The moon was full that night — which may have been no coincidence — and the November sky was unusually cloudless. So when the first horrific act was committed, the New Forest was bathed in a milky glow and you could see far across the frosty heathland.
Yet the possibility they might be spotted as they went about their grisly work didn’t deter the sadistic killer, or killers, who silently descended on the little village of Bramshaw.
Rounding up the hefty sheep that graze half-wild on this unfenced expanse is no easy task, even for an experienced shepherd. But somehow they managed to capture one: a pretty black-faced ewe.
Residents of the New Forest village of Bramshaw have found several sheep killed in a strange manner, with symbols of the occult painted onto their fleeces
The slaughter of several sheep has led to fears that there are occult members in the area
Locals fear there may be devil worshipers in the district (pictured a still image of the 1968 Hammer Horror movie Devil Rides Out
The ewe’s owners, Colin Barnes, 76, and his partner Heather Miles, 68 (so-called ‘commoners’ entitled to rear animals in the forest under an ancient law), called her ‘Fluffy’. She was kept for breeding and would have roamed contentedly for the rest of her days. Yet with one precise thrust of a long, very sharp knife, the couple’s sheep was callously dispatched.
As Fluffy bled slowly to death, the attacker used blue aerosol paint to defile her with satanic symbols. A pentagram (five-pointed star) was drawn on her thick fleece, and 666 — supposedly the Devil’s number — on her ear.
Ordinarily, the violent crime besetting much of Britain bypasses this timeless Hampshire village, whose 684 residents range from the rich and famous (Dame Esther Rantzen has a farmhouse here) to struggling smallholders.
So when Miss Miles first saw the dead sheep, she assumed she had been hit by a car — a reasonable assumption, as New Forest ponies and other animals wander freely and 50 have been killed on the roads this year.
‘I thought maybe it was a case of road rage — that the sheep had damaged someone’s car when they hit her, so they’d drawn all over her,’ she tells me, pointing through the window of her caravan home to the spot where the killing took place.
‘I don’t know anything about witchcraft or Devil-worship. It was only later, when I started thinking about the weird markings, that I became suspicious.
‘Now I reckon it might not have been coincidence that it happened on the night of a full moon. Those witches like that, don’t they? The sick b*****s.’
There are 684 residents living in the town of Bramshaw which is in the New Forest, Hampshire
Commoners have ancient rights to graze their animals in the New Forest
Drawing on a small cigar, Mr Barnes interjects: ‘Whether it’s Devil-worship or some nutcase with a big knife, it’s bloody worrying because where will it stop? It could be a dog-walker or a cyclist next. And what might they do if someone catches them at it?’
His concern is understandable, for Fluffy’s slaughter on November 12 was only the first in a series of six ghoulish incidents in Bramshaw and its environs over a nine-day period that sent a frisson of fear through the village.
The next morning, one of the cows that graze the bracken-covered fields and copses, a 250lb heifer, returned from its nightly wanderings with a deep gash in its neck.
Owner Kay Harrison believes it was wounded by the same attacker.
That same day, eight miles away in Linwood, commoner Mark Deacon found two of his ‘stores’ — young male cattle — with deep wounds that a vet judged had probably been caused by a knife.
‘I was born on this farm and I’ve been running it since 1982,’ Mr Deacon told me. ‘You just don’t get two animals with vertical cuts like that in one night.
‘They were clean, precise cuts and it’s not easy to cut through a cow’s hide. But I’m keeping an open mind. Either the person who attacked those sheep has become more ambitious, or the injury is nothing to do with that.’
Locals fear there are a group of people who are going out and torturing animals in the New Forest. Several sheep have been killed an a cow has been attacked.
The most recent animal victim was discovered by a woman walking her dog at 7.30am on Tuesday, November 19. As she made her way up a lane she saw a dead sheep, lying strangely with its legs splayed, on a grass verge.
Again, it had been fatally stabbed with one accurate thrust of a blade. Again, it had been daubed with a pentagram and other occult signs. And again it belonged to Colin Barnes and Heather Miles.
The previous Saturday, November 16, there had been another disquieting discovery.
Making his way towards St Peter’s, the quaint medieval church on a promontory overlooking Bramshaw, verger John Nash saw to his disgust that nearby road signs and a noticeboard in the churchyard had been defaced with occult insignia, including the number 666.
He cleaned the paint off, only to find, when he returned four days later, that the 13th-century church itself had been desecrated.
Occult signs were drawn upon the door of St Peter’s Church in Bramshaw, Hampshire
The vicar, Rev David Bacon, 57, says some of his parishioners have been ‘unnerved’ by events
‘They had used a gold aerosol to spray upside-down crosses and phallic symbols on all four doors and a window,’ says Mr Nash, 70. ‘I used some white spirit and got it off but you can still see a mark in the oak of the main door.
‘Whether they are pranksters or Devil-worshippers, they should get a life. We are just going to carry on as normal. We’re not going to let anyone interfere with the life of the church.’
The vicar, Rev David Bacon, 57, says some of his parishioners have been ‘unnerved’ by events. Tomorrow is the first Sunday of Advent, when churchgoers celebrate the coming of Christmas, but his sermon will carry a sombre message.
‘I will be talking about the battle between light and darkness,’ he tells me. ‘We know what the Devil is like by the things you see done in his name. And if that’s sticking knives into sheep, it’s the work of somebody who seeks to follow him. Or it.
‘The New Forest has always been a place where there’s witchcraft. It still goes on today. But the white witches, as they call themselves, will be as appalled by this as anyone else.
Rev Bacon said: ‘‘The New Forest has always been a place where there’s witchcraft. It still goes on today. But the white witches, as they call themselves, will be as appalled by this as anyone else’
‘I will have been here 15 years this Christmas and we have had perhaps five small incidents. Little rings of stones (a witchcraft symbol) left on the church doorstep, for example. I think they’re just letting us know they are there. But they never come out of the shadows.’
Hampshire police are investigating whether there are links between the ‘unusual’ incidents and urge anyone with information to come forward.
But why do many people in Bramshaw genuinely fear that a modern-day Satanist has descended on them?
For one thing, almost all the villagers are acquainted with one another and nobody knows of a local who might do this for twisted kicks.
‘It’s absolutely not local kids,’ says Mike Mills, who runs the only shop. ‘The only gangs we get here are Romanians who come and strip the forest of mushrooms to sell to high-end London restaurants.’
Buts Rev Bacon says, the New Forest has longstanding links with witchcraft and some experts even regard it as the birthplace of the pre-Christian Wicca religion.
In the Fifties, the village of Burley, a few miles from Bramshaw, was home to Sybil Leek, dubbed ‘Britain’s most famous witch’, and tourists still visit shops there that sell witchcraft paraphernalia.
‘It’s absolutely not local kids,’ says Mike Mills, who runs the only shop. ‘The only gangs we get here are Romanians who come and strip the forest of mushrooms to sell to high-end London restaurants’
Today, the forest’s most notable practising witch is 70-year-old Julie Forest, who once took part in a BBC TV programme debating why Wicca — which has 11,740 followers, according to the 2011 Census — was ‘among Britain’s fastest-growing religions’. This week, when I visited her home in Fordingbridge, nine miles from Bramshaw (her phone number, it just so happens, ends in ‘666’) to ask whom she thought might be responsible for the Bramshaw attacks, she would only say: ‘There is no such thing as black witches or white witches. Just witches.
‘These people are not genuine witches. They are just sick people giving us a bad name. Either that or Christians who want to make us witches look bad.’
Christians who would defile their own church? Was that a joke, I asked.
‘No. Christians are bad people,’ she hissed, then marched off to walk her greyhound in the rain-soaked woods.
Another witchcraft follower, Somerset-based Sorita D’Este, later explained more patiently why genuine Wiccans will be appalled by the grim nocturnal goings-on at Bramshaw.
‘We are normally sensible people who look after animals,’ she told me. ‘We have pets like everyone else and a lot of us are vegetarian. I’m a vegan. You’re more likely to find us sitting around eating hummus and chips.
‘Most of us are very middle-class and prefer sitting at home by the radiator to keep warm.’
Ms D’Este admitted that some followers of Wicca do sometimes strip off their clothes on ocason and convene naked ‘so everyone feels equal’ and she had even, when younger, taken part in such ceremonies herself, she said.
But on a more unsettling note, she acknowledged that some people with an interest in Wicca and the occult had been known to dabble in a dark form of witchcraft that originated centuries ago in Western Europe, based on a textbook known as a ‘grimoire’, which many would consider to espouse black magic.
It describes such macabre practices as crushing an earthworm into olive oil and rubbing the mixture into grey hair to restore its colour. But not even this troubling ‘book of spells’, she said, advocates animal sacrifice.
So what was the likely profile of the animal attacker? A weirdo with ‘issues’, corrupted by some sensationalised occult book or horror film, was Ms D’Este’s best guess.
Perhaps she is right. But whatever is behind their macabre behaviour, the faceless attacker or attackers are sending a chill through this scenic countryside, as people wait to see whether they will strike again.
Maybe they already have.
As well as their flock of sheep — now reduced from 28 to 26 — Colin and Heather keep 100 cattle, which they leave to graze freely from spring to late autumn.
A few days ago, when the herd returned to them for the winter, they discovered that one heifer was missing.
As the commoners’ animals sometimes stray too far afield, and some are killed accidentally — not only on the roads but sometimes by poisoning themselves with acorns — there may be an innocent explanation for the cow’s absence.
But with every day that passes, Ms Miles says, she fears it will also be found with a knife wound, sprayed with diabolic emblems.
‘The person doing this isn’t a normal human being,’ she says. ‘So we just don’t know what they might do next, do we?’