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Caithness Field Club Bulletin
THE SHEEP EATER(S)
On a Summer Programme coastal walk from Armadale to Kirtomy during August 1980, after the lunch break I wandered away from the assembled eaters, you can guess why, at not more than 10 yards distant from the diners lay an "unwrapped, unstuffed" sheep, the classical picture of the work of a killer, or gang of killers, now quite familiar. The killing must have been some months earlier from the condition of the remains, but the picture was typical.
From the summer of 1977 a particular type of dead sheep started arriving at the laboratory mostly via the police, you might say the Sheepicide Squad. A dead sheep is perhaps an overstatement, the remains of a dead sheep was generally the case because anything edible had in most cases disappeared leaving the skull, (without musculature larynx, pharynx, tongue and eyes) the spinal column and ribs, with the sternum and thoracic contents missing, the fore and hind leg bones with the muscle and soft tissue filleted away from the skin down to the knee and hock joints respectively from which down to the feet were still untouched.
Such carcases came from Melvich, Skerray, Kirkton, Armadale and from the Wick area. The amount of the carcase consumed varied from the complete "filleting" of the Kirtomy and Kirkton carcases through those of Skerray and Wick, where in the latter case only the thoracic and abdominal contents had gone leaving sternum, fore legs, head and neck intact, to that of Armadale where only a "window" over the left side of the neck over the Jugular vein had been opened. Obviously it depended when, and if, the diner(s) had been disturbed before the meal was over.
Reports of sightings of unusual animals had been coming into the Police at Bettyhill since 1975 when a family of tourists sighted an unusual animal crossing on to the islands in the Naver. Late in 1975 a Police Sergeant in the Strathclyde Police up Strathnaver on holiday saw a strange animal with a rabbit in its mouth leap over a deer fence around the forest near Syre in one bound. On September 3rd 1976 sheep at Brandy, near Tongue were reported as having been killed in an unusual manner. On October 3rd at Armadale a similar picture was found. In the late winter of 1976 a Mrs. Mackay of Talmine, Tongue driving her car hit a "huge cat" holding a rabbit in its mouth. The car was considerably bent. In January 1977 a Forestry Warden at Bettyhill went hunting this animal but saw neither animal nor tracks. On 1st February a Mr . Macleod, Strathnaver reported a lot of sheep missing with some killed in the typical manner. Next report was in June 1977 when C. MacDonald of Farr reported sheep missing and some typical killings.
In December 1977 a 9 month hogg seen alive
on 17.12.77 was found dead on 18. 12.77 with interesting bites on the right
side of the neck and a "window" on the left side through which the cervical
vertebrae could be seen. This came from the Armadale area.
However a fair sized squad of armed police searched over a large area of West Sutherland specifically for this animal between December 12th 1977 and late spring 1978, and saw no animal. They did however find many typical carcases, up to 13 one day, especially on the ridge between the Naver and the Borgie. Later in September 1978 sheep were reported missing from the Crask area of Bettyhill. Some were found typically killed, some were never found. It was not until February 12th 1979 that another kill was reported, again from the Swordly area. Next kill was April 1979 in Naver with no reports until September 1979 when A. J. Mackay of Swordly reported 3 sheep killed in typical fashion and 11 missing.
At the end of September a South African couple stay!ng at the Ben loyal Hotel in Tongue saw what they described as a "puma" in the Loch Eriboll area and watched it through binoculars.
During this period several submissions of unusual material were received at the Veterinary Investigation Laboratory, Thurso. The carcase from Armadale in December 1977 was one where the diner had started his meal but then been disturbed. There was an elongated tear on the left side of the neck with the skin undercut and the subcutaneous tissue, fat and muscle extracted so that the cervical vertebrae were visible but the left jugular vein and carotid artery were undisturbed in their normal positions but without any tissue around them. On the right side of the neck about 2 inches up from the base were two pairs of puncture wounds penetrating the skin only and doing no farther damage. In the submandibular region adjacent to the right ramus of the jaw were multiple puncture wounds, many penetrating the skin. The trachea was intensely congested, the lungs congested and oedematous.
On July 6th 1978 an ovine carcase 3-4 months old was received; it had been found on hill ground near Kirkton Farm and was owned by a Melvich man. The carcase was fresh having probably been killed the previous night. Again the killer had been disturbed as the head and neck this time were intact showing multiple bite wounds around the jugular areas on both sides. This skin has been preserved. The thorax had been opened by the removal of the sternum with the ribs chewed through. All the thoracic organs and all the abdominal viscera were missing. The right hind leg had been disarticulated at the hip joint and was also missing.
Next carcase was on 3rd March 1980. This animal was last seen alive on 27.2.80. It was found dead in the late afternoon of 1.3.80 in an area where signs of a struggle extended for about 15 feet. Obviously not an easy or rapid kill. Here the jugular vein had been penetrated. There were multiple tooth marks and slashes which did not always penetrate the skin. Paired puncture penetration, presumably canine teeth showed interspace distances of between 10 and 15 millimetres. The carcase had not been eaten.
Soon after on 18.3.80 a young sheep, said to have been seen alive the night before was found in a pool of blood at Kirkton, other sheep and cattle in the area had been scattered. Here the head had been excavated, the temperomandibular joint exposed, the muscles of the jaw removed, the tongue, larynx and soft palate eaten. The thorax and abdomen were intact. There were multiple small punctate wounds in the neck skin in the jugular regions. Paired bite wounds were close together and the punctures were of small diameter.
It was November 1981 before another carcase was received, this time from the Wick area. Again a fresh carcase but the fore legs, head and neck were intact and although the thoracic organs were missing the sternum had not been removed. Again small bites in the jugular areas, sub maxillary region even posterior partoid region.
Let me now introduce two eye witness accounts described to me personally. A farmer at Armadale in May 1978 noticed a dead lamb with a hole at the point of the brisket. After he had found several more he took more interest and noticed the hearts had been removed through the holes and eaten. There were marks on the neck, scratches and teeth marks with blood flecks. So he waited up with a shot gun to try to catch the killer, eventually he saw a cat in the distance stalk and catch a lamb which it tried to kill but was unable to do so before the farmer came within range and it had to abandon its prey. Three days later the farmer, an expert shot, killed a 161b. Tom cat half wild cat half domestic cat. No more lambs were killed after that.
There are three points about this story, firstly only the hearts were extracted and eaten, secondly the cat had difficulty in killing a lamb, thirdly the cat was quite a size.
A farmer's wife at Skitten near Wick had a lady knock at her door about 7 p. m. on an August evening in 1977 saying that there was a fox among her sheep in the field near the house. She went out onto the wartime aerodrome, now a field, on a sunny clear evening. Sitting on its haunches on the runway was a strange animal about the same size of a fox but thicker with a cat like head and a long tail which was fairly thick and not ringed, as far as she could remember. There were sheep and lambs in the same field who were not taking any notice of this animal. On her approach the animal bounded across the runway into demolished war-time buildings. The farm experienced no losses or deaths of sheep.
So what con we deduce from this mass of evidence? That sheep were being killed in a manner not seen before or since between 1976 and 1981. Sightings of an unusual animal of a cat like appearance were being reported between 1975 and 1979. Material of an unusual nature was received by the Veterinary Laboratory between 1977 and 1981. That strange screaming noises were heard in Sutherland that had not been heard before or since.
From the eye-witness reports the animal has been "a huge cat holding a rabbit in its mouth" (hit by Mrs. Mackay, Talmine in her car), "leaping a deer fence with a rabbit in its mouth" (Police Sergeant Ball, Glasgow), "a huge cat" (Mr. Mackenzie. Duvedin Bettyhill who shot at it and presumably missed!), "a huge cat as big as an Alsatian" (near Farr April 1978) "a huge cat 60-80 yards away" (H. Mackay and A. Macleod in the hills above Torrisdale), "a Puma" (South African couple watching it through binoculars near Loch Eriboll), "about fox size but thicker with a cat like head and long tall" (Mrs. Benny Mackay Skitten). Then there was the cross-bred Tom cat Mark Campbell shot, or was that another story?
And the negative evidence? The searchings of Sergeant Bruce of Bettyhill in the snow and other times finding no tracks nor scratching posts nor 'larders'. The police posse which spent months driving areas toward a hidden sharp shooter (though they found plenty typical kills). The fruitless hunts by a Forestry Warden.
And the forensic evidence? Paired tooth marks suggestive of canine teeth a maximum of 15 mm apart. Most slashes and bites suggest a small tooth size though one skin section showed much larger punctures. Yet the weight of tissue removed and/or eaten could not reasonably have been consumed by a small animal however ravenous. Unless of course it only ate the good parts leaving the rest to less fussy scavengers like herring gulls, black backs, crows and foxes?
So what kind of creature could it have been? A cat of some sort obviously, but what size?
The cross bred Wild Cat Mark Campbell shot could apparently just cope with a 2 month lamb. Could it have killed a hogg or a gimmer, even if a light hill breed? Or could a full grown WiId Cat do that? Yet none of the eye witnesses mentioned "rings" on the tail through the tail was mentioned as long, also many of them were probably familiar with the wild cat. However rings on a tail is a detail which could easily be missed in a moment of excitement. Then was it an extraneous introduced species of Felidae? If so what species? The Lynx family could fit the size and appetite, but not the tail. The leopard family with its spots could not be considered as spots were not commented on by anyone, likewise the serval and genet and civet. The Kaffir cat? No, rings on its tail! Perhaps the Eastern Golden Cat? It is twice the size of a domestic cat, is long tailed with no tail rings clearly visible. Voice is said to scream at mating times. But its distribution is 8oN as its northern limit, and it is one of the least known of animals! Likewise Temminck's cat, the right size and shape but extremely rare. The Jaguarundi (Felis yagonaroundi) might be considered for appearance and appetite but it is a cat of the forests feeding on large birds and small mammals, even fruit. The caracal from Asia in the past was trained to hunt for its owner in India but its correct name Lynx caracal gives the clue that it does not fit the picture because of its short tail.
Then there is the puma (Feiis concolor) alias the cougar, alias the Mountain lion. It is from 5.5 to 8 feet long if the tail, which is more than 1/3rd the total, is included. A male will weigh up to 220 lbs. and they are long lived, up to 19 years even. They are solitary in behaviour most of the year. In America their main diet is Mule deer, porcupine and about 5% grass with occasional snowshoe hare, even elk depending on the region. The deer are killed by catching the shoulders in the front claws and biting the back of the neck. They may predate sheep killing far more than they can eat, perhaps only drinking the blood.
Deer are eaten by opening the abdominal cavity then the liver, heart and lungs are consumed. After feeding the carcase is covered by litter to hide it and the killer will return several times to the kill. The puma can make great bounds across the ground to escape or attack prey and will leap considerable heights.
So there are the suspects and there is the evidence. Who done it? (Perhaps it was the butler!)