Dr KARL SHUKER

Zoologist, media consultant, and science writer, Dr Karl Shuker is also one of the best known cryptozoologists in the world. Author of such seminal works as Mystery Cats of the World (1989), The Lost Ark: New and Rediscovered Animals of the 20th Century (1993; greatly expanded in 2012 as The Encyclopaedia of New and Rediscovered Animals), In Search of Prehistoric Survivors (1995), The Unexplained (1996), Mysteries of Planet Earth (1999), The Beasts That Hide From Man (2003), and more recently Extraordinary Animals Revisited (2007), Dr Shuker's Casebook (2008), Karl Shuker's Alien Zoo: From the Pages of Fortean Times (2010), Cats of Magic, Mythology, and Mystery (2012), Mirabilis: A Carnival of Cryptozoology and Unnatural History (2013), Dragons in Zoology, Cryptozoology, and Culture (2013), A Manifestation of Monsters (2015), Here's Nessie! (2016), and what is already considered to be his magnum opus, Still In Search Of Prehistoric Survivors (2016), his many fans have been badgering him to join the blogosphere for years. The CFZ Blog Network is proud to have finally persuaded him to do so.

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Saturday, 1 December 2018

REMEMBERING THE BEAST OF BODALOG - A WELSH WATER VAMPIRE?


Something has crept, or has been driven out of dark waters under the mountains...Far, far below the deepest delvings of the Dwarves, the world is gnawed by nameless things.

   J.R.R. Tolkien - The Lord of the Rings


Could the Bodalog Beast have been a large snake species living in Britain and readily able to swim, such as the grass snake, as depicted here in a beautiful illustration by Heinrich Harder from 1912? (public domain)

Thirty years ago, one of the strangest, eeriest cryptozoological cases ever reported from the British Isles was making headlines nationally and even internationally, and three decades later it has still never been satisfactorily resolved. So here is my contribution to its very intriguing history, by way of an article of mine that was subsequently converted into a chapter within my book From Flying Toads To Snakes With Wings (1997) and serves now in updated form as a fitting ShukerNature retrospective to, and reminder of, this macabre yet nowadays all-but-forgotten saga.

To describe one of Britain's most bizarre mystery beasts as a water vampire may not be as melodramatic as one would first suppose - especially after considering its unique characteristics. According to media reports, during September to December 1988 its home was seemingly a lengthy river, the River Wye, situated close to the town of Rhayader in mid-Wales, from which it apparently emerged at night to kill sheep on a nearby 2000-acre farm called Bodalog, owned by the Pugh family. Unlike those of foxes and dogs, however, its victims' carcasses were not ripped or torn in any way. Instead, the only sign of their mystifying marauder's attack was a small but deep, penetrating bite just below the neck, close to the sternum or breast-bone (and which duly earned it the memorable monicker of water vampire in some media accounts). No evidence of the creature feeding upon the carcasses was found either, thus making its predatory behaviour even more weird and difficult to understand.

Nevertheless, by the middle of October 1988 this mysterious beast had killed at least 35 sheep. Its scent had been trailed back and forth to the river by foxhounds, but it was never seen or identified, and no recognisable pawprints were found either. As noted by London's Daily Mail newspaper on 10 October 1988, many suggestions regarding its possible identity had been offered, ranging from otter and dog, to mink and even to some form of snake. University scientists had examined the carcasses and admitted to being thoroughly perplexed.

Their bewilderment is not surprising, as the Bodalog beast clearly poses some singular problems, with none of the more conservative explanations satisfying the facts available.

Could it have been a native European otter (above) or a naturalised American mink (below) (public domain / © Cephas/Wikipedia CC BY-SA 3.0 licence)

Its aquatic habitat immediately rules out a fox, cat (even an escapee big cat), or stray dog as the culprit - as well as a human hunter using a crossbow, which had also been suggested by some authorities. European otters Lutra lutra are relatively large creatures, but are certainly not sheep killers. They are known to take small mammals in their diet from time to time, but nothing approaching the size of a sheep. In any event, their principal sources of food are fishes and aquatic crustaceans - and, needless to say, they do eat prey killed by them and they do leave tell-tale spoor behind.

Mink, although much smaller than otters, are far more bloodthirsty by nature. Not native to the British Isles, they now exist in a naturalised state in many parts of the country - descendants of fur-farm escapees belonging to the American species, Neovison vison. Mink have wide tastes, ranging from fishes to birds as large as moorhens, and mammals as large as young rabbits (reports even exist of mink having killed pet cats and dogs!). Nevertheless, sheep would surely be far too large for any mink to tackle successfully.

One suggestion, from an unnamed 'expert', was that some form of giant mink was responsible! Mink, however, do not normally attain a total length greater than about 26 inches in the wild, and there is no evidence whatsoever that mink of a size commensurate for sheep killing have ever existed in Britain.

A little-known species called the sea mink N. macrodon once inhabited the coastal waters of New England and the Canadian maritime provinces, and was indeed somewhat larger than other mink species, but it became extinct in the early 1880s, and is totally unknown either in living or in fossil form in the Old World.

Artistic representation of the sea mink's likely appearance in life (© Tim Morris)

Britain only has three native species of snake. [NB - herpetological researchers revealed in 2017 that there were actually two taxonomically distinct species of grass snake living here, not just one, but only one of them is native, namely Natrix helvetica; unfortunately, various media reports confusingly and erroneously claimed at the time that both of them were native and that there were therefore four native snake species existing here.] The sole venomous species is the European viper or adder Vipera berus, which is predominantly ground-living, diurnal, and feeds on nothing larger than lizards and small mammals.

Relatively more aquatic by nature are the non-venomous and diurnal eastern grass snake Natrix natrix (represented in Britain via various small, introduced, non-native populations) and its close relative the western or barred grass snake N. helvetica, the new name for Britain's native grass snake species. The preferred prey species of these two species are amphibians and fishes, though nestling birds and small mammals are also occasionally taken.

In addition, Britain has a small number of the smooth snake Coronella austriaca, again native but confined to southern England. This is another non-venomous, diurnal species whose diet consists mainly of lizards and small mammals.

Also worthy of note is the aesculapian snake Zamenis longissimus, which is a mainland European species that has established a couple of small but seemingly thriving naturalised population in Great Britain – one in central London, England, and the other in Colwyn Bay, Wales. Both populations originally arose from escapee/released specimens surviving and mating in the wild in these locations. So might the Beast of Bodalog have been an aesculapian snake, derived from the Welsh contingent? At up to 7 ft long, this species is certainly lengthier than any of Britain's native species, but just like all of them it is diurnal, and it is not venomous. Clearly, therefore, none of these five species constitutes a very convincing candidate for the Welsh sheep killer.

Vintage chromolithograph from 1909 of the aesculapian snake (public domain)

It has never been formally ascertained whether the Pughs' sheep were actually poisoned by their attacker, but if tests were to reveal that this did occur, then it is possible that a non-native and evidently sizeable, aquatic venomous snake was on the loose at that time. It could have been a pet that either escaped or, for some reason, was released, as in the above-noted London and Welsh instances featuring the aesculapian snake. Yet if this were true, then it could have potentially posed a very real, severe dilemma - for there are few animals on Earth as elusive as snakes, especially those species that are adept at travelling not only across the land but also through the water.

Perhaps, then, it is not too surprising that the sinister 'water vampire' of Wales was never seen, let alone tracked down. Its killing spree abruptly ended in early December 1988, and nothing like it has ever been reported since from Bodalog (or anywhere else, for that matter, at least as far as I am aware), so presumably it simply died (see below) - always assuming, of course, that it didn't move elsewhere. Yet if it had indeed been some form of very large, powerful snake, why did it kill so many sheep but never make any attempt to feed upon their carcasses afterwards?

Moreover, how could such a creature have survived for at least two months in the distinctly chilly climate present in mid-Wales during late autumn/early winter? After all, snakes are poikilothermic (cold-blooded) and therefore rely upon warm external, environmental temperatures to maintain their own body heat. Like all others associated with this decidedly strange saga, these questions are likely to remain unanswered indefinitely.

This ShukerNature blog article is excerpted and expanded from my book From Flying Toads To Snakes With Wings.