Rhayader is the oldest town in mid-Wales. Its origins date back more than 5,000 years, and specifically to Neolithic times. Rhayader’s long legacy is also evidenced by the fact that, in 1899, a large collection of gold jewelry was found buried on the town’s Gwastedyn Hill. Archaeologists were able to date the priceless artifacts to the 5th century and link them to a princess named Rowena. She was the daughter of a local, powerful, warlord, Hengest, and someone who married a much-feared character known as High King Vortigen. Neither Hengest nor Vortigen were able to instill as much fear in the people of Rhayader as did a deadly and mysterious beast that surfaced in late 1988. It was between September and December 1988 that the town was hit by a spate of mysterious deaths of farm animals, mainly sheep.
Although several farms were targeted by the stealthy predator – and always under cover of darkness – it was the Bodalog Farm, owned by the Pugh family that suffered most of all. Over the course of several weeks, they lost close to forty sheep to the deadly intruder. Oddest of all: the sheep were not eaten, whether in whole or in part. The only evidence of the attacks were deep, penetrating bites to the sternum.
That was when the conspiracy theories began to take hold. There were claims of a local police cover-up. The stories grew and grew, amid claims that “Men in Black”-style characters from “the government” were roaming around town, doing their utmost to silence those with knowledge of the attacks. Supposedly, there was good reason why the MIB wanted to stifle all the talk of the deaths: the sheep had been drained of blood, vampire-style. Inevitably, and despite the best efforts of the MIB, the British media soon latched onto the story and it made the headlines across some of the nation’s major, daily newspapers.
As the death rate increased, so did the wild rumors: there was talk of a large, black cat in the area – such as a black leopard. Of course, such animals are not native to the United Kingdom, something which only added to the mystery. Plus, no-one actually saw the big cat, if that is really what it was. It was simply a theory – but, undeniably, one that provoked a great deal of food for thought in the town’s pubs on weekend nights. With concern growing, a decision was taken to use foxhounds to try and chase the monster of the early hours. And this is when things became decidedly intriguing – and sinister, too.
The dogs soon picked up on the scene – their wild behavior made that very clear. They picked up on something else, too; something that had previously been overlooked. In certain parts of the fields where the sheep had been killed, corridors of flattened ground were uncovered. They gave every indication of something not walking along the fields, but slithering along them. In mere moments, all the talk of big cats was gone. In their place were giant snakes. On top of that, and as the dogs continued to chase down the scent, they were led to the banks of the 134-mile-long River Wye, the fifth longest river in the UK. The conclusion was all but inevitable: some form of large, unknown water beast was – undercover of the night – surfacing out of the depths of the river, stealthily crossing the fields, and feeding on the blood of the unfortunate sheep.
But what could the creature have been? Certainly, there are no large snakes roaming around the UK. Yet, the flattened areas of field suggested a beast somewhere around twelve-to-fifteen feet long had indeed been slithering around. Richard Freeman, of the England-based Center for Fortean Zoology, took a lot of interest in the case when it surfaced. He said of the snake theory: “Britain’s only venomous snake, the adder, Vipera berus, is far too small to have killed the sheep. This case begs many odd questions: why would an animal go to all the trouble of wasting venom and energy killing so many sheep, then not eat any? If it was a large, exotic, venomous snake that had escaped from captivity, how did it cope with October in Wales?”
Freeman’s question was – and still is – an important one, as snakes require warm climates in which to survive and thrive. There is nothing warm about mid-Wales in October! Perhaps aware that it was being hunted down, the creature ceased its violent killing spree in early December 1988, and Rhayader finally returned to normality and there were collective sighs of relief all around town. Thirty years later, the mystery of what that water-borne monstrosity was remains precisely that: a mystery. There is, however, one last thing to muse upon: in 1912, Ella Leather penned a book titled The Folk-Lore of Herefordshire. It told of how, centuries ago, people local to the River Wye believed that the river was home to something terrifying that required a human sacrifice once a year, as a form of appeasement and to ensure that the beast did not launch an all-out, murderous rampage around the area. Based on what happened in Rhayader in late 1988, perhaps the old legends had a basis in terrifying, savage fact.