COLUMN: Wildlife Matters

There have been many claims over the years that stag beetles live in North Yorkshire.  (S)
There have been many claims over the years that stag beetles live in North Yorkshire. (S)

This month, Robert Adams explores cryptozoology – the study of ‘hidden’ animals – and asks what unknown creatures might be lurking undiscovered in North Yorkshire:

In 1955, a book was published in French called Sur la Piste des Betes Ignores.

The English version appeared in 1958 with the directly translated title of On the Track of Unknown Animals. The author Bernard Heuvelmans coined a word to describe the subject matter of his book: cryptozoology – the study of “hidden” animals.

In his work, Heuvelmans speculated there were species, in some cases spectacularly large, which had escaped the attention of science. He speculated there were both totally new and undescribed species and species believed by the scientific establishment to be extinct which still lived.

New species are discovered and described every year, of course; in most cases small birds, animals and insects, hidden from science by virtue of being tiny creatures in large forests or oceans.

Heuvelmans, however, argued that animals, as large or larger than those known about, were unknown because of their ability to escape notice.

On the Track of Unknown Animals concerned itself with the possibility of creatures such as mammoths, dinosaurs, giant flightless birds and relict human ancestors living in remote parts of the world.

Could it be possible that in our own area of North Yorkshire there are species which are unknown or unconfirmed – species which should not be here and could be considered to come under the term cryptozoology?

In an earlier article I asked whether the stag beetle, a large insect not easily overlooked, could have a viable population in this area.

There have been many claims over the years to support such a possibility. So far, no specimen has come to light to confirm it apart from a damaged individual found near the Al, which could have arrived via a motor vehicle.

Following publication of my article, I was contacted by three people with very interesting information regarding the possibility of stag beetles living in this part of the country.

A lady told me that she had found one dead at the base of her patio window. She was familiar with stag beetles after living in an area of southern England where they occur and had not thought it unusual to find them here at the time.

A gentleman told me of a dead tree from which stag beetles emerge in summer, but I have not yet managed to see any.

I was told that someone locally did indeed possess a specimen, but I was mysteriously not allowed to see it.

The nearest known stag beetle colony is in Mulgrave Woods, near Whitby – if they can be there, why not here?

Birds are the most mobile of creatures. They are masters of the skies, some species quite capable of flying to anywhere on the planet.

Others are highly sedentary, living and breeding in the same small areas all their lives. It is the latter which are most likely to have their populations known about.

After hundreds of years of human interest in birds, you would think that they had all been located and knowledge of them be widespread.

Yet I am persistently being told, usually by people a generation older than myself, of where birds nest, or used to nest – birds which really should not be here, according to the ornithologists.

Girl buntings, close cousins of the much more common yellowhammer, are, according to the ornithological literature, birds inhabiting the coastal counties of south and west England.

Yet I was reliably informed by a man, now unfortunately passed away, that they nested in scrub habitat along the River Ure, between Masham and Ripon during the 1920s and 1930s.

He also averred that woodlarks were breeding in the same area at the same time.

When I suggested that they may have been tree pipits, he became adamant that he knew those birds well and that he knew the difference between them and woodlarks.

During the 19th century, the Ripon Gazette carried reports of nightingales singing in gardens in Ripon and of crowds gathering to hear them.

Did they breed locally at the time? Is it possible that they still do? I am given reports, virtually every spring, of nightingales singing during the night.

It is easy to dismiss them as robins or blackbirds without being certain.

The list of bird species alleged to occur locally could be added to considerably –are they all cases of mistaken identity? Or are there some unsolved mysteries here?

The most famous and – for many people –the most fascinating, local cryptozoological case is that of the big cat.

Are there big cats living wild in Britain and do we have some in our part of North Yorkshire?

A few years ago a regular dog walker on Quarry Moor, on the southern outskirts of Ripon, told me that early one morning they had seen what the thought was a large black labrador apparently eating something in the long grass of the main field.

When it got up, its high powerful shoulders, long body and low-held head left them in no doubt they had seen a black panther.

Within the last month I have been told of a possible big cat not far to the north of Ripon.

Are there creatures large and small, not yet identified, hidden in the woods and thickets of the countryside and concealed by the darkness of the night? I am certain of it, and the truth, as the saying goes, is out there.

lHave you seen any big cats in the countryside around Ripon?

If so, let us know the details by emailing or write to The Editor, Ripon Gazette,1 Cardale Park, Beckwith Head Road, Harrogate, HG3 1RZ.