Just recently, the CFZ Press published the book Big Cats Loose in Britain by Marcus Matthews. An excellent study of British-based reports of large, unidentified cats, the book has a long history: it was actually written between 1987 and 1990 when Marcus was still a teenager.
But finally, thanks to the CFZ, it's seen the light day!
For those interested in the mystery of the British big cat, Marcus' book is essential reading - particularly due to the fact that Marcus is one of those researchers who gets out into the field and conducts hands-on investigations; and as a result he has put together an extraordinary body of data conclusively demonstrating that something weird is most definitely afoot in the wilds of jolly old England. I caught up with Marcus last week to ask him a few questions about his book and his studies.
Nick Redfern: NR
Marcus Matthews: MM
NR: How did you become interested in the subject of big cats in Britain?
MM: It all started when I was 14. I was at the Devon Farm Park on Exmoor when a booklet in the farm shop caught my eye, which was Trevor Beer's book, The Beast of Exmoor. I bought a copy, read it, and very much enjoyed it. Then I wrote to Trevor and had quite a lot of correspondence with him. And also when I was 14, I had a sighting on the Mendips of a lynx. My mother and I were driving along and it crossed the road in front of us; it actually jumped on to a wall. I took a photo of it, but it was only in the corner of the photo that it got it. It went under a gate and into an old cattle shed. Later, we went back and found some paw prints and the remains of a dead pigeon. I also had a sighting through binoculars - about a quarter of a mile away - of a puma-like cat on Exmoor in 1987, which was in the Barle Valley, where the River Barle runs through. There have been a number of sightings there.
MM: Also in 1987, a friend of mine, Rupert, and I went down to Exmoor for a week and we were going up the Barle Valley and Rupert had a sighting of a black cat crossing a forestry track. We found traces of where it had crossed the track. Then much more recently, in 2003, a friend of mine, Mark, and I were in Wales, and I had a sighting of a black cat in a country park, near a slate quarry. That was a big panther-type cat, crossing an open clearing. I've found paw-prints on a number of occasions too - such as at Warminster, which is in the book.
NR: For the benefit of people reading this, what is the background to Big Cats Loose In Britain, what can they expect to find in its pages, and how and why did you decide to write it?
MM: The book is basically a county-by-county chronological survey of all the incidents involving big cats, starting with the earliest points in each county - at least, as far as I can ascertain. It covers escapees from traveling menageries in the early days and goes into sightings of the Beast of Exmoor in the West Country and the Surrey Puma. The book covers England and Wales up until 1990; however, when I originally wrote it I also included Scotland.
MM: But we had to leave out the Scottish sightings when it was published because of the length of the book. It's already 384 pages without the Scottish reports. There are some photos in there too. Apart from the photo of the Surrey Puma in the 1960s, most of them are from the 1990s onwards.
MM: With the book, I actually wrote a lot of it in the late 1980s when I was still a teenager. I tried a lot of big publishers; I had a literary agent. Some were interested; but unfortunately I didn't get a publisher. But Jon Downes had always said that he would be interested in publishing it; and so I went to Jon, and I'm delighted he's been able to publish it. He's done a great job, and Mark [North] is very talented and did a very good cover. It's led to articles in the Somerset Standard and the Wiltshire Times newspapers, and in the magazines Your Cat and Our Cat. So it's had good publicity.
NR: And where do you think that in both the past and the present these big cats are coming from?
MM: Some of them, originally, may have escaped into the British countryside as far back as the time of the Roman invasion. The Romans had circuses in Britain and you can surmise that they had big cats as regimental mascots, too. Also, in the Medieval period, people kept big cats. The first menagerie in England was in the 1100s - the Royal Menagerie at Woodstock. There was a panther at Chillington Hall in the 1500s which escaped; a tiger in 1750 - and other records of things escaping.
MM: Certainly, during the Victorian period there were a lot of country house-type menageries and something might well have escaped and not been recorded. I know that in Ireland they imported the Scottish Wildcat onto a number of estates, and they may have possibly bred with the domestic cat and escaped. Most of the reports seem to be of the large black cats - maybe 80 per cent - and the rest seem to be the smaller ones: lynxes, jungle cats, leopard cats, Bengal cats.
NR: And what plans do you have for the future?
MM: Well, I have a lot of material on other sightings which I hope to use in a follow-up volume. Jon wants me to do one for CFZ Press for 2009. And I'm working on a booklet at the moment about the local area.
NR: Thanks, Marcus.
MM: Thank you.
If you want to purchase a copy of Marcus' book Big Cats Loose In Britain, click here (for UK readers) and click here (for US readers). Marcus liaises closely with a number of high profile, well-respected big cat researchers in Britain, and you can learn more about his work and contact him here and here.