Big cats still a myth – but at least the beaver is real
Every now and again – particularly on slow news days, funnily enough – we are bombarded with reports that a massive wild cat has been spotted in one of the wilder parts of the West Country. Vicious it is, angry and hungry, capable of swallowing a lamb whole or killing a bull with one swipe of its super-sharp paws.
The stories are always told in the scariest, most sinister way possible and it's not long before you're sweating hard, reaching for a blunderbuss and ushering your loved ones into a heavily barred room. Until, that is, you read further and the doubt sets in.
The problem isn't so much the sincerity of the witness accounts but the nature of the people delivering them. There are always exceptions, of course, but those who come across these dangerous cats generally seem to fall into certain categories.
First there are the almost professional spotters who attended a course in feline studies at Glastonbury's Gandalf University but for me they always seem to have too much hair and pseudo-science. Then there are the ageing yokels who live in remote cottages – honest and chapel-going but as they left the parish only once just after the war on a charabanc trip to Wadebridge their knowledge of panthers, pumas and other exotica must surely be scant. And then there are the gung-ho Young Farmer types who really want an excuse to don combat fatigues, arm themselves to the teeth and drive Dad's Land Rover out across the moors at midnight on a big game hunt.
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Further questions arise at the lack of photographic evidence. All of these folk, with the possible exception of the ageing yokels, will be laden down with cameras, zoom lenses, camcorders, the lot – even the smallest mobile phone has optical capabilities that Hollywood could only dream about until a decade ago – yet all they produce are a few shaky and distant images that are just as likely to be a bin liner as a leopard.
But the clincher must be the fact that no one has yet struggled into a police station to dump the body of one of these creatures on the counter. I just know that if big cats really were roaming our fields by now at least one of them would have been run over, garrotted in some stock fencing or found fried at an electricity sub-station. Or, perhaps, found floating about in some bloke's slurry pit.
Yes, after three or four years of hearing rumours about a feral beaver swimming up and down the Tamar, I at last know they are definitely true because the poor little blighter has been rescued from the bovine ordure at a farm near Plymouth and has lived to tell, or squeak, the tale.
If it's the same little chap, how eager he must have been when he was given a new home at Lifton on the Devon and Cornwall border in 2008. Not only was the weather likely to be a little kinder than in his native Bavaria but he was given two nice little girlfriends.
Soon, though, they escaped and even though his companions were quickly caught, our hero has spent the intervening years dodging escape, prompting tall stories and, presumably, wondering all the while if he was the last beaver left on Earth.
He was at any rate described as "dishevelled and looking rather unhappy with life" when he was found but was taken to the Dartmoor Zoological Park at Sparkwell.
I'm sure he will be found a permanent and suitable home with a fresh harem but a question to ask in passing is what was he doing here in the first place? After all, the beaver disappeared from this part of the world in the 12th century so any of his kind is unlikely to find it a familiar or hospitable place almost a thousand years on.
The reintroduction of species – wolves on Dartmoor, bears in the Scottish Highlands, etc – is trendy but often ill-thought out. Not least is the danger posed to the existing wildlife and the habitats which they have learned to thrive in through the intervening years.
Beavers, for example, damage river banks and trees, alter water courses and eat, or at least hinder, wild salmon. By the sound of it, the escapee from Lifton wasn't too comfortable either.
But whatever the arguments, we all now know that there really was a beaver dodging about because you can nip over to Sparkwell and look at the thing.
Not so with all those big cats. They remain in the slurry lagoons of the mind.