One particular event in the Wildcraft week was the highlight for most, and it was something we could never have planned and could only have hoped for..!
We were almost at our new camp. After walking for nearly three hours from Embercombe, everyone was exhausted and ready to sit down. Mark was enthusiastically marching ahead, until he stopped and crouched on the ground, tracing the shapes of some animal prints in the mud with his fingers. Everyone gathered around, intrigued. Mark looked puzzled, ‘For a print this big, you’d think it was a dog…But strangely, the print shows no claw marks above the pads, and is therefore much more like a cat print.’ It was clear that if the prints had been made by a cat, it must be a very, very big one.
Everyone became quite excited and asked lots of questions, some going on ahead to find more prints. Mark then told us the tale of a local farmer who had said he believed there to be a big cat living in Haldon Forest. He had once been to the zoo and heard the mating call of a big cat, then had returned home to the edge of the forest to hear the same call echoing through the woods, sending his own, domestic cats, running inside.
We then continued the rest of our journey, deciding to return the next day to take some photos and maybe some casts of the mysterious prints. That night there was a lot of talk of the big cat that might be living in the woods; some wanted to try and find it and others were a bit worried about the potential of its presence. Mark reassured everyone that even if such an animal lived in the woods (which was actually very unlikely), it would come nowhere near to human beings and would know we were coming from miles away. Some were disappointed and others were relieved..!
The next day, we rose early to listen to the dawn chorus and then did some more activities. By the afternoon everyone was tired and there were a few grumbles about the walk home. Thoughts of the big cat had faded, but people got excited about the prospect of getting closer to deer, now they had developed their quiet walking and stalking techniques. Walking up through the forest that day was a proud moment for us as instructors, as compared with the crashing and giggling of the day before, everyone demonstrated real skill and control in their walking, meaning that despite the size of our group, we hardly made a noise as we moved through the trees. Shortly, we reached the track where we had found the prints and stopped to take a closer look. We took a few photos and put a coin next to some of the prints to demonstrate the scale. It was clear that people had developed their tracking techniques, as many were discovering more of the same print further up the track.
We were all about to start walking again, when suddenly something happened. I looked up to see Kate with her hand over her mouth and watched Mark drop his stick in amazement, I then turned around to see what they were looking at and watched other people ahead of me do the same. On the bank, leading up from the track into the forest, there was a big, black cat, staring at us all as if it had been surprised. It froze for a few seconds, long enough for us to see that this was like no other animal we had seen in the wild before, and then it ran off into the trees. My memory is of it being jet black, with shiny fur, at least a metre long in body, with a long black tail. Within seconds, three of the participants had taken their shoes off and were heading off into the woods after it to get a closer look. Coming out of our shock, we called after them, suddenly realising it might not be a good idea to be chasing after a wild animal!
They returned, excited, having seen the big cat again through the trees. One boy claimed to have looked straight into its yellow eyes! Still buzzing from our experience, we made our way back to the road and back to Embercombe, each sharing what we had seen. Mark said he thought it was a puma. He left us shortly before we arrived, heading back into the woodland to see if he could get another glimpse. As soon as we got through the gates, people were running to go and tell Stu and Dan, who hadn’t been with us. Of course, they didn’t believe us; it seemed like exactly the sort of thing we might have decided to make up to trick them. Eventually, after questioning many of us on our own experiences, they were convinced by our correlating descriptions of the event.
When we told Joey about the puma, he told us that he had seen an animal of the same description a couple of times at Embercombe. But that’s another story…