It seems odd to us now but when I was a kid I lived through one of the coldest winters on record in the UK — December/January 1981 to 82, when blizzards swept across the country and heavy snow isolated us on the farm, cutting us off. That winter is well remembered — but East Anglia was to see snow laying on the Breck again in December of ’82 and January ’83. Why do I remember this fairly insignificant snowfall? Hymn by Ultravox was in the charts – a track I liked as a young lad, and that became associated with the events in my mind, dating it for me.
It is also because of the West Stow panther. My sister Ingrid lived at Flempton (a small village close to West Stow) with her husband Richard Middleton; he and his twin brother Robert used to walk down to West Stow for a drink when not having beers in The Greyhound; maybe it was while walking back Richard thought he glimpsed a panther! Ingrid had a magnificent German Shepherd dog called I believe Sheba, and it was while walking that Richard reported finding strange footprints – the brothers set out with a camera and photographed them. Not hard to believe that area could be home to a big cat – there are large numbers of deer there.
A few years later my parents were drinking outside The White Horse at Icklingham a few miles away when they and the others present saw what looked like a large black panther stalking prey on the opposite side of the field. The gait was feline; the tail very long. They were all quite certain what they saw. A few years later I recorded both incidents in my 1992 book Spectral Suffolk, and promptly lost interest.
Even when I became Chair of the Association for Scientific Study of Anomalous Phenomena I did not pay much attention: we have our friends at the Centre for Fortean Zoology for such matters; I am no cryptozoologist, no feline ethologist and the only cats I contend with are on a smaller scale.
Besides I had developed a certain scepticism occasioned by the number of photographs I had seen of what looked like Labradors, slightly large moggies and even one apparent stuffed toy. 😉 As my own eyesight failed I began to realise that it’s not always easy to identify perfectly normal things in poor light. Furthermore the paucity of evidence struck me — where were the roadkill big cats? The CCTV footage? Police thermal cameras – it’s hard to hide from a helicopter? Where are the spoors, the cadavers, the mutilated and half eaten prey? To keep a population of hungry predators filled up is going to reduce livestock and prey? When an academic friend suggested I adopted a breeding pair of snow leopards I believe he mentioned needing a sheep every 4 or 5 days between them, or they might eat toddlers. They jump well as I recall too? Somehow this did not strike me as an ideal house pet given I lived in a flat on Great Norwood Street.
Also it is hard for humans to breed it seems even armed with Tinder and alcohol — how many big cats would have to have been released in 1976 to result in a stable breeding population? It just seemed unlikely to me; I was not ruling it out, and I knew all belief and testimony was for big cats prowling the British countryside but I was not personally convinced. Which given I frequently believe six impossible things before breakfast…
And then lockdown happened, and the story a week or so turned into a daily rash of sightings. Now we know that real creatures ended up wandering far into towns — a couple of deer were filmed at the end of my street in the middle of Cheltenham. Wildlife quickly reasserted itself; humanities retreat showed us just how quickly our cities would be reclaimed if humanity dies out. So if these are real big cats, well this is precisely what we would expect. Less people about means the few out and about are more likely to witness a bashful big cat.
However there is an alternative hypothesis – the Psychosocial Hypothesis. At times of societal tension these sightings might be expected to rise. With waves of people dying across the country, an uncertain future and government imposed house arrest and effective curfews we might expect there to be an explosion in paranormal beliefs and anomalous experiences. The late Robert Moore, David Sivier and myself all hold to variants of the Psychosocial Hypothesis and it equally explains the reported phenomena…
Except — I saw no equivalent increase in UFO reports, ghost cases or even poltergeist occurrences. Not only at ASSAP, but in the other organisations I spoke to there seemed to be little hard evidence of an increase in people having weird experiences. Perversely there was a whole rash of news stories especially in the science journalism press saying that people were turning to psychics and seeing Ghosts and UFOs everywhere — I was asked to comment on a couple but they did not use my thoughts — but if anything the reverse was true. Its hard to tell – I can never tell you numbers for a given phenomenon, only *reports* of said phenomenon.
So why did big cat sightings increase? It makes sense if they are real animals, and I’m not convinced psychosocial explanations hold up. I asked ASSAP investigator Bobbi Allen to head up an initiative to record reports from the media and set up a database, and Project ABC began. After the pandemic cat sightings have declined again, but now they are all over the headlines once more.
A new documentary named Panthera Britannia has apparently resulted in evidence that when DNA tested showed that big cats roam through the UK. Oddly the press coverage was pretty consistently vague not telling us anything about the circumstances or the findings. I think this documentary was in last years awesome Fortean Film Festival but I could be wrong — I did not see it anyway. It is easy to find online or available from your favourite streaming service. I bought a copy for the purpose of this review which cost me about six quid but you can find it free I believe with adverts?
Now I was ready to slam this, and in fact the titles were a bit full on and my natural suspicion that a bit of hair testing positive is not the same as real big cats roaming Britain made me expect it to be a scam. In fact its not- made by believers it is an intelligent, interesting and entertaining look at the big cat phenomenon that despite my scepticism convinced me yes its possibly true.
The documentary covers the history well being both educational and entertaining- who would have suspected Cobbett’s Rural Rides (1870) includes a big cat sighting? Not me and I’ve read chunks of it at uni. It cracks along at a fair old pace, and rapidly discards the notion of relict animals that have survived through history.
One thing the film doesn’t address is supernatural or psychosocial explanations — the CFZ is admirably Fortean but here the emphasis is on “are real physical big cats out there?”. There is discussion of the infamous aftermath of the 1976 Dangerous Wild Animals Act and one chap who admits on camera to releasing a couple of big cats. I’m sceptical about this producing a breeding population that would have lasted into this century because you’d have a big Founder Effect genetic flaws would be enhanced and you’d probably lack the numbers. Also you’d have to have the same species released, or at least ones capable of interbreeding.
The film argues this has happened and Britain may contain a tiny population of big cats, here identified as probably leopards, the Panthera pardus. These are it is suggested melanistic black panthers (not Huey Newton and the boys) and hybrids, closest to the leopards of Malaya and Indonesia.
The film is great at covering the many experts in the field and briefly shows the CFZ and Gloucestershire’s Frank Tuttle. Just like ghosthunters a lot of Big Cat researchers get into it after a clear sighting of their own. There is a classic description of how NOT to take a witness statement – I’m hoping just to make a point not the chap’s real methodology – and a number of people who like Bobbi, Jackie Tonks, Richard Freeman and others have spent years on the issue.
Some of the questions I raised earlier are answered, but essentially the case is made by not all the eyewitness statements but rather by the physical evidence – analysis of chewed sheep bones at the Royal Ag, some footage from trail cams (is that a badger or a bear?) and some inventive analysis of footage to scale it. (A big domestic cat is still a domestic cat guys; 10% variation not exceptional).
Yes there are moments when I want to shout at the TV but it is generally far less idiotic than most of the Paranormal TV nonsense and the community of researchers seem sincere and intelligent (I bet the politics is just as awful though :D).
The documentary builds nicely to some researchers with trail cams (surprisingly cheap) and thermal gear out in the field and then at the end almost as an afterthought we are given the DNA evidence. It’s a bit underwhelming — I was expecting something interesting from environmental DNA but its just “a hair that had already tested positive as leopard was submitted to a university and was a leopard hair.”
Todd Disotell bane of Bigfoot researchers for shooting down every supposed bit of DNA evidence in other documentaries appears and says “yes it’s leopard”. The only problem is of course we have to accept the hair was found on that barbed wire fence in Gloucestershire not planted there and is in fact from a native animal not taken from say a zoo. We all know cat hair gets everywhere! However it does seem that there are multiple sources for DNA of leopards in the UK. [ EDIT – I’m now learned that DNA was not analysed in time for this film and is covered in the sequel Panthera Britannia Declassified which I’m now looking forward to.]
And that’s pretty much it. The documentary tries to make it a huge deal but unless you breed sheep on Dartmoor it probably isn’t. There are much scarier things in the Forest of Dean than panthers – I mean Zodiac Mindwarp, what’s left of EMF and wild boars and that’s before you get to Cinderford on a Friday night! 😀 Living with wild cats in the UK strikes me as much like living with wild tortoises — I know they are out there but they avoid me and I never see them. I suspect I’m more likely to die by an eagle dropping a tortoise on my head than be eaten by a wild panther, or maybe by tripping over one. I don’t worry about wild tortoises every time I head into the British countryside.
Still Panthera Britannia is a great documentary; and yes the illegal trade in exotic animals probably continues and some escape or are released in to the wild. It’s rather sweet (if you are not a deer or sheep) to think they might find their own kind their and live long and happy lives. I’m still a little hesitant to say I’m convinced but I will say it sounds better than my werewolf explanation! 😀
I enjoyed your article, it got me thinking. If some shady troll is faking “big cats” or “phantom cats” in various parts of the UK, the last people it would want is highly skilled experts being involved. You give them the data, they are going to say ‘I see what you did’ & call you out on your BS. Another issue preventing the discovery of truth or bluff is bureaucracy, you may have rival groups with limited funding available hesitant to invite more knowledgeable individuals who could uncover the reality of the situation.
A different possibility is that the UK does have an undisclosed “Project C.A.T.” initiative. How would we know it exists if nobody told us? To determine its existence, one could examine the number of specialized PhDs and researchers focusing on big cat studies within zoology in UK universities. If a significant proportion of these experts disappear after completing their degrees and are found to reside in specific locations like Suffolk, it may suggest the existence of such a project. If this is the case, a wildlife ‘big cat’ project would ideally incorporate specialised strategies to mitigate human-wildlife conflict, focusing on species like Panthers and Leopards. These strategies could include education and awareness campaigns, livestock protection measures, habitat conservation efforts, implementation of deterrents, monitoring and research initiatives, collaboration with local communities, and continuous evaluation and adaptation of approaches.
However trying to find the existence of any of this is in some ways as perplexing as finding “big cats” but obviously I’m all in for the werewolf explanation myself.