During the summer of 1810, in northwestern England, a mysterious beast went on a rampage, killing hundreds of sheep until it was finally brought to bay.
The Lake District is one of the emptiest and most remote regions in England. Located on the western coast about halfway between Glasgow and Liverpool, it is an area of hills, lakes and forest, inhabited only sparsely by small villages of sheepherders. It has not changed much since the 19th century. And it was here, in 1810, that one of England’s strangest mysteries took place.
In May 1810, near the village of Ennerdale, one of the local sheep was found dead, half-eaten. This in itself was unusual—the only predators native to the UK that were large enough to take down an adult sheep were wolves, and they had been almost completely exterminated way back in the 1400s. The sheep had also had its internal organs consumed but not its muscle meat, and it appeared as if most of its blood had been drained—another oddity.
But the incident became even more unusual, however, on May 10, when a local farmer named Mossop, in the nearby village of Thornholme, happened to see, at a distance on one of the hills, an animal that he did not recognize. It looked, he thought, like some sort of giant dog.
A hunting party was organized, but saw nothing. Meanwhile, sheep continued to be found dead. At first, it was one each night: after several weeks, the predator, whatever it was, began killing several sheep at a time, often eating just bits and pieces from each one. By summertime, the local villagers were referring to it as the “Girt Dog” (“Great Dog”), and by now dozens of hunting parties had tried and failed to catch it. Most times, the hunting hounds refused to follow the trail: occasionally one or two pursuing dogs would be killed. In rare instances, someone would catch a glimpse of the fleeing beast. While the descriptions sometimes varied, they seemed to converge on a doglike animal, very large, brownish in color, and with stripes on its back. The more superstitious of the locals began calling it “The Vampire Dog” or “The Demon Beast”. Shepherds were afraid to go out into the fields; children were kept indoors.
Then an outsider from the town of Whitehaven, a beer brewer who happened to own 3,000 acres of sheep ranch in the Lake District, offered a reward of ten pounds to anyone who killed the Beast, and also offered free beer to hunting parties in search of it. Soon, there were dozens of posses swarming over the forested hills. They all came up empty. Professional game hunters arrived from all over the UK, and at one point a group of hunters pursued the “Girt Dog” for a distance of twelve miles before losing it. On another occasion, a hunter named William Jackson had the Beast in his sights, but his gun misfired. Poisoned sheep carcasses were scattered around and various traps were set and baited, to no avail. Almost nightly, the Beast would strike, at a different farm every time. By the end of summer, there were reports of some 300 sheep having been killed.
Finally on September 12, 1810, a group of hunters surrounded the Beast in a field and succeeded in wounding it in the back legs before it ran off. The hunters pursued, and a local man named John Steele managed to kill it with a shotgun. The “Girt Dog” was dead.
The carcass was proudly exhibited in a number of pubs before being taken to the local museum at Keswick, where it was mounted by a taxidermist. What ultimately happened to it is unclear. Most reports indicate it was lost after the museum closed in 1876. Some claims have it being still seen in a local museum’s collection in 1950. In any case, it is gone now.
So, what was the “Girt Dog of Ennerdale”? Contemporary descriptions of the dead body noted that it “looked like a wolf but was not a wolf”, and that it was like a dog but also like a cat. One person described it as a cross between a mastiff and a greyhound, and it was also said to be “a smooth haired dog of a tawny mouse-colour, with dark streaks in tiger-fashion over its hide”. The animal was placed on a scale and, it is reported, found to weigh about 8 imperial stone (roughly 125 pounds).
On the face of it, that sounds like a pretty good description of the Thylacine, also known as the Marsupial Tiger or Marsupial Wolf, which is native to Tasmania, in the far-off Pacific. In its native home, the Thylacine was a predator who lived mostly on small prey such as birds or marsupials like potaroos and bandicoots, but could also perhaps tackle larger animals like kangaroos (there is some dispute between modern researchers about just how powerful the unusually-long jaws may have been). When Europeans began to colonize Australia and Tasmania, Thylacines were often accused of killing sheep or even cattle (and it was said that they killed them by draining their blood), but it is likely that this depredation was exaggerated. Nevertheless, the “Tigers” were relentlessly hunted and poisoned. The last known Thylacine died in a Tasmanian zoo in 1936, and although there are still occasional unsubstantiated sightings in the remote wild, the species is now believed to be extinct. But many researchers and “crypto-zoologists” have concluded that it was a Thylacine that was being pursued in England in 1810.
Could the Girt Dog have actually been an escaped Thylacine that had been brought to England as part of a menagerie or traveling circus show? It is possible. The island of Tasmania was settled by Englishmen in 1803, and by 1808 specimens had already been sent to Europe for scientific description. But the Lake District is pretty remote even today, and it’s hard to see how a traveling animal show could have had something as exotic as a Thylacine on display there without generating a lot of publicity and attention. Also, contemporary descriptions of the “Girt Dog” do not mention what would have been some of the most notable and unusual characteristics of the Thylacine—the marsupial pouch on the stomach, and the oddly long and widely-opening jaws.
Some investigators have therefore concluded instead that the unknown beastie is more likely to have been a Striped Hyena from Africa, which the descriptions also seem to fit. But although the Hyena was well-known in Europe since before the time of the Romans, that too would have been a rarity in England in 1810 and would have produced a lot of attention.
It remains a mystery.