The Girt Dog of Ennerdale

A valley surrounding the western-most of the lakes that give the Lake District National Park in Cumbria its name, Ennerdale even today is remote, the limited road access into the valley capping visitors to just a handful of hikers, particularly compared to the popular fells and valleys to the east. 200 years ago, long before the Lake District achieved the popularity as a tourism destination that it enjoys today, Ennerdale was inhabited by just a few sheep farmers and other residents, most centred around the hamlet of Ennerdale Bridge. For a six month period during 1810, this small community, and the sheep that accounted for the bulk of their economy, were plagued by a sheep-killing creature that became known as the ‘Girt Dog of Ennerdale’. Other accounts refer to it as a ‘vampire dog’ on account of its habit of draining the blood from sheep.

The remote Ennerdale valley. Image: Rob Bendall

Between the first reports of a dog-like creature killing sheep and its eventual death in the cold waters of the River Ehen, the ‘girt dog’ killed between 300 and 400 sheep. Frequently, corpses would be found drained of blood, the bulk of the meat untouched but soft organs such as the liver having been consumed. Farmers began patrolling at night in pursuit of the creature, however its killing spree continued, averaging around eight dead sheep per night. With many others badly mauled but left alive, the animal appeared to be killing for sport in many cases. Despite a ¬£10 reward offered for any man that could kill or capture the girt dog it continued to evade hunters, fueling speculation that the creature was supernatural in nature.

It was some time before any of the hunters even caught sight of the animal, bringing back a strange description quite different to the dog most had assumed. The man reported a large, sandy brown animal with distinct black stripes, explaining that it appeared to be some kind of hybrid between a dog and a cat, but larger than either. The account drew further hunters to the area, each looking to make their name by killing the vampiric creature. Upwards of 100 hunters scoured the valley, along with horses and hounds. The beast continued to evade them, and sheep continued to die. Displaying a worrying intelligence, the animal would lure individual hunting hounds away from the pack before crippling them with deep bites to the legs.

A pair of Herdwick sheep, a hardy breed popular amongst the fells of Cumbria. Image: Alexander Baxevanis

Eventually, the creature’s luck and cunning ran out as a hunter managed to clip it with a blast of buckshot. The wounded animal was pursued by hounds for several miles, attempting to lose them in the River Ehen. While the hounds baulked at entering the water, one hunter dropped the girt dog with an accurate shot as it clambered up the far bank. Badly injured, the animal was ran down by the hounds and killed.

On investigating the corpse, the hunters recorded that it weighed around eight stone (similar in weight to a relatively large dog, such as a rottweiler). The animal was stuffed and put on display at Keswick Museum but was thrown out by an overzealous museum employee around 70 years ago, leaving the exact identity of the girt dog a mystery.

Theories

A pair of thylacines, photographed at Washington National Zoo in 1902. Image: Smithsonian

Putting aside claims of a vampire or other supernatural being, a number of theories have arisen in the years since as to quite what the girt dog was. One of the most popular, if outlandish at first glance, is that it was a thylacine, a marsupial predator that was endemic to Australia before likely being extirpated in the 1930s. Also known as Tasmanian devils or Tasmanian tigers, a thylacine would match teh description given, including sandy-coloured fur, distinct black stripes and an unusual built reminiscent of both a dog and a cat. Some traveling circuses at the time were known to include what were referred to as ‘tiger wolves’, which may have been thylacines. It is possible, if perhaps unlikely, that an escaped thylacine from one of these circuses could have taken up residence in Ennerdale.

The girt dog’s preference for blood and soft organs is also cited as evidence¬† of a thylacine. However, this preference was due to an unusual jaw structure, which was relatively delicate compared to canid or feline predators of a similar size. Modern researchers believe that thylacine’s jaws weren’t strong enough to bring down a sheep, which appears to exonerate the species.

A Striped Hyena. Image: Sumeet Moghe

Another theory that has been put forward, again based primarily on the description given by the first man to see it, is that a striped hyena was the culprit. Again the description loosely fits and a hyena would be capable both of bringing down sheep and inflicting the severe injuries to hunting dogs that the girt dog was reported to. However, the suggestion is highly anecdotal.

A ‘bull lurcher’ hybrid, showing the distinctive, striped brindle coat. Image: 101 Dogs

The most likely explanation is the simplest; that the girt dog was just that, a dog. Several breeds can display a striped pattern and grown to a size comparable to the girt dog. One frequently cited example is a cross between a lurcher, popular amongst the farmers and poachers of the valley, and an English mastiff. A brindle coat is relatively common for this cross-breed, which can give the impression of black stripes along the body.

Featured Image: A Thylacine depicted in the 1808 publication ‘Transactions of the Linnean Society of London’. Image: State Library of Tasmania

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