Contemporary picture postcard depicting the infamous Hexham (Allendale) wolf, from my personal collection (© Dr Karl Shuker)
Whereas Britain's unofficial feline fauna has attracted immense attention from the media and the general public (albeit rather less so from the scientific community) for several decades now, its equally unrecognised canine contingent has received far less notice, yet is no less intriguing and controversial. To redress the balance somewhat, therefore, here is a selection of UK crypto-canid cases that I have investigated and documented down through the years.
Quite a variety of British mystery dogs have been reported, including some extremely large beasts with decidedly Baskervillian overtones (comparable to the controversial Beast of Gévaudan that terrorised France during the mid-18th Century – click here for my extensive analysis of this highly contentious case). They have often blamed for savage killings of sheep or other livestock.
Reference print for Hound of the Baskervilles (Collection of the National Media Museum, no restrictions)
These are surely nothing more unusual than run-wild hounds, or crossbreeds with various of the larger well-established breeds (e.g. mastiff, great dane) in their ancestry. Typical examples reported include an enormous black creature with a howl like a foghorn, hailing from Edale, Derbyshire (Daily Express, 14 October 1925); a beast the size of a small pony sighted on Dartmoor by Police Constable John Duckworth in 1969 and again in 1972 (Sunday Mirror, 22 October 1972); and a sheep-slaughtering marauder stalking the Welsh hamlet of Clyro, Powys (Sunday Express, 10 September 1989). Notably, Clyro is actually the locality of the real Baskerville Hall – its name was borrowed by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle for his fictional, Dartmoor-relocated equivalent.
Even today, some remarkably lupine mystery beasts are sighted spasmodically in Staffordshire’s wooded Cannock Chase (e.g. Stafford Post, 30 May 2007). Some have opined that these mystery dogs are wolves. However, according to many authorities, the last verified wolf of mainland Britain died in Scotland during either the late 17th or the early 18th Century (opinions differ as to the precise year, but 1680 and 1743 are two popular suggestions).
The murderous Hound of the Baskervilles as depicted upon the cover of a book by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (public domain)
Incidentally, long after the last Irish wolf was killed, in County Carlow around 1786, there were rumours that small wolves existed on the Isle of Achill, just off Ireland’s western coast. Traditionally, these have been assumed to be wholly mythical, but in a letter to me of 21 February 1998, British zoologist Clinton Keeling provided a fascinating snippet of information on this subject - revealing that as comparatively recently as c.1904, the alleged Achill Island wolves were stated to be “common” by no less a person that okapi discoverer Sir Harry Johnston.
Also of note here is that according to Michael Goss (Fate, September 1986), when foxes became scarce in a given area, hunters would sometimes release foxes imported from abroad - until as recently as the early 1900s, in fact - and that in some cases it seems that these imported ‘foxes’ were really jackals or young wolves.
A supposed grey wolf Canis lupus blamed for numerous livestock killings near Monmouthshire’s Llanover Park in 1868 was never obtained (The Field, 23 May 1868). Conversely, after a long hunt during winter 1904 for an unidentified sheep-killer in Hexham and Allendale, Northumberland, a wolf was finally found - discovered dead, on 29 December 1904, upon a railway line near Carlisle. As John Michell and Robert Rickard discussed in Living Wonders (1982), it was initially thought to have been an escapee belonging to a Captain Bain (sometimes named as Bains) of Shotley Bridge, near Newcastle, which had absconded in October, but his wolf had only been a cub, whereas the dead specimen was fully grown. A visiting American later claimed that the Hexham wolf’s head, preserved by a taxidermist, was actually that of a husky-like dog called a malamute, but several experts strenuously denied this.
When the supposed wolf responsible for several sheep attacks between Sevenoaks and Tonbridge in 1905 was shot by a gamekeeper on 1 March (Times, 2 March 1905), it proved to be a jackal C. aureus. Interestingly, as noted by Alan Richardson of Wiltshire (The Countryman, summer 1975), an entry in the Churchwardens’ Accounts for the village of Lythe, near Whitby, North Yorkshire, recorded that in 1846 the sum of 8 shillings was paid for “One jackall [sic] head”. As this was a high price back in those days, it suggests that whatever the creature was, it was unusual. By comparison, fox heads only commanded the sum of four shillings each at that time.
The common or golden jackal C. aureus (© Thimindu/Wikipedia CC BY-SA 2.0 licence)
In May 1883, R. Payze met some men travelling to London, who had caught three very young, supposed fox cubs while passing through Epping Forest. Payze bought one, naming it Charlie, but as he grew older it became clear that Charlie was not a fox. When shown by Payze to A.D. Bartlett, London Zoo’s superintendent, Charlie was readily identified by Bartlett as C. latrans, North America’s familiar coyote or prairie wolf.
After receiving Charlie for the zoo, Bartlett investigated his origin, and learnt that a few years earlier four coyote cubs had been brought to England in a ship owned by J.R. Fletcher of the Union Docks. They were kept for a few days at the home of a Colonel Howard of Goldings, Loughton, then taken to Mr Arkwright, formerly Master of the Essex Hunt, and released in Ongar Wood, which joins Epping Forest. Bartlett found that the local people acquainted with this forest well recalled the release of the coyotes, which they termed the ‘strange animals from foreign parts’ (The Naturalist’s World, 1884).
To the untrained eye, some coyotes can look superficially vulpine (© Justin Johnsen/Wikipedia – CC BY 2.0 licence)
Charlie was clearly a first-generation offspring of two of these original four; and those, or their descendants, no doubt explained the periodic reports thereafter from this region regarding grey fox-like beasts, occasionally spied yet never caught by the hunt - but how did this strange saga end? Did Epping’s coyotes simply die out, or did they establish a thriving lineage? And, if so, could there still be coyotes here today?
Intriguingly, in the Countryman (summer 1958), Doris W. Metcalf recalled having seen some very large, grey-furred wolf-like beasts near Jevington prior to World War II; she had assumed that they must be “the last of an ancient line of hill foxes”, or perhaps some surviving fox-wolf hybrids (but fox-wolf crossbreeding does not occur, and even it if did, it is highly unlikely that any resulting offspring would be viable). In May 1974, a similar animal, said to be 2 ft tall with a distinctly fox-like tail, was spied by Thomas Merrington and others as it slunk around the shores of Hatchmere Lake and the paths in Delamere Forest, Kingsley (Runcorn Weekly News, 30 May 1974).
A grey-coated coyote, the identity of Jevington's 'hill foxes'? (© Dawn Beattie/Wikipedia – CC BY 2.0 licence)
When the Isle of Wight’s mystifying lion-headed ‘Island Monster’, allegedly maned but otherwise virtually hairless, was finally shot in 1940, it proved to be an old fox in an advanced state of mange; almost all of its fur had been lost, except for some still covering its neck, creating the illusion of a mane (Isle of Wight County Press, 24 February 1940). During the 1980s, Exmoor naturalist Trevor Beer was shown the carcass of a strange grey fox killed at Muddiford; its pelage consisted almost entirely of grey under-fur (hence the fox’s odd colour) - due to disease-induced hair loss, or perhaps a mutant gene? (There is on record a rare mutant morph of the red fox Vulpes vulpes known as the woolly fox in which the harsher outer coat is indeed largely or entirely absent, with only the softer, woollier under-fur present.)
In January 1990, a peculiar fox-like beast with blue-grey fur was spotted seeking food in a snow-covered field at Cynwyd, Corwen, in North Wales, by farmer Trefor Williams; after capturing it with a lasso, he brought it home. His unexpected find, duly christened Samantha, was a blue-phase Arctic fox Alopex lagopus, another species not native to Britain (Daily Post, 2 February 1990). Back in March 1983, an Arctic fox had been killed at Saltaire, West Yorkshire, by David Bottomley’s collie (Sunday Express, 6 March). Their origins are unknown.
In February 1994, an Arctic fox was discovered in the courtyard of Dudley Castle, in whose grounds stands Dudley Zoo, but it had not escaped from there. Yet again, its origin remains undetermined (Wolverhampton Express and Star, 15 February 1994).
So too does that of the female Arctic fox shot in the early hours of 13 May 1998 by a farmer from Alnwick, Northumberland, after he discovered it eating one of his lambs; its body was later preserved and mounted by local taxidermist Ralph Robson (Fortean Times, September 1998). Curiously, just three months earlier, a male Arctic fox had been shot less than 30 miles away. Could these have been an absconded pair?
Finally: On the evening of 13 March 2010, cryptozoological correspondent Shaun Histed-Todd was driving a bus along a Dartmoor road when he saw a most unusual creature run down the edge of the moor and stand at the road side, where the bus’s headlights afforded him an excellent view of it for roughly half a minute before it ran back up onto the moors (Shaun has asked me not to make public the precise location, to protect the animal). Shaun contacted me a few days later, as he was unable to identify it, and provided me with a detailed description, whose most notable features were as follows. It resembled a young fox and had a bushy white-tipped tail, but its coat was dark silvery-grey, it had noticeably large ears, white paws, and a black raccoon-like facial mask. Reading this, I was startled to realise that Shaun’s description was an exact verbal portrait of a most unusual yet highly distinctive animal – a young platinum fox. After checking photos of platinum foxes online, Shaun confirmed that this is indeed what he had seen.
Arising in 1933 as a mutant form of the silver fox (itself a mutant form of the red fox), its extraordinarily beautiful and luxuriant fur meant that platinum foxes were soon being bred in quantity on fur farms as their pelts became highly prized. But what was a platinum fox doing on Dartmoor, where, as far as I know, there are no fur farms? The platinum condition results from a dominant mutant allele (gene form), and as it has arisen spontaneously in many unrelated, geographically-scattered fox litters since 1933, perhaps it has done so again, quite recently, in a litter of Dartmoor foxes. Shaun has since learned of other sightings of this animal, with one made only 2 miles away from the site of his own observation.
Clearly, Britain's unofficial canine fauna may have more surprises still in store for us.
This ShukerNature blog article is an expanded version of various extracts from my books Extraordinary Animals Revisited and Karl Shuker's Alien Zoo.