Beast of Exmoor: Is there a wild cat on the loose? What about a lone wolf scavenging the area? Or is there a devilish entity running amuck? But when it comes to folklore, it doesn’t stop short of some interesting tales to say the least. TAP TO GET PODCAST
From devilish footprints in the snow and waking up to slain sheep, to spotting pumas out in the wild and wolf legends, something has been silently stirring up London’s villagers for centuries.
After launching Cryptids Across the Atlas nearly a year ago, Cody and I quickly realized how similar stories worldwide are true. There are dozens of Bigfoot stories ranging from the Chuchunya to the Fouke Monster. There are also dozens of underwater creatures ranging from the Dobhar-Chu to the Ningen. It’s simply fascinating to me how many different versions of cryptids there are from around the world. So when it comes to stalking feline-like cryptids, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that many of these types of stories are also passed down.
While many of these sights and stories vary in description, location, and timing, the very thing that unites us through these tales is that we all have experiences we can’t quite explain. It’s easy to rationalize many of these occurrences with easy-to-believe theories. But then there are times when no matter how hard we try, coming up with a believable story isn’t in the cards for us. And the United Kingdom is certainly no exception. The UK has had its fair share of peculiar events for centuries, including mysterious footsteps, missing livestock, and the hushed rumors of wild beasts stalking small towns and villages. So as we explore some of these strange phenomena, I’ll let you judge what has caused such fear and turmoil these last hundred years.
It had been an unusually bone-chilling winter for residents living near Exmouth, Devon, in 1855. With the Exe and Teign rivers frozen solid and temperatures never giving way to even the slightest bit of thaw, each snowfall only created a thicker blanket. So when residents awoke from their wintery slumber on February 9th, they were stunned at what they saw. Seemingly stretched between 40 to 100 miles around the South Devon coastline, “unusual cloven, hoof-like shape marks” were scattered across the freshly blown snow.
According to a letter written to the editor of the Exeter and Plymouth Gazette, the strange events are as follows:
“The return of day-light revealed the ramblings of some busiest and mysterious animal, endowed with the power of ubiquity, as its footprints were to be seen in all sorts of unaccountable places – on the tops of houses, narrow walls, in gardens and courtyards, enclosed by high walls and palings, as well as in the open fields. There is hardly a garden in Lympstone where his footprints are not observable, and in this parish, he seems to have gamboled about with inexpressible activity. Its tracks appear more like that of a biped than a quadruped, and the steps are generally eight inches in advance of each other, though in some cases twelve or fourteen, and are alternate like the steps of a man and would be included between two parallel lines six inches apart.
The impression of the foot closely resembles that of a donkey’s shoe and measures from an inch and a half to (in some cases) two inches and a half across, here and there appearing as if the foot was cleft, but in the generality of its steps the impression of the shoe was continuous and perfect; in the center the snow remains entire, merely showing the outer crust of the foot, which, therefore, must have been convex.
The creature seems to have advanced to the doors of several houses and then to have retraced its steps, but no one is able to discern the starting or resting point of this mysterious visitor. Everyone is wondering, but no one can explain the mystery; the poor are full of superstition and consider it little short of a visit from old Satan or some of his imps.”
Alongside this letter, there had also been a few hand-drawn illustrations sent in comparing the footsteps in an attempt to uncover the mystery behind them. But no matter the actual cause behind the footprints, whether animal or human trekking through snow, this story was sure to make headlines. And not without many a theory.
Many zoologists and naturalists declared these footprints nothing more than a badger or otter’s foot. Others thought it to be a Surrey puma or a wolf with the idea that whatever the exact nature of the animal, it had probably escaped from captivity. Some even argued wild kangaroos or an “extraordinary hopping frog.” Which, in hindsight, would be a rather giant frog if associated with a kangaroo’s hop. But I digress.
Others took a more superstitious or religious approach. As the previous letter states, these footsteps resembled a donkey or a goat’s hoof. And since goats throughout history have been associated with the devil, many residents theorized they had been visited by Satan himself.
Regardless of this unsolved mystery, one thing is for sure. Having spooked the five surrounding towns and villages within Exmouth, it was enough to rattle the men to grab their shotguns that next morning and await the figure’s return. Although, we’re not sure if it ever did.
While a few select locals followed the superstitious belief of satan taking a scenic stroll through the neighborhood late a night, nothing ever came of this strange phenomenon. Yes, there were mysterious footprints. Yes, it made national headlines. But nothing menacing ever came from this strange occurrence. As far as we know, no one ever came up missing, nor were any animals harmed in the middle of the night. With Spring’s arrival and snow melting away a month later, all was quiet. And the story was somewhat forgotten. That is, until 1983, over 100 years later.
Eric Ley, a South Molton Farmer, was running his business as usual. Tending the flock, growing the crops, and caring for his multiple acres. Every morning and every evening, the same old routine. But that had all changed when he awoke one spring morning in 1983. After drinking a single cup of black coffee and taking in that day’s news headlines, Eric always grabbed his boots by the door and walked over to the barn to feed all the livestock their typical breakfast: wheat and barley. But this wasn’t a typical morning by any means. One that would only foreshadow what was to come.
As he neared the barn, he noticed a trail of blood on the ground. Turning the corner, he couldn’t believe his eyes. One of his ewes had been slaughtered, with her throat having been cleanly ripped out. Immediately, he got up and checked out all the other livestock, only to the surprise that this was the only injured animal on the premise. Confused about what happened to his sheep, he cleaned the area and discarded the remaining sheep’s body.
Keeping a watchful eye from the backdoor of his house, Eric never saw anything out of the ordinary. All his other sheep acted as if nothing ever happened as they grazed on their food. Sleeping with his shotgun next to the bed and one eye open, Eric wanted to be alert if he heard any strange noises in the middle of the night. After taking one last peak through the window, he chalked it up as a one-time occurrence and called it a night.
But, if you’ve seen Groundhog Day, you know where this is going because the next day, Eric found yet another one of his sheep slaughtered with the same sight as before, the throat being cleanly ripped out. And what followed over the next two-and-a-half months continued to be a living hell when all his livestock dwindled one by one, as did his pocketbook. Wishing this nightmare to end, Eric took to the authorities.
After an unknown monster had killed several of his sheep, The Royal Marines were called in to search for this “Beast of Exmoor,” as it was later coined. But unfortunately, not only were the Royal Marines intrigued in finding this monster, but so were photographers and local enthusiasts. Especially after the Daily Express offered a reward of $1600 if captured on film. Once this was announced, dozens of locals scoured the area, hoping to find this creature. However, once the fascination took off, A Ministry of Defense spokesman ordered the Marines to withdraw from their search in fear of accidentally “shooing the bounty-hunting photographers instead.”
Much of the growing popularity faded after the Royal Marines were called off. And over time, national media eventually stopped covering the stories altogether as they believed it was a “poor relation of the Loch Ness Monster.” Many farmers still lost large numbers of livestock but were chalked up to accidents, diseases, or even wild dogs. Although the hype slowly dwindled, it’s worth mentioning that there were a few Beast of Exmoor t-shirts and coffee mugs exchanged amongst Christmas gifts.
However, in the Spring of 1988, a local farmer lost a valuable foal due to similar circumstances from Eric’s a few years prior. Taking the situation to the Ministry, one man said he believed the foal to “have been born dead,” in which another said, “the body [was] attacked by a fox.” Still, the farmer insisted that the foal was surely alive and well one minute and attacked by something much larger than a fox the next. This farmer’s foal incident reprised the Beast of Exmoor’s story.
One such account included the story of what was believed to be a puma sighting. Only this time, no other animal seemed to be harmed. A highly successful businessman, Rod Brammer, had been “lying in bed at around midnight when [he] suddenly thought, ‘it’s too bloody quiet out there.’ Normally, you can hear a cow bellowing or the ducks in our pond splashing around. [He] shone the torch across out to [his] window, and there it was, just sitting there. [He] thought, well, I’m blown, so it does exist.” After he spotted the creature, he quickly grabbed his wife and son to look through the window.
Moreover, his 13-year-old son claimed to have seen the creature climb a tree a few weeks before, but Rod didn’t believe him then. However, he became a true believer when he saw the claw marks in the bark, 25 feet high.
And if you asked Mervyn Nicholl of Hilltown Farm, he’d tell you that he and his brother had seen big cats on their land many times in those days. His last sighting occurred in 1988; Mervyn shared, “It was a fantastic cat going at a hell of a speed. Every time it moved, you could see the lights shine back across its ribs. [The big cat could] jump a hedge 15 feet from standing, with a fair-sized lamb in its mouth… I know it might hurt people to say there are cats 140-150lbs in weight roaming around out there. But it’s true. The local people know what they have seen”.
If you align with the idea that a large animal, such as a panther or a Surrey puma, left the mysterious tracks or slaughtered Eric’s sheep, then several people share that belief with you. In fact, numerous alleged sightings of a puma running amok through the forests and fields surrounding London.
Take Edward Blake, a farmer in southeastern England, for instance. According to Edward, a Surrey puma had been raiding his farm in Crondall, Hampshire, for more than two years, where it had injured his steer and had dragged away one of his large calves.
But these weren’t just speculations. No, Edward claims to have seen the puma with his own eyes. One night, after hearing a shrill scream unlike any he had ever heard before, Edward grabbed his rifle and ran outside to investigate. That’s when he heard a loud thud and something significant fall out of an ash tree a few yards away. When experts from the London Zoological Society later examined its hair and paw prints, they concluded it was exactly as they expected: a wild puma.
With the ever-growing sightings of the “Beast of Exmoor” came more and more belief that the beast was nothing more than a wild cat – be it a puma, a jaguar, or a black panther. This common belief was practically due to the previous law passed in the 1960s, “making it illegal to keep large cats in captivity as an individual.” And according to Nigel Brierly, a horticulturist, field biologist, and a previous gardener to the Earl of Bradford, shared, “It’s always been fashionable to keep a puma. In those days, they were cheaper than a dog.”
But there’s just one flaw in this puma theory. There can’t possibly be only one beast. Given that the “typical maximum lifespan of these species is approximately 14 years.. it’s unlikely that a single animal would have accounted for all sightings”.
And although a Devon farmer found a puma skull in 2006 and was confirmed by the British Big Cats Society, the official statement stated otherwise. “Based on the evidence, DEFRA [Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs] does not believe that big cats are living wild in England.”
However, another possible theory doesn’t involve felines but more so in the way of the “dog family.” According to former Jungle Tracker, Sgt. Maj Andy Wilkins of the Royal Marines, his Beast of Exmoor theory, follows that the culprit is more of a huge dog rather than the common puma speculation. And many would take this a step further than just being a wild dog, but a wild dog such as a wolf. What’s interesting to note is that this wouldn’t be the first time a wolf had been the culprit of missing livestock. In the winter of 1904, a grey wolf known as the Hexham Wolf or the Allendale Wolf escaped from the local zoo and killed off many livestock in Hexham and Allendale Northumberland.
On December 10th, 1904, a headline titled Wolf at Large in Allendale shared reports from farmers having to be forced to house their animals at night after losing so much livestock in the last 2-3 weeks. Several wolves had been speculated to be the culprit, even going so far as to find several wolf carcasses in the area. However, as many had claimed, these wolves were of different ages or sizes.
In fact, a “Wolf Committee” had been formed with a pack of local foxhounds searching for the wild beast. But despite their efforts, the killings continued while never finding the culprit. Although, the body of a wolf had turned up about 30 miles away when it had been killed by a train. And seemingly, no more sheep had been slain. However, the only caveat to this finding is that a “puzzled zoo owner pointed out that this wolf was fully grown and that a cub was still on the loose somewhere.”
While we’re still not sure the Hexham wolf was the true culprit of the slain livestock later discovered in the 1980s, it’s also doubtful due to its 14-16 year lifespan.
Though, I think it’s worth mentioning that in 2014, the Allen Valleys Folk Festival kicked off, featuring a wooden sculpture of the Allendale Wolf. And side note, if you’re a fellow Whovian, you’ll love this tidbit. When the Museum of Classic Sci-Fi was threatened by planning authorities a few years ago, locals boarded up the wolf sculpture in complete Dalek fashion in an attempt to save the museum. I think there’s a Bad Wolf joke somewhere; I just can’t quite place it.
It seems century after century, farmers from around the globe have found their most prized livestock slain overnight. Mysterious deaths and disappearances, unfortunately, happen all too often, leaving us to wonder what creatures hide in plain sight. Interestingly enough, our last two stories may have the answer. And media to prove it.
In April of 2021, Lisa Deer and her fiancé Nathan Deer had been hiking near Yeovil, Somerset. As they were exploring the English countryside, that’s when Lisa spotted it. In what was covered by 10 inches of grass about 500 yards away, Lisa had to do a double take in stunned belief. As they stumbled upon the prominent black figure, Lisa and Nathan got their phones out to take a video because they knew no one would believe them.
Lisa said, “It looked like a big black cat – I definitely don’t think it was a domestic cat. It was just running across the field, and I’m not sure where it’s living or if it’s in one elf the local wooded areas – it’s not something you expect to see in the morning, anyway. We’d say it’s the size of an Alsatian, and it looks like it’s got a longer tail than a normal cat, anyway. It was definitely big – we were standing in the middle of the field, and it was quite a distance away, and if you put a house cat in the field, [the grass] will probably cover it. I don’t know much about cats, but everyone in the yard was saying, ‘Oh, it’s a puma.’ It’s certainly not your normal average cat; put it that way.”
What’s more, a neighbor claimed to have spotted a big black cat in the same field days before Lisa and Nathan’s encounter, but Lisa remained unconvinced. Until it stood right in front of her. In Lisa’s words, “It’s one of those things that until you see it, you don’t believe it.”
And if you ask Sam Aston, he’d tell you from personal experience that he’s a true believer. Sam, a local dog walker near Bradford, Devon, was taking his dog for a walk when he came within yards of a big, black cat. When he got his phone out, it took off running into the field. But not without Sam first capturing the creature on camera.
According to Sam, “It was about 11:45 am, and I looked to into a big open empty field to my left and 200 or 300 yards away a black animal was running. I couldn’t make out what it was, so I grabbed my phone and took a pic[ture] for identification purposes. I’m a bit of a wildlife photographer, and I automatically went through a list – was it a dog, a deer, a cow? I started to check off these animals. It ran like a cat, but there’s no cat of that size in this country. It was the size of a big Labrador. It had a big long tail, and I watched it running for about 10 seconds. And then it was gone. I know what I think it was, but the idea of seeing a big cat in the UK is very, very unlikely. I’m a professional dog walker and know what a dog runs like. And dogs and cats run very differently. If it was a big cat, it was probably released years or decades ago. They’re shy animals and don’t seek conflict – I’d be more than happy to go back there again.’
The Beast of Exmoor is by far not the only cryptid that has terrorized towns and villages, only never to find the real culprit. This is true of many Chupacabra sightings and continues to be true for many other cryptids. Even the most skilled search parties, hunters, researchers, and scientists alike have often come short of finding the truth about the world’s most mysterious and strange phenomenon. When deciphering what’s real and fake, even with visual proof, we always seem left with a question mark above our heads.
I guess the only way to be sure the Beast of Exmoor truly exists is to follow the famous words of Nigel Brierly, “The only way we’ll ever prove these things exist is by catching one.”
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Thanks for touring Cryptids Across the Atlas. Until next time, keep your eyes open. You never know what you might see just on the edge of the road.