Three days at the Bushcraft Show in May were the start of my 2014 season of information stalls on big cats. The set up comprises a tent with exhibits, photos, literature and props. All of this explains the evidence for feral big cats and allows people to discuss the topic in a grown-up way. Some passers-by may consider it all a fairy tale, but the people who venture in are usually intrigued and appreciative. Each day is full-on with queries, heartfelt discussion, local gossip, and sightings described. On each occasion the trend of reports is consistent: around three quarters are black panthers (resembling a melanistic or black leopard), and the remainder mostly puma (also know as mountain lion and cougar) and a small proportion of lynx descriptions. In some instances people describe the behavioural traits and calls of these cats with great precision.
Throughout the Bushcraft Show reports kept coming. A vet described how a panther rushed along a forest trackside in Northumberland as he drove along, getting a broadside view of the creature as it was startled by his 4×4. An early morning fisherman explained his shock at watching a puma emerge from scrub at a lake just five miles from the Show’s venue in south Derbyshire. He noticed pigeons shoot away as an animal broke cover, and gazed in amazement as the cat checked out the waterside environment at dawn.
Five months later a Forest of Dean event was the last of the season. A country show and food festival in the early Autumn. It drew big numbers. Three policeman (one off duty) called in for lengthy chats, and the lady Mayor came by after opening the event, to recall past panther viewings on her farm. Twenty two reports came in. I noticed seven were at dawn, four at dusk, and two in the late evening darkness. Two were from the previous fortnight, while one was 20 years ago, well beyond the usual lifespan of a leopard or puma. The filled-in forms had vivid quotes: “Wow”, “privileged”(x3), “shocked”, “disbelief”(x2), “excited”, “amazed”, “very surprised!”, “very lucky”, “impressed and happy”, were amongst the statements. All these sightings had been at a reasonable distance. In contrast, one witness claimed to see a labrador sized black cat up close. Her reaction was “frightened” and the situation described was: “large cat like animal crouched down until we got close. It frightened our normal aggressive dog. It ran off when we got close and realised what it was”.
As one of the Forest of Dean witnesses diligently completed their form I heard a woman utter her disbelief. There were reports in her area where she was a Parish Councillor, but she thought it all nonsense. I introduced the sceptic woman to the witness, who calmly described his encounter. The doubting woman looked scornful as she listened, then retorted: “Don’t you think some of us are conditioned to see these cats”. I suggested that if humans are conditioned then so too are our dogs and horses. “My dog froze”, “dog startled”, and “dog was instantly searching for scent”, were statements included on the day’s forms. The woman was disinterested. Her parish is a core part of the thickly wooded Dean, but any panthers there are phantoms of our own making.
The reports at the Forest of Dean included a recent one: “Big black cat sighting in front of vehicle crossing road – as big as large dog. Long tail. Moving across road quickly” read the informant’s form. Amongst the 132 reports made at the big cat tent amongst its nine days from May to September, this seemed an unremarkable account. But I noted the location: “Symonds Yat, 29 September 2014, 5 am”. The guy was just heading-off on a long commute. He said he’d no doubt what he saw, but he was unaware of who’d also reported a cat near-by a few months earlier. Was this the reappearance of a famous panther? The spot was a mile from Clare Balding’s revelation, live on radio in June.