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Path of the Panther – Northumbrian Big Cat Diaries

Big cats at large in the North East!? Judge for yourself.

“In the current climate of big cat reports, where it seems that every little town beginning with B has its “Beast of B…” and every town starting with C has “The C…. Cat,” Durham was in the action early with reports of the so-called Durham Puma. However even back in the 1980s, when it first came to prominence, it was soon clear that at least three types of big cats were being reported and in addition to pumas there were reports of lynx and of large, black cats, which were presumed to be melanistic leopards, or to give them their popular name, panthers. Not only that, but sightings also came in from the neighbouring counties of Northumberland and Cleveland.

I read the reports in the local papers with fascination but without much analysis and got the impression that there were a great many such reports. It wasn’t until recently when Bob Wilkin and Chris Hall (BCIB) loaned me their extensive collections of local news cuttings on big cats that it occurred to me that many of these were the same few reports being recycled. In a sense thought that doesn’t matter; that was then, and this is now, and cats, no matter how large, or how many lives, only live 10-15 years. A friend of mine, who knows some of the gamekeepers in Teesdale, asked them if they thought there were big cats roaming around their patches. They replied to the effect that it might have been the case in the eighties but certainly not recently. This book is about the picture over the past ten years, i.e. roughly from the year 2000.

The miscellany of reports of big cats that made up the Durham Puma story was actively researched and spell-bindingly told by Eddie Bell. However while I was enthralled listening to his talk some years back we have never actually met to compare notes. It is likely that he will receive a number of reports that I don’t get and vice versa. No doubt there will also be a good number of people who see what they are sure is a big cat but don’t report it to anybody. This book is not the whole story then, rather it’s just the parts that I am aware of.

This book is in two parts. The bulk of it is taken up with the ‘Northumbria Big Cat Diaries.’ The Diaries feature in the quarterly newsletter of Northumbria Mammal Group and I have left them more or less as originally written. For a variety of reasons there are no entries for some quarters and in one case for an entire year but there were few quarters where I didn’t receive even one report. I also write a sister column, ‘Droppings’, for the newsletter, which is a collection of small bits of information about mammals. There is often a bit of cross-referencing between the two and occasionally a creature mentioned in the Diaries may be made even more cryptic in this collection by the lack of ‘Droppings’ (a problem both literary and literally in the physical hunt for big cats in Britain).

Panther © Martin Bailey BCIB

Panther © Martin Bailey BCIB

The Northumbria Big Cat Diaries came about as a result of a typically facetious comment of mine about wanting to collate reports of big cat sightings. A well-respected North East naturalist took me seriously and told me of his compelling report. At his request I have never published his report though it remains one of the best both in terms of the sighting and the resulting story but it unquestionably set the ball off and rolling. The ‘Diaries’ kicked off in the Winter 2000 edition of the newsletter but I have also included an earlier big cat report from the newsletter, which seems to indicate that I was initially a little sceptical.

The second part of this book comprises a series of distribution maps and a discussion of what all these reports might be telling us about big cats in the North East. I have used the term ‘big cat’ in the popular sense of being any type of cat that is bigger than a domestic cat or its feral equivalent; certain species such as lynx or serval are at best medium sized. As they just cover the past ten years or so, the reports that I have collated have the benefit that they are therefore within the potential life span of an individual cat. This allows the opportunity for some analysis of patterns of big cat sightings based on the assumption that the reports are actually of big cats living in the North East and behaving as big cats might be expected to. Allowance, of course, must be made for the fact that the behaviour of such cats on a densely populated island with a temperate climate may be a little different to that which they exhibit in their native habitats. I attempted a short analysis of the 65 reports that I had received up to that point in an article entitled ‘The Path of the Panther’ for the 2007 Year Book of the Big Cats in Britain organisation. I’ve plagiarised that article quite extensively in this section as, although the number of reports that I have received has more than doubled in the past three years, the picture of big cats in the North East hasn’t changed significantly to my mind.”

The text above is the introduction to Path of the Panther, a book by North East ecologist Ian Bond which was published in 2010. The book is now out of print but Ian has kindly provided an electronic version of the book which is free to view/download.