In the north east, as well as in other parts of the country, an intriguing mystery has lingered on for decades: do big cats – such as pumas, panthers and lynxes – stalk our countryside?
Numerous people swear they have caught sight of such animals. One notorious north-east beast was the ‘Durham Puma’.
In the 1990s, people reported seeing a puma-like animal in the more remote parts of County Durham and around river banks. In 1995, a big cat-like creature was caught on film carrying a rabbit in its mouth and large paw prints were apparently found near the River Tees.
In 2005, a farmer claimed the Durham Puma had torn the heads off twelve of his sheep.
Between 2011 and 2014, there were 13 big cat sightings in the Durham and Northumbria police areas. In the last five years, the creatures have been spotted in locations such as Consett, Spennymoor, Morpeth, Ashington and Berwick.
Some people trace Britain’s wild big cats back to a piece of legislation in the 1970s. In 1977, the Dangerous Wild Animals Act was passed to regulate the then-fashionable practice of keeping exotic creatures as pets.
The owners of certain animals – including big cats – were forced to apply for licences, to make clear to the authorities where and how their animals were kept, and to take out liability insurance policies.
Many owners, it is argued, decided this was all far too much hassle and released their pets into the wild.
A small number of big cats have indeed been found roaming the British countryside. In 1980, a puma was captured in Inverness-shire, Scotland. The puma, which was then kept in a zoo, is not thought to have lived in the wild for long as it enjoyed human contact, including being tickled.
In 1991, a Eurasian Lynx was shot near Norwich after it had killed around 15 sheep and in 2001 a young Eurasian Lynx was captured in Cricklewood, North London, and placed in London Zoo.
The number of big cat sightings has dramatically declined in recent years, both in the north east and nationally. Could this be because the big cats that were released around forty years ago – and any offspring they managed to have – are now dying off?
There are sceptics, however, who cast doubt on the authenticity of most of Britain’s big cat sightings.
They argue that it is difficult for big cats to live undetected in the wild for long periods in Britain and that many ‘big cat’ sightings are probably no more than large domestic moggies seen from a certain angle and in a certain light.
Certain big cat rumours have been shown to be false. The ‘Hampshire Tiger’ turned out to be a cuddly toy while the ‘Essex Lion’ proved to be no more than a pet cat.
What do you think? Do you know anyone who’s seen a ‘big cat’? We look forward to reading your comments below.
(Featured image courtesy of Phalinn Ooi, from Flickr Creative Commons)