As the cold unrelenting winds tear across the moors of England, strange looking creatures are often sighted, sometimes accompanied by unnerving howls and growling. Several regions of the country have their own names for these beasts and their legends date back hundreds of years. These areas include Norfolk, Suffolk, the Cambridgeshire fends, Essex, and the now famous Dartmoor area.
Is the legend of the Beast of Dartmoor and his kin true? The story is complex so let’s begin.
The legends seem to start in the 1100s, somewhere around the arrival of the Vikings on the Norfolk coast. If you remember history, the Vikings marauded their way around Britain and terrified its inhabitants. So it’s no surprise that the locals attributed the ferocious black hounds they were seeing in the area to an old Scandinavian myth that said the Norse god Odin’s black hound was let loose on the countryside to wreak havoc on the world.
Myths aside, the important aspect of this story is that people were seeing what they thought were ferocious black hounds haunting their countryside.
Then on August 4, 1577 a famous attack occurred in city of Bungay, Suffolk county. During a terribly fierce thunderstorm, the alleged “Black Dog of Bungay” broke into the church where frightened locals were gathered, killed at least two of them and mauled many more. Then suddenly, it disappeared.
Later that evening, St Mary’s Church in nearby Blythburgh reported its own encounter with the beast. Supposedly as it exited the church, its claws dug into the heavy church door and left scars still visible today.
The Black Dog of Bungay is still so alive in peoples’ minds that the beast has been incorporated into the town’s coat of arms, and many buildings in the town sport images of it. There is even a Black Dog weather vane atop a central lamppost.
The Black Dog of Bungay is sometimes associated with the Black Shuck, another rendition of a hell hound. The Schuck is a spectral hound that haunts the Norfolk and Suffolk coasts. Even today, people report seeing this beast and they believe that seeing it portends a death or disaster of some kind.
In the late 19th and entire 20th centuries, encounters with the beast take on a more gentler, protective tone. Some stories report the beast accompanying women home as if protecting them, while others report it helping lost travelers.
Some have said that what the people of Bungay experienced that August day in 1577 was a severe thunderstorm that struck the church. They explain that in that era people were very superstitious and attributed all sorts of things to the devil, in this case under the guise of a beastly dog.
That may be true, but apart from that day, people were seeing these animals in the countryside. People described these dogs as being large for a dog, the size of a calf, or the size of a pony (the ponies in that area are miniatures). Locals describe their eyes as malevolent flaming eyes that are either red or green and saucer size.
Nowadays the sightings have changed somewhat. On Dartmoor the prevailing theory is this beast is some kind of large cat. Lions and pumas are the most often mentioned. Where did the dogs go, then?
Back to history: in the 1600s wealthy landowners commissioned menageries on their property where they could house exotic animals from other lands. Many researchers suspect these animals got away and started living and reproducing out on the moors.
Adding to that, in 1976 the Dangerous Animals Act was created that made it hard for anyone to own a big cat or other unusual beast. They levied a tax on these owners and required them to have special licenses. The cost was prohibitive, so many got rid of their animals. Would you like to guess how they got rid of them? Many believe they were let go, into the wild.
So that begs the question – could these big animals survive out there?
Lots of prey walk the moors in the form of sheep and wild ponies. Many carcasses have been found with their necks ripped open, and most of the carcass eaten. Big cats or dogs could survive quite nicely in that environment.
So What is Roaming Britain?
The answer is there isn’t just one beast, there are multiple beasts. Skeptics say that people are seeing things on the moor that they’re mistaking for the diabolical creatures. One story they love to site is the one where a hiker took several good photos of a large, hairy black animal from a distance. He shared the photos with the media, only to receive a phone call from a woman claiming that the “beast” was her large Newfoundland dog who regularly visits that area on his daily romp.
See the photo to the right – these dogs ARE huge. Males average 28 inches (71 cm) high and weigh 150 pounds (67.5 kg).
We looked up the history of this breed and found some very compelling clues. From the Canada’s Guide to Dogs website, “The Canadian Kennel Club Breed Standard for the Newfoundland Dog states that “the breed originated in Newfoundland from dogs indigenous to the island, and the big black bear dogs introduced by the Vikings in 1001 A.D. …While the exact origin of the Newfoundland Dog is debated, the three most common theories are that the breed: a) evolved from the now extinct Black Wolf which was crossed with the Asiatic Mastiff; b) developed by crossing native dogs/wolves with the dogs the Vikings brought to Newfoundland around 1000 AD.
“Today, the Newfoundland Dog is seen all over the world and most purebred Newfoundlands, even in Newfoundland, are descended from those born in England.”
Here’s how they describe the breed’s appearance: “The Newfoundland is massive, well muscled and co-ordinated, carrying himself with dignity. … His coat is flat, dense and water-resistant. The outer coat is moderately long and straight but can have a slight wave. The hair on the head, muzzle and ears is short and fine and he has a soft, dense undercoat. The traditional Newfoundland colour is black. He may also have white markings on the chest, toes and tip of the tail.”
Is that what people are seeing? In some cases, it seems very likely, especially if they are describing dog sightings. This may also account for the tales of the “beast” escorting women home and helping travelers – Newfies are known for their gentleness and protectiveness. So, maybe, maybe not.
Other sightings clearly describe a feline beast with either a heavy mane, or a very long thin tail. Sounds like a lion or puma.
The team from Fact or Faked Paranormal Files did an excellent job investigating one particular sighting. Here’s the link to the video so you can see what they saw:
They compared the size, appearance, and gait of the animal in the video to a real lion, to a native pony, and to a wild boar. We thought the lion would be the winner, because the lion’s mane and the beast’s mane were similar. However, the beast’s gait was markedly different from the lion’s.
The team’s conclusion was this case is still open.
PS — Boars and lions cannot mate and produce offspring. It it biologically impossible.
In CryptoVille, we believe there are multiple beasts being sighted from strange, large hounds, to large wild cats. We think it’s more than likely that animals who were abandoned or escaped from humans went feral and are surviving quite nicely on the moors. There may also be wild Newfoundland dogs roaming the moors, who are able to mate with wolves, so they may look different than the purebreds.
Some of these other animals may have changed and adapted over the centuries too, so they may look a bit different from their counterparts in Africa and other lands today. But until we can find them and scientifically identify them, they’ll still be considered cryptids and marvelously mysterious creatures of the moors!
Til the next time!