It was almost like a positive DNA result. The broadcaster Clare Balding, announced on BBC radio in June 2014 that she’d just watched a large black panther. You could hardly choose a more solid and respected witness. Walking near Symonds Yat in the Wye Valley, Clare was three minutes into her Radio 4 ‘Ramblings’ programme when she declared: “Gosh. We’ve walked out on to the road and turned left, and sitting in the middle of the road ahead of us was the most enormous black cat. Honestly, I thought it was a panther I mean really big, like a dog size.”
“I promise you I am not making it up. It looked very big to me. And it just loped, it didn’t scuttle, it just very confidently walked across the road and disappeared into the woods.” One of her walking companions, local resident Roger Smith was looking a different way but instantly replied: “I’ve seen it twice along this hedgerow in the last few years. It was the size of our Rottweiler and our friends have seen a big black cat feeding on a deer carcass.” Clare responded: “Really, is it a wild one? I saw it – I saw it really clearly. I should point out I never knew the stories of a big black cat here”.
‘The Doward’ episode of Ramblings is on IPlayer till June 2015 (see above link), so you can replay the moment and sense the wonder in Clare Balding’s voice. It is little different from the routine reports I hear as informants seek me out, to recount their astonishment at glimpsing a vagrant big cat in their own corner of the countryside.
Four months later, Roger Smith retraced the steps of that walk. He showed me and fellow trackers the hedgerow where the animal was spied by the famous witness. He explained that off-microphone, Clare Balding had dashed up the lane to look into the wood where the creature vanished. At the location Roger introduced us to an intrigued landowner. Nearby we chatted with a couple at an isolated cottage. They’d heard of another recent big cat report and were keeping their own moggie in at night. The terrain was God’s Own Country. Known as the Doward, precipitous forest slopes lined the valley as the river Wye enveloped the gnarled limestone hills. With abundant deer and underground escapes in quarries and caves, a black leopard could feel quite at home here… (This is an edited introduction to a chapter from Rick Minter’s second book on big cats)