists unearthed a gladiator that was found to be mortally wounded from such a fight with a tiger.Some of these animals would most likely to of escaped but i reckon that as the country by the time of the Plantagenets in the Middle ages was at its maximum sustainable human population of around 5 million and a similar amount of ground was cultivated as it is today but with most people living then were working the land,there were most likely be little room for cats if it were,nt for the invading Normans back in 1066.

They systematicaly ethnically cleansed huge areas of particular forest and heathland for hunting,especially deer,and threatened the deer-coursing Saxons with death if they took any with their greyhounds.Even by Henry the 8th,s time these huge royal hunting estates existed,sparcely populated and then only by estate workers and they were teeming with deer denied to the locals.I reckon by now a very small,visibly distinct interbred population of by now British big cat roamed the place a fact explaining the animals we have today.However there is not a lot of written evidence of this which is easily explained by the absence of most things countryfied written down anyway, i tried to find some sort of history of shepherd dogs back then and was stumped by finding there is none though they did exist,that is the problem with written "history".The only people who could write then were either in the ruling classes,certain tradesmen or the clergy and these sorts of people would only write about what interested themselves just as we do today.

Fast forward to the Industrial Revolution and the mass exodus of people to the new citys opened up new areas of the country to the bigcats seeing as they require unhindered ground to hunt coupled with this was the advent of foxhunting and a little later the new sport of flying bird shooting which created a new habitat of copses and ground that didn,t go on forever.It mustn,t be forgotten that prior to the Enclosures Act the countryside was a very open ,barren place up to the late Middle Ages comprised of strip farming and these new sorts of cover like hedges and fox coverts were absent.It is this sort of cover that big cats require to move and hunt around the country.So,the tapestry of the English countryside has changed over the centuries with each step becoming more favourable to cats leading us up to the Victorian times,it has to be that this is the latest possible time that the BBC,s started to form their particular type that we know so well.The Victorian and Edwardian middle and upper classes were very keen on all things nature and imported exotic pets like black leopards from Africa and particularly South East Asia through ports in the then colony of India.Travelling circus,s were also very popular and even exist to this day.

By the 1930,s however the big cats principal food source the roe was at an all time low and extinct in many parts of the country including Sussex,existing only in small pockets,in fact Sussex roe deer have stemmed mostly from intentional and accidental releases from the Petworth estate as have our local black fallow deer more recently,therefore the big cats in Sussex would themselves not be particularly spread across the county for this reason alone mind you the rabbit population was incredibly massive at this time up until 1953 far,far bigger than it is today so i would of thought the cats could of survived on rabbits where they could eke out an existance dodging the gin traps that were popular at this time.The outbreak of WW 2 saw rationing and the end of the heady days of the "30,s when once again exotic pets were popular like the black leopards,unfortunately or maybe luckyly many of them were released due to the lack of food and there are numerous examples of people doing this on the South downs and also the moors in the west.In fact after the end of hostilitys the Channel was teeming with fish seeing as it was far too dangerous to launch boats in the u-boat infested waters likewise the downs was full of game which were turned into military training grounds and the public were banned from entering.Armed Home Guards were posted but were only supplied with 3 rounds each to prevent them "helping themselves".After the war rationing was still in progress and the demobbed army descended on the countryside in droves only failing to wipe the rabbits.

1953 will always stand as the year myxy broke out wiping out rabbits to the tiniest fraction in numbers of their former selves,the deer were also very low in number and it,s no accident that bigcats were few and far between but by no means not around and it wasn,t until the late "80,s that sightings started to step up a gear mirroring the by now increasing numbers of roe and rabbits.The "87 hurricane gave deer a real boost though as with,what was it 10%of trees felled,in places nigh on all of them and the resulting opening up of the leaf canopy gave rise to secondary growth which roe especially thrive on which had been denied them by the collapse of hazel coppicing earlier in the century.Plus,the then conservative government in "88subsidised tree planting and introduced tax relief on forestry ownership with such an effect that the total area of wooded areas in Britain has increased by 25% since then to give a total now of 11.5% of total land mass(Actually the German blockade of Britain in WW1 prevented the import of Scandanavian spruce to shore up the coal mines and the country realised that the then 6% of total wooded area wasn,t nearly enough)Anyway,the point is that there is a lot more wood around for the deer and they have been steadily increasing ever since,paralelled by the British big cats that hunt them.............