Girt Dog of Ennerdale
10th May 1810

Did a thylacine really terrorise a remote Lakeland fell?

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Girt Dog of Ennerdale

Girt Dog of Ennerdale

The last thylacine - pictured in Hobart zoo in 1933

The "Girt Dog" of Ennerdale was the name applied to a mystery beast that savaged between 300 and 400 sheep over the course of five brief months of terror in the far Western Lake District. First seen by a Mr. Mossop in May, the 'dog' would proceed to wreak mayhem on the livestock of local farmers - threatening their very livelihoods. Unlike its more ghostly kin, the corporeal existence and ultimate fate of the Girt Dog was well established.

Immediately, it was apparent to seasoned farmers that this was no ordinary dog - as it seemed to favour eating the soft organs of its prey rather than their muscular tissues. Commonly killing as many as seven or eight sheep in a single 'visit' the scale and manner of depredation was far beyond anything experienced by the farmers of the remote dales. Quickly, the animal become the subject of public outcry and several farmers put up rewards of up to £12 for the capture of the beast, dead or alive.

The dog's alien nature was even more apparent as consistent reports of its appearance and size began to emerge. It was of uncommon length and tawny in colour, but most were struck by the animal's back and hindquarters - which were marked by distinctive black stripes like those of a tiger. Indeed, for a time, the creature was known as 'the vampire cat'.

Hunting parties of up 200 people at a time set out in pursuit of the animal, chasing it from farm to farm and from dale to dale, but its size was matched by its cunning and it evaded capture throughout the summer - evidently seeking high vantage points from which it could watch its pursuers.

Another notable feature of the animal - and another matter which leant a sinister bent to its reputation - was its near total silence. Dogs and foxes alike were easily detected by their barks and howls, but the Ennerdale creature was unnervingly silent.

On some occasions, the hunters' dogs cornered the creature, only to have their legs crushed in its powerful jaws.

But against its relentless pursuers, the dog eventually stood no chance. On September 12th, Jonathan Patrickson saw it enter a cornfield and raised the alarm. Locals quickly arrived on the scene and cornered the beast in adjacent woodland, harrying it this way and that. As the creature tired, one John Steel finally brought the killer dog down with his shotgun. Wild celebrations took place that night with the corpse of the dog on display, and Steel the recipient of a handsome £10 reward. The dog was stuffed and mounted and was displayed at Ennerdale's museum until being thrown out by a curator around 1950.

The Girt Dog's Identity

Despite the loss of the dog's carcass, it is now accepted that the beast was actually an escaped thylacine - the now-extinct 'Tasmanian tiger' of New Zealand. On the basis of their size (specimens could reach 9 feet in lenght) and spectacular appearance they were commonly found in travelling zoos, circuses and menageries. The Girt Dog was, it transpired, no dog at all - but a unique marsupial species from the other side of the globe.

The loss of its body is a minor tragedy of its own, but the dog is commemorated in local song - recited here in 2011 in the presence of a descendant of John Steel himself.



The lyrics to the song are below, and recount the animal's physical prowess 

In 1810 the circus came to town
There were tightropes and jugglers and a red-nosed funny clown
There were tigers and lions and a bird that was brown
And a cage with a sign and a warning.

Chorus
It was big it was strong, it was eight feet long
It could leap it could bound, it could outrun any hound
It had stripes and a tail and it gave out such a wail
And you’d find dead sheep in the morning.

Inside the metal cage, incandescent with rage
There paced a noble beast on meat which it did feast
He viewed the distant hills with a primeval thrill
And he longed to be there in the morning.

Chorus

In the circus lived a lad, you wouldn’t call him bad
But he had a wild streak and, as he gave the beast his meat
He saw the cage unlocked and gave the bolt a knock
And the dog bounded out in the gloaming.

Chorus

From Tasmania it came where hunting was its game
It had to kill for its dinner, it always was the winner
The sheep had no chance when the beast began to dance
And the hunt it was on in the morning.

Chorus

In Ennerdale Bridge, if you look upon the ridge
When the moon was in the sky you would see it passing by
And you’d know where it had been when you heard the lambs scream
And you’d see all the blood in the morning.

Chorus

The hounds went up the fell but the beast sent them to hell
The men from the farms they took up all their arms
The squire gave a reward to any would-be hard
To kill the beast with a gun in the morning.

Chorus

In the valley lived a man, he was built like Desperate Dan
He worked on a farm and was strong in the arm
And he heard of the reward and he always kept his word
And swore that he would kill it in the morning.

Chorus

John Steel took out his gun and walked out in the sun
To the forest he would go where the beast was lying low
He would use up all his skill to bring home a kill
And claim his reward in the morning.

Chorus

As the beast broke cover some men cried for their mother
As the beast began to bound John Steel stood his ground
He lifted up his gun as the beast began its run
And a shot rang out in the morning.

Chorus

With a scream and a roar the beast hit the valley floor
As the ball found its mark and struck it in the heart
John Steel kept his word and claimed his reward
With a view to a kill in the morning.

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Author: Ian Freud   |  Last updated: 17th December 2014 | © Weird Island 2010-2017
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