Somerset big cats...
...and we don't mean pussy cats
Beasts of North Somerset
Nailsea’s answer to Bear Grylis is a man called Robert Collins who runs bushwhacker training for all ages.
While usually he is getting rid of vermin from rat-infested buildings Robert is also a North Somerset big game hunter!
We should be at odds as I am totally opposed to the hunting and shooting brigade but if it came to Armageddon I would be first in line with my family to join Robert’s team with all its survival skills.
Robert writes under the pseudonym The Ole Hedge Creeper for his online Countryman's Diary Magazine which was established in 2013.
It prides itself on being strictly non-PC and the grammar isn’t too hot either.
But being academically gifted isn’t the same as knowing what wild harvest is ripe and ready for picking.
To his credit Robert has published six books which are four semi-autobiographies and a couple of recipes books ‘not just covering staples like rabbit and pheasant…gives options for pigeon, squirrel, wildfowl, venison and fish’.
He also has a line of Jack Pike clothing which includes a classical ghillie suit to blend into the hedgerows when stalking rabbits at £160!
And his company Really Wild Adventures puts on corporate days, from relaxed ‘the one that got away’ fishing trips to cross country adrenaline junkie driving in tanks and ATVs.
His 'away days' also includes ‘novelty' junkets like the Somerset cider experience from harvesting to brewing then tasting with cheese and crackers in an ancient stone barn with the traditional thatched roof.
In his spare time Robert acts as a gamekeeper and pest controller.
Many years ago, Robert’s family lived next-door-but-one to us and on a new housing estate. His terraced home had the ferrets and whippets living in the back garden and their street party barbecues had pigeon and rabbit on the menu.
Determined to Pass It On Rob currently he hosts fortnightly rifle range classes at the Ring O’Bells, trout fishing events at Jacklands Bridge and supports many West Country agricultural shows.
He said: “My pappy (his granddad Denis) always taught me every season has a blessing in its own way and for me all the colours of autumn and the anticipation of a seasons hunting is by far my favourite season.
“The November moon brings a special time as the woodcock start to fall and the late January early February brings wildfowl from far off distant lands to my neck of the woods.
“With all the whistles quacks and pops that sends a shiver down my spine as I hear the ghostly sound of the ghost riders the wild geese.”
Well that wasn’t the only shiver Robert sent out this year when he hosted with friend Danny Nineham a sell-out pub evening on big cats that roam our countryside.
Danny is an expert tracker and both men have extensive knowledge at home and abroad following paw prints.
Their roles are to protect livestock, wildlife and pets and if incidents like The Beast of Bodmin is reported here in North Somerset they will be among the first to investigate.
Robert said most sightings seen in a half light turn out to be a large dog or cat but using detective guile and forensic-style analysis on gnawed bones and animal poo he is sure a lynx-type animal is active on a country estate nearby.
Robert said: “I called Danny in to help me on a local estate here in North Somerset, I had reports of livestock being killed, then I had deer being killed.
"I went out tracking and building up a picture trying to find anymore kills than we had as these were all older kills and decomposed.
“I did find more kills on the estate, as always the first to find death is the corvids (crow family).
“It was the fresh kill of a young roe deer…and I was determined to find out if this was the kill of a big cat.”
But despite more kills in the area and using specialist thermal night imaging cameras Robert was too far away to make a positive identification of the species attacking the deer.
Was it a puma or a lynx?
Danny said: “If you have a big cat on your land its priority is to locate water, we all need water, without it you will die.
“These are the areas we need to concentrate on and set up a number of motion detection cameras.
“So, off we went to look at the decaying carcass of a roe deer.
“It was still positioned where it had been killed and eaten, so, the kill and feed site were the same location in a large field that still had the stubble left from the recent crop, in a corner close to a small section of deciduous woodland.
“The perfect spot for an ambush I thought.
“As most predation incidents I get called out to the carcass has nearly always been contaminated, picked over and devoured by other scavengers leaving very little but the skeleton.
“Now, bones can tell you a story if you know what to look for.
“A leopard will often smash with its paw the ribs of a prey animal, a puma will very often separate the vertebrae behind the head, also an exotic cat will lick the bones of its prey clean with its tongue which is like a rasp, also you can find the damage that their carnassial teeth do on the skull, so, while bent over the stinking remains I started scanning the surrounding area from a predators perspective and it didn't take me long to build a mental picture of the many game trails that run up and down the field.
“Alongside me stood Rob, shotgun in hand just in case a big cat was still lying low in the area, this is essential back up when putting yourself in a dangerous situation like I was, kneeling down acting like a prey animal over a kill and feed site.
“Into the corner of the ancient deciduous woodland I climbed over a wire fence, from this location I was able to see a well-used game trail meandering through a thick layer of English ivy creating the most beautiful evergreen ground cover with a network of paths leading of the main trail.
“I followed the game trail meticulously on my hands and knees covering every inch and leaving no stone unturned, finding plenty of wildlife tracks and sign, from squirrels, rabbits, badger, fox and roe deer, at the same time looking up into every sizeable tree for a branch that had a clear vantage point, finding a few that looked rather promising.
“Climbing over yet another barbed wire fence I ventured over to a water trough that was fixed into an open space in the hedgerow, while standing over it I looked down onto it with an aerial view and instantly spotted some tracks that were in the very tall grass leading up to the trough on the other side.
“I went back to the estate with Rob on a number of other…we walked around every field and every inch of hedge-line following it meticulously looking for any sign, pug-marks, hair, scat or a hollow that could be used for a day bed, which I found, at that moment Rob shouted over from the other side of the hedge saying, ‘come and have a look at this...’.
“Now I know why he's called the old hedge creeper...at last, something tangible, a scat, left on the surface only a few hours old. I broke it open with a forked stick from the hedgerow looking for any bones or fur, the smell was of ammonia.
“More often than not big cats will bury their scat but on occasions they will leave them along their travel trails to warn others it's their territory - lLike a fox does.
“So, to sum up our findings we have had several black leopard sightings by some very reliable locals in the immediate area, including Rob...now, if an offence was committed an eye witness testimony would stand up in a court of law, so, I class a good clear sighting as an important piece of evidence.
“Rob and his apprentice have seen three different species of exotic cats on the land, we have had two roe deer kills we know of and found the scat and a day bed plus the track evidence I discovered at the trough, alas we captured no big cat this time on camera but It's typical, a big cat will move through its vast territory silently killing undetected in most instances and finally moving on before i arrive to pick up the pieces and put them together. To be continued...”
Robert and Danny have been very careful not to reveal the actual location of their big game quest for fear of attracting hunters, big cat followers or a media fenzy.
A second The Big Cat Talk with hopefully more news of additional sightings is booked for October 27, 6-10pm also at the Ringers.
Tickets £10 including buffet from the pub, calling 0750 196 2893 or online by clicking HERE.