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WHAT ELUSIVE `BEAST’ IS RIPPING APART SHEEP IN A DESOLATE PART OF ENGLAND?

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As soon as Mike Williams saw the mutilated, bloodless carcass of one of his sheep, he knew it had been killed by something extraordinary.

The throat had been torn apart, the left ear was missing and it looked like it had been thrown around like a rag doll. Most of the blood had been sucked from the body."The face and neck were stripped off," said Williams. "I showed it to my father and neither of us had seen anything killed that way. You've got to see it to believe it."

The killing was so quick the animal didn't struggle and so quiet nearby sheep were undisturbed.

This was just one of hundreds of sheep killed in exactly the same way since 1983 on the edge of Exmoor, a rugged, desolate area 200 miles west of London which is dotted with isolated villages and solitary farms.

The first rash of killings prompted a near panic. Hunters, super-sleuths and even the British marines combed the 260-square-mile moor in search of what has become known as "The Beast of Exmoor."

"Nobody knew what we were up against," said Nigel Brierly, a retired local resident who recently wrote a book "They Stalk By Night" about the beast.

"One chap had a butterfly net and another chap who was good at catching stray dogs came up from Plymouth . . . he trailed a large piece of meat around the moor," Brierly added.

But their efforts were useless and the killings have continued, about 50 a year by Brierly's estimate.

First suspicions, taking their cue from Arthur Conan Doyle's "The Hound of the Baskervilles," focused on an oversize dog. But padmarks near the bodies, the beast's ability to leap from extreme heights and its screeching cry led Brierly and others to suspect it was a puma or mountain lion.

"I heard it twice," said Williams, who has been farming in the area since the late 1950s. "It sounds like a woman screaming. It makes your hair stand up."

The high-pitched cry has become a familar sound to many local residents, and several say they have seen the elusive beast.

Rod Bramner claims to have spotted the creature near his house early one morning. In one bounding leap it jumped from the woods onto the road and then to the opposite side.

"It was half and again as big as an Alsatian, long and low, and what struck me was the thickness of the bone in its leg. It was hefty and had a dusky fawn color," said Bramner who runs a local riflery school.

"I've lived in the country all my life. I'm not a pseudo-country person and I know what animals look like. This was, as far as I'm concerned, a mountain lion or puma."

Brierly also claims to have seen the creature and much of his book is devoted to theory that the "Beast of Exmoor" is one or several pumas.

"I have every reason to believe they are pumas," he said.

Although they are not indigenous to Britain, Brierly believes pumas, whose natural habitat stretches from northwestern Canada to South America, could have been released from private menageries several years ago and been breeding in the British countryside ever since.

But Doug Richardson, head keeper and cat specialist at the London Zoo, is skeptical. "It's possible, but I've yet to see any hard evidence that it is a puma," he said.

He dismissed the numerous sightings saying most people, unless their eyes are trained, cannot identify well-known, big-cat species.

"They can never get it right," he said, adding that he has seen people in a zoo misidentifying big cats. Pumas do have a high-pitched cry "but so do domestic cats, and foxes also make bizarre noises," he added.

The events on Exmoor are reminiscent of Indian villagers tracking down a man-eating tiger or cowboys hunting coyotes on the American prairies, but they knew what they were looking for.

The farmers of Exmoor don't.