Monday, 8 September 2014

Alfred Leutscher, Wood Mice and the Devil’s Hoofmarks

I have been writing about Alfred Leutscher in one of my other blogs that is covering at the moment the post-war books on the keeping of reptiles and amphibians (http://waicblog.wordpress.com). He wrote Vivarium Life in 1952 and that book which I found on the shelves of the local public library started a burning interest in reptiles and amphibians. The rest is history.

As you can read in the other blog, Alfred Leutscher, a Guide Lecturer at what is now the Natural History Museum in London, was a keen and competent field naturalist as well as a prolific author on the natural world.

While finding out all I could about him, I came across his involvement in a story that has intrigued the world for over 150 years. But before dealing with his role, I need to go back to the early 1960s.

Sometime before early 1963, the BBC televised what I remember as a dramatised documentary on a phenomenon that had been reported in South Devon in 1855—the appearance during the night of mysterious tracks in the snow over a large area of Devon on either side of the Exe estuary that were termed the Devil’s Hoofmarks. Such was the impact of this programme that my friend’s mother thought it unwise of me to travel to Exmouth (one town that was subjected to the phenomenon) for a first visit to my girlfriend’s (now wife’s) then home town. She, the former, not the latter, was really concerned that the devil himself might still be in the vicinity. On and off over the years, I have seen reference to the phenomenon but only when looking up Leutscher recently did I find the whole story.

I am not going to go into any detail here since it is is so well covered elsewhere. In brief, as Mike Dash in the Fortean Times in 1994 and 1996 (combined articles at http://www.mikedash.com/extras/forteana/devil/) put it:

On the night of 8-9 February 1855 (and on one or two nights thereafter trails, resembling those of a donkey, were laid across large areas of Devon. They appeared in shallow snow, between half an inch and four inches deep, meandering through villages and gardens. Sometimes, it was said, they did 'impossible' things, such as crossing roofs, leaping tall walls, disappearing through small holes in hedges, or stopping dead on one side of a haystack, leaving its sides and top undisturbed, and commencing abruptly once, more on the other side.

The newspapers of the day went into full Victorian melodrama mode. Even The Times reported on 16 February:

EXTRAORDINARY OCCURRENCE
     Considerable sensation has been evoked in the towns of Topsham, Lympstone, Exmouth, Teignmouth, and Dawlish, in the south of Devon, in consequence of the discovery of a vast number of foot-tracks of a most strange and mysterious description. The superstitious go so far as to believe that they are the marks of Satan himself; and that great excitement has been produced among all classes may be judged from the fact that the subject has been descanted on from the pulpit.
     It appears that on Thursday night last there was a very heavy fall of snow in the neighbourhood of Exeter and the south of Devon. On the following morning, the inhabitants of the above towns were surprised at discovering the tracks of some strange and mysterious animal, endowed with the power of ubiquity, as the foot-prints were to be seen in all kinds of inaccessible places—on the tops of houses and narrow walls, in gardens and courtyards enclosed by high walls and palings, as well as in open fields. There was hardly a garden in Lympstone where the foot-prints were not observed.
     The track appeared more like that of a biped than a quadruped, and the steps were generally eight inches in advance of each other. The impressions of the feet closely resembled that of a donkey's shoe, and measured from an inch and a half to (in some instances) two and a half inches across. Here and there it appeared as if cloven, but in the generality of the steps the shoe was continuous, and, from the snow in the centre remaining entire, merely showing the outer crest of the foot, it must have been convex.
     The creature seems to have approached the doors of several houses and then to have retreated, but no one has been able to discover the standing or resting point of this mysterious visitor. On Sunday last the Rev. Mr. Musgrave alluded to the subject in his sermon, and suggested the possibility of the foot-prints being those of a kangaroo; but this could scarcely have been the case, as they were found on both sides of the estuary of the Exe.
     At present it remains a mystery, and many superstitious people in the above towns are actually afraid to go outside their doors after night.

The ‘mystery’ has continued to fuel speculation over the years with explanations ranging, as might be expected, from the supernatural  and cryptozoological to the zoological and the meteorological.

David Sealy in an article in The Skeptical Intelligencer (6, 12-19, 2003) explained how Alfred Leutscher became involved in providing an explanation for what had been seen:

The late Alfred Leutscher was, in 1964, senior Guide Lecturer at the British Museum (Natural History), South Kensington, now called the Natural History Museum. He was interested in many things, and was an acknowledged expert on animal tracks in snow, of which he had a large collection of photographs. In that year he published, in the wildlife magazine Animals (now sadly defunct)[It became BBC Wildlife, notable for many years for its Unthinking Green religious agenda] an illustrated article (Tell-tale Tracks: vol.3 no.11, pp.297–299) on the subject. At the time he had never heard about the ‘Devil’s hoof marks’. I was then a relatively junior curator in the Palaeontology (fossils) department, but on seeing Leutscher’s article I dared to draw the great man’s attention to Gould’s book. The response was immediate: he quickly identified the tracks as those of the common nocturnal wood mouse Apodemus sylvaticus (hundreds of them), hopping across the unaccustomed snow, and published photographs (1965: The Devil’s Hoof-marks: Animals, vol.6 no.8, pp.208–209) proving the point. He also addressed the Zoological Society of London on the theory… Leutscher wrote: Other trails which are made in a straight line are those of an animal which hops. All four feet land in a bunch, in a leap-frog action, so that the hind tracks are leading. When this happens in a soft medium like snow, especially when it begins to melt, the tracks become blurred and run together. The result is a ‘U’ or ‘V-shaped’ impression. Examples of such leap-frog hoppers among British animals are the hare, rabbit, squirrel, rat, and mouse.
     The drawing submitted by ‘South Devon’ shows a trail of clear hoof prints, each an exact facsimile, as if made by some tiny animal whose feet were shod. Such clear and regular prints seldom occur, since irregularities in the ground or snow cause variations in size and shape. One is tempted to think that the observer in this instance did not draw what he actually saw, but rather what he wanted to see – the hoof-marks of Satan. This is understandable, since a common human failing in most of us is to let a preconceived notion mar our judgement.
     Another drawing which I examined, by a correspondent signed ‘GMM’, has given me a clue to a possible solution to this mystery. It shows a carefully drawn set of tracks, each of irregular shape, and roughly ‘V-shaped’ in contour. This is precisely what a small hopping animal would produce in snow, and there is only one British animal small enough to fit the Devon trails – the wood mouse (Apodemus sylvaticus).
     It was during a search for snow tracks in Epping Forest, in the severe winter of 1962– 3, that I came across dozens of trails of the wood mouse, each consisting of small ‘V- shaped’ marks regularly spaced out and conforming to the measurements which were given a hundred years ago. When I found them I was totally unaware of their significance (Animals, 18th February 1964).

In the intense cold and silence of the forest, what could have been a better setting for the return of the mysterious Devon visitor. In this case, however, the mischievous little rodents were playing the Devil at his own game!

from David Sealy's article, Trailing the Devil, Skeptical Intelligencer 6, page 15
A number of writers have continued to treat the phenomenon as a ‘cryptozoological’ mystery, to the annoyance of those who argue that Leutscher had provided an explanation. Some questioned, reasonably, why on that (or those) particular night(s)? Here is Mike Dash (who gathered all the original reports into one convenient publication):

There are, nevertheless, drawbacks to the rodent theory. Proponents have to explain why large numbers of mice or rats hopped such very long distances, rather than walking or scurrying about, thus leaving a more readily identifiable mixed trail. There must also be some doubt whether a single mouse or rat could really cover the distance of almost five miles (from Dawlish churchyard to Luscombe, Dawlishwater and then Oaklands which one party claimed to have traversed in following a single trail. And while it would seem possible for rodents to climb onto roofs, there seems no good reason why they should want to hop so singlemindedly over them. Finally, rats and mice are so common that one would expect trails similar to the Devon marks to be reported far more frequently than they actually are.

All of these ‘drawbacks’ do not seem much of a problem to me. Indeed some can be broken down to testable hypotheses. Leutscher had already shown how the marks are formed as snow melts after a fall and the ability to be fooled by footmarks in melting snow as the impression enlarges and changes is well known. The long single trails can be dismissed if many different animals were involved with observers simply moving one and then spotting another. Do Wood Mice (better known to those of us of a certain age as Long-tailed Field Mice) hop rather than walk in snow of a certain depth (as one might expect)? It is entirely plausible that the mouse population had reached a periodic high in 1855 and they were, after snow, desperate for food and hence highly active. So were those nights in 1855 a combination of circumstances: a large population after a boom year; a depth of snow that encouraged leaping and melting snow the next morning that created the distinctive appearance of the tracks? Add to that a superstitious human population amplifying, distorting and simply misinterpreting observations, aided no doubt by the intake of a pint or three of scrumpy, you have, in my opinion the ideal mixture to fuel an everlasting ‘mystery’ story. But eventually along comes to Alfred Leutscher who provides a rational explanation to the 1855 phenomenon.


But rational explantations are not welcomed by some individuals and still the discussion rumbles on in websites run by mystics, without even a mention of Leutscher’s interpretation from evidence firmly based on his knowledge gained as a field naturalist.

Finally, a couple of camera trap photographs from the bottom of our garden. When we next get snow (an uncommon occurrence here) I shall be watching t see what tracks they leave.