Trevor Beer MBE (1937-2017) – conservationist, naturalist, cryptozoologist, artist, author, and a longstanding friend of mine (© Trevor Beer)
In June 2017, I was greatly saddened to lose one of my oldest and dearest friends in cryptozoology, when the award-winning Exmoor naturalist and veteran British mystery cat researcher Trevor Beer MBE, aged 80, passed away, following a short illness. Within the realm of cryptozoology, Trevor was well known and well respected in equal measure for his longstanding and outstanding Exmoor Beast investigations, his classic book on the subject, and his own significant, first-hand sightings of a very large black pantheresque cat on the moors, but in the wider world of Westcountry natural history he was an absolute colossus.
RIP Trevor, thank you for all of the exceptional work that you have done for wildlife and nature conservation down through many decades, for all of your delightful books and articles, and above all for your friendship, dating back more than 30 years. God speed, my friend, you will be sorely missed by so many souls, human and animal, but your magnificent achievements will live on forever as a wonderful testimony to you. If anyone wishes to seek Trevor's monument, visit Exmoor and look around, and there you will see it, on every side, everywhere.
Trevor at a book-signing session for his book Trevor Beer's Nature Watch (1998), for which I was delighted to write a foreword (© Endymion Beer)
Commemorating Trevor's life and works, I now have great pleasure in reprinting below, as my own personal tribute, an interview that I conducted with him on 8 March 1998 and which was subsequently published during 1999 in The X Factor – a fortnightly partwork magazine published in the UK during the late 1990s, running to 96 issues in total, and devoted to mysteries of a great many kinds (but entirely unrelated, incidentally, to the somewhat later TV music talent show of the same name).
Back-cover X Factor advertisement for issue #79, which contained my interview with Trevor – and also my article re New Guinea cryptids (© Marshall Cavendish Limited – reproduced here on a strictly educational, non-commercial Fair Use basis for review purposes only)
Trevor Beer is a naturalist with a lifelong passion for wildlife conservation in his native Westcountry, especially Exmoor. He is a member of the Ministry of Defence's Conservation Group and is the Army Ornithological Society's Representative for Devon and Somerset. He won the coveted Gavin Maxwell Award for otter conservation in 1974, he owns a wildlife reserve in North Devon, and currently writes three regular nature columns for the Western Morning News, including his daily 'Nature Notes' and weekly 'Countryside Matters'. He is also the author of several books, including Devon's Mysterious Walks, Tarka Country, Poachers Days, and his most famous work, The Beast of Exmoor: Fact or Legend?
Trevor has been conducting extensive field research in the Westcountry concerning mysterious big cats for two decades, he can claim several sightings of such creatures, and is unquestionably Britain's most informed and respected field investigator of these animals.
(Above) An exquisite pen-and-ink illustration featuring a mystery black panther alongside various British dragon-related cryptids and legendary entities, which was very kindly drawn by Trevor specifically for inclusion in my book Dragons: A Natural History (1995).
(Below) This is the colourised, publisher-edited version, focusing solely upon the dragons, that duly appeared in my book (© Trevor Beer/Dr Karl Shuker/Aurum Press)
The X Factor recently chatted with Trevor at his home in Barnstaple regarding his views and expectations relating to the 'beastly' feline phenomenon with which Exmoor and the Westcountry as a whole have been synonymous since the early 1980s.
Q1: When and why did you first take seriously eyewitness reports of mysterious big cats spied on Exmoor and elsewhere in Britain?
A1: I first took seriously eyewitness reports of mysterious big cats as long ago as 1967, when reports of pumas loose in the Westcountry appeared in the Western Morning News. The puma stories did not surprise me too much, as I knew people in North Devon had them as pets, at least three being kept by separate owners in the Barnstaple area where I live - the chances of occasional escapes not therefore being too surprising. I believe puma cubs could be obtained for around £30 each in those times, much less expensive, for example, than pedigree dogs.
However, from the early 1980s, following the now-famous, so-called 'Beast of Exmoor' tales, which included black big cats, I began my own investigations, simply because here was a new phenomenon, if you like - black big cats, as opposed to the usual, if varying, puma colours. My own first sighting of a black big cat, at Whitechapel, near the Drewstone site - which is the site that was made famous by the so-called sheep massacres in 1983 - convinced me that I was looking at a black leopard. And from then on I was rather hooked.
Trevor's most famous book, The Beast of Exmoor: Fact or Legend? (1984) (© Trevor Beer/Countryside Productions)
Q2: Do you believe that more than one species of mystery cat is being seen - and, if so, what do you think they may be, and how many different species do your researches suggest may be living in the Westcountry?
A2: I know there are both pumas and black leopards living in the wild on Exmoor and elsewhere in the Westcountry. I know that both have bred, with cubs seen on a few occasions. It is possible that a lynx or two are present in the wild too, and of course an Asian leopard cat Felis bengalensis was shot dead at Widecombe on Dartmoor in recent years. I also interviewed a fellow who told me he had released two jet-black African golden cats Felis aurata after they grew from cubs in captivity and became difficult to keep. From personal experience, I'd say two species live in the wild in the Westcountry for certain at present - the leopard (in its all-black, i.e. melanistic, colour form, popularly termed the black panther) and the puma. But there could be two or three other species.
A lampshade bearing several of Trevor's beautiful drawings that he prepared specially for me, including the Beast of Exmoor as seen here, takes pride of place upon my black panther table lamp - (Above) My lampshade; (Bottom Left) My black panther table lamp; (Bottom Right) My glass table with a black panther depicted upon its pedestal, and upon which my black panther table lamp stands (© Dr Karl Shuker)
Q3: Where do you feel that these creatures have come from, how long have they been reported on Exmoor, and how are they able to survive here?
A3: Mysterious big cats have been reported on Exmoor for many years, long before the Drewstone incident occurred. I think they have come from very old captive situations, including menageries, perhaps even from Roman times, as well as from the various acclimatisation societies in Britain and Europe in more recent years. We then have an added modern situation, whereby many people were keeping exotic pet animals from the 1950s and 60s to the present day.
I believe the Dangerous Wild Animals Act of 1976 also played a part, in that when regulations governing the keeping of such animals were toughened, so releases occurred. I see no problems in terms of the animals surviving. There is at present ample food in the wild. There are also thousands of acres of cover, including huge tracts of forest, and a climate that is quite mild for most of the time, certainly here in the Westcountry.
Sketches by Trevor's of the black pantheresque mystery cat that he saw at Whitechapel in summer 1984 (© Trevor Beer)
Q4: What has been your closest encounter to date with a mystery big cat?
A4: I've had many close encounters, from 30 metres to a few hundred metres. Just recently, two of us watched a black leopard along a green lane. This was here on the Exmoor fringes, because there is a seasonal movement of these cats in the Westcountry, off the higher moors and high ground to lower-lying farmland during the winter. This of course makes sense, the weather being far worse up on the higher moors than in the low-lying farmland. In my most recent sighting, the animal became quickly aware of our presence, and disappeared into a copse to one side of the track we were all on.
Other encounters included the sighting of a puma in broad daylight, charging down across Exmoor's Challacombe Common, whilst I was leading a natural history field trip of around eight or nine people. The cat was running towards us, with its tail up, and veered away to disappear into a combe to the east of where we stood. Needless to say, I suggested that we ignore the animal and carry on with our field trip, and that is exactly what we did.
Ready to set off for the Westcountry in search of the Exmoor Beast with Trevor during August/September 1993 (© Dr Karl Shuker)
Two newspaper reports from September 1993 documenting my visit to North Devon at that time to conduct some field investigations of Westcountry mystery cats with Trevor on Exmoor and elsewhere (© (Above) North Devon Gazette, 2 September 1993; © (Below) Sidmouth Herald, 4 September 1993 – both of them reproduced here on a strictly educational, non-commercial Fair Use basis for review purposes only)
We now have no difficulty in locating and observing a big cat if we wish to, given two or three days in which to do so. The thing is to sit up in areas where you know that they are likely to be, or where they have territory, because they come back around to former sites, as a rule, over a fortnight or three weeks to a month period of time. So you should be able to work out, roughly, where a big cat might be within a few days. And of course, once you get a sighting, you're away.
I've grown very fond of them, and hope to continue my studies of their natural history this summer, and to film them in the wild - more to prove that they are not as bad as some suggest, and are merely surviving in the rather alien world they have been placed in by irresponsible owners. I have no wish to film them in locations which, by showing a film publicly or via the media, might give away their whereabouts.
Merlin (2008), a thrilling novel written and illustrated by Trevor that tells the fictional story of a black panther in the Westcountry (© Trevor Beer/Halsgrove)
Q5: In your estimation, how many individual mystery cats might there be presently living in the Westcountry?
A5: It would be futile to try to estimate how many individuals there may be in the British countryside, but I'd estimate between 12 and 20 such cats in the Westcountry, bearing in mind that even with a breeding situation, it is unlikely that many cubs reach maturity, and thus numbers will remain stable but are not likely to increase dramatically - a situation rather like that of the otter, one might say.
Q6: In your opinion, what would be the ideal governmental response to the long-running controversy as to whether mystery big cats really do exist in Britain?
A6: It is difficult to suggest what the government's response to the presence of mystery big cats and other carnivores should be. I do not think they should spend public money on removing them, unless they follow through with even tighter controls, including a ban on the keeping of such animals by members of the public. It seems quite wrong to me to trap, or more likely kill, the cats, yet allow the people who lost or released them to get away with it. Prevention is better than cure. I feel it is very unfair on the animals if this situation is permitted to continue, even should the present cats in the wild be captured. Without a ban, quite obviously the situation will simply continue.
WHITHER THE WOLVERINES?
Trevor Beer has also witnessed in the Westcountry some specimens of what he considers to be another non-native species of carnivore - a giant relative of weasels called the wolverine Gulo gulo, officially confined to the northernmost reaches of Europe and North America.
He and a colleague were conducting a wildlife survey near South Molton, Exmoor, in early January 1994 when they spied two unusual animals running along a disused railway line. No more than 40 yards away, each of the creatures was 3-4 ft long with a very thickset body, bear-like in general form except for its long bushy tail. Its fur was also very dense, and dark brown in colour, bearing a paler horizontal stripe along each flank. This description does not even vaguely recall any animal species native to Britain, but it perfectly matches the morphology of the wolverine.
Other Westcountry wolverine reports emanated from St Audries, Somerset, in February 1994; and during the spring or early summer of that same year, a dead wolverine was apparently sighted beside a road at Wembworthy by Joanne Crowther, a photographer visiting Devon from London, who did not realise the significance of her observation until she later described the carcase to some naturalists. The Westcountry reports followed similar accounts recorded from Dyfed in Wales, and dating back at least as far as February 1992.
But where could wolverines, which are seldom kept even in zoos in Britain, have come from? At least as far as the Westcountry specimens are concerned, Trevor can offer a very thought-provoking explanation: "My enquiries have led to the likelihood that these wolverines may be escapes from fur farms in England, and wolverines of course are more likely to take sheep than cats are".
Another of Trevor's delightful wildlife novels – Old Red: The Story of a Devon Fox (2002) (© Trevor Beer/Halsgrove)
[During our countless communications by phone and letter down through many years, Trevor also mentioned to me a number of other mysterious creatures that have been reported on Exmoor and elsewhere in the Westcountry at one time or another; of particular interest to me were sightings of alleged phantom Black dogs, strange extra-large foxes or fox-like canids with grey fur referred to locally as hill foxes, and even a supposed (but never captured) escapee binturong – an exotic Asian civet often termed a bear-cat on account of its bizarre combination of superficially ursine and feline morphological features.]
ARE MYSTERY BIG CATS DANGEROUS TO HUMANS?
Throughout his many years of personal researches into the Westcountry's mystery big cats, Trevor Beer has always maintained that he doubts these animals pose a serious threat to humans - unless they are harassed or persecuted. He considers that the most sensible course of action to pursue in relation to such creatures is simply to leave them well alone, and not even to follow up on sightings. Indeed, as is so often true in human interactions with other animals, it is conceivable that the biggest threat is posed not by the cats but by people: "I must say it does concern me that some idiot, somewhere, will attempt to shoot one, and perhaps wound it, in which case the wounded animal may well then turn nasty".
As Trevor points out, it is not yet widely known but the police do have wildlife liaison officers now throughout the U.K. Hence he advises anyone who encounters a mystery big cat to report sightings to the police - "...or simply let the animal be. Never attempt to corner or trap it in any way is the best policy to adopt if you see one of these cats". Sensible words - so let us hope that they are heeded by everyone.
Endymion Beer, Trevor Beer, Trevor's son Robin, and I, at Wistlandpound Reservoir, Exmoor, during my very enjoyable week-long stay with Trevor and his family in Barnstaple, North Devon, during August/September 1993 (© Dr Karl Shuker)
At the present time of writing, Trevor's website Countryside Matters can still be viewed online here.
A gorgeous, highly-detailed illustration of a dragon that Trevor kindly prepared for my book From Flying Toads To Snakes With Wings (1997) (© Trevor Beer)