Wiltshire's Wild Cats

on Thursday, 28 March 2013. Posted in Wiltshire Tales

Over the past thirty years or so there have been more and more reported sightings of large cats in Wiltshire and its neighbouring counties.  What has triggered my personal interest in this subject is an encounter experienced by my husband during autumn last year. As he was driving up Lyneham banks between Dauntsey Lock and Lyneham he saw an unusual animal crossing the road before him. He described it as being the size of a small Labrador dog, black in colour but with the gait of a cat. It resembled a small Black Panther which is actually a Leopard in species. He was certain that it was not a domestic cat as it was way too big and certainly not a dog, badger or fox. This animal may have been the same one that has been sighted in the area over the last two decades including one in Grittenham in 1994. 

It is widely believed that when the government brought in the Exotic Pets Act in 1976, some owners of exotic species set their animals free. The main reason for this was to avoid new legislation regarding mainly health and safety issues.  It is more likely that over the years a very small handful of fauna not native to Britain, have escaped and reproduced in our countryside. With some species this has certainly been the case. The American Mink and the Signal Crayfish have had a significant damaging impact to our wildlife.

Wiltshire’s history seems to be closely tied with large cats. In Malmesbury Abbey churchyard stands a tombstone. The inscription reads:

“In memory of Hannah Twynnoy, Who died October 23rd 1703, Aged 33 years, In bloom of life, She’s snatched from hence, She had not room to make defence; For Tyger fierce, took  life away, And here she lies, In a bed of clay
Until the Resurrection Day.”

More recently it was discovered that there had also been a memorial to her had been in Hullavington church, where perhaps Hannah was born. She was possibly a servant at White Lion Inn in Malmesbury, where there was a travelling menagerie, including a tiger which she liked teasing. Despite warnings from its keeper, she went too far and one day the tiger caught hold of her gown and tore her to pieces.

Clearly Wiltshire folk should have been wary of travelling menageries. Unfortunately this was advice was not heeded by the driver and passengers of the London to Exeter mail coach, "Quicksilver" on October 20th 1816 as it  was approaching the Winterslow Hut when what appeared to be a large calf was seen running alongside the horses. This "calf" happened to be a lioness who had escaped from a travelling menagerie en route to Salisbury Fair. The lioness, which was most certainly not interested in truffles, started to attack one of the lead horses. When the mailcoach guard reached for his blunderbuss to shoot the animal, the menagerie owner set his dog on the lioness instead. The menagerie men finally calmed the lioness safely recaged her. The enterprising menagerie owner bought the injured horse, named Pomegranate (who enters our list under lion bites horse stories), to be displayed with her wounds alongside the lioness in the menagerie.

The Longleat Safari Park opened in October 1966, despite some initial local concern. This surely would have been more vocal had people been aware of the plight of the Winterslow coach party and the fate of Hannah Twynnoy! Other animals followed and there are tales of notable breakouts, including an escaped Hippo, who presumably did not require rope and tunnelling equipment, and a Sea Lion that ended up in the town park in Trowbridge.                                

More recently though there were rumours of a wild cat being knocked down and killed in the south of the county in 1996. Apparently, the Jungle cat (Felis chaus) was identified by Paignton Zoo but there is no firm proof of this identification. According to rumour, two similar cats were shot in 1975 after escaping in the West Country.

Other Wiltshire sightings have been reported in local newspapers. The Westbury and Edington area was active with sightings in the 1980’s. Other areas of note included Devizes in 2003 and Trowbridge in 2009. The last series of sightings were in Minety in 2002, when the ‘Minety Monster’ was believed to be responsible for a spate of sheep killing. A local woman had a close encounter whilst out walking with her dogs. But as with all documented sightings, the animal fled. These cats all appear to be non confrontational and frightened of people. They avoid any contact with humans hence the small few that have been spotted.

Nowadays there are many scientific and practical ways of proving that we have naturalized big cats living amongst us. Camera traps are used widely to discretely film wildlife.  Tooth pit and DNA analysis can be used to detect non-native species on suspect carcasses of attacked sheep.

The jury is out but maybe one day we will have definite evidence that there are indeed wild cats in Wiltshire….

Anna Ervine
Local Studies Assistant


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