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Escaped Mammals

In addition to those animals that occur naturally in the North East and which have their own account in this book, there are a number of species that have turned up on occasion. These are all very likely to be as a result of escapes but it is possible that the one or two Sika Deer Cervus nippon that have turned up the region (see Red Deer account) are vagrants from the population that is established in the Scottish borders rather than escapes from deer farms. The only escaped species for which there is any reason to believe it may have bred in the North East is the American Marten Martes americana casuarinas (see Pine Marten account).

Escaped mammals have a long history in the North East. Included in the inventory of the mammals found in a Roman granary in South Shields (Younger, 1994) are remains from two Garden Dormice, Eliomys quercinus. There is no indication that this species has ever been native to Britain so it is more likely that these are escapees, potentially from animals kept for the table.

Table 1 below lists all of the escaped mammals that have been recorded at large in the North East though doubtless there will have been a number of others that have gone unrecorded. For example Baker (1990) plotted the distribution of 22 records of Raccoon Procyon lotor found out of captivity in the UK between 1970 and 1989; one of the dots on his map is broadly in the Middlesbrough/Billingham area.

“Rocky” Raccoon, Sunderland © Rick O’Farrell

It is illegal under Section 14 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act (1981) (as amended) to release, or allow to escape into the wild, any animal not normally resident in Great Britain. This includes a variety of non-native animals that have established populations such as American Mink Neovison vison or Red-necked Wallaby Macropus rufogriseus. Escapes and particularly deliberate releases may therefore go unreported due to fear of prosecution.

Under the Dangerous Wild Animals Act (1976) (DWAA) certain mammal species must be licensed with the Local Authority, which carries out inspections of housing facilities in conjunction with a veterinary surgeon. In order to try and gauge the potential for escapes of those exotic species listed under the Act, the author contacted all Local Authorities in the North East to enquire as to what numbers of which species were registered with them under the DWAA. Responses were received from all Local Authorities except Middlesbrough, Redcar and Cleveland, and Stockton. As of January 2012, the only animals that were registered across the rest of the Local Authorities were 40 American Bison Bison bison with Durham County Council and one malmut/wolf cross Canis familiaris x lupus with Northumberland County Council. Of the species that have been recorded in Table 1, only Wild Boar Sus scofra, is on the Schedule of species for which a license is required under the DWAA though Raccoon was also on the Schedule prior to a modification order in 2007. The removal of species such as Raccoon and the related Coati Nasua nasua from the DWAA and therefore the removal of standards for husbandry and security for those species could well result in them being kept more widely and consequently escaping more often. It is likely then that reports of these species in the wild will occur more frequently in the future though whether they escape in sufficient numbers to breed and establish a population remains to be seen.

Table 1: List of mammals recorded as presumed escapees in the North East. Escapees are single animals unless otherwise indicated.

Date Species Location Notes
Late 1960s Smooth-coated Otter Lutrogale perspicillata Stanley Escaped from Stanley Zoo. Believed to have escaped into the River Team.
1983 Porcupine Hystrix sp Shincliffe Seen in bushes near Rose Tree pub; known to have been present for 2-3 years.
Mid 1980s Golden Hamster Mesocricetus auratus Darlington Brought in by cat.
c1987 Chinchilla Chinchilla lanigera Pow Hill Country Park A group of three were captured. It was thought that they had not been long out of captivity as they were easily caught.
1980s Chipmunk – spp unknown Newcastle Live specimen in school grounds – recaptured.
Late 1980s Chipmunk – spp unknown Thropton, near Rothbury Killed by cat. Specimen now in Great North Museum: Hancock.
7.11.92 Red-necked Wallaby Macropus rufigriseus Lanchester Escaped from Acorn Bank garden centre. It was captured within 3 days having made it as far as Dryburn Hill in Durham City.
1993 Wild Boar Sus scofra Brancepeth Northern Echo report.
1995 Red-necked Wallaby Macropus rufigriseus Lanchester Escaped from a garden centre and was present on the Malton reserve for a couple of weeks. Fate unknown.
1996 Red-necked Wallaby Macropus rufigriseus Wark area Seen on the loose.
1997 Arctic Fox Alopex lagopus Alnwick Shot by gamekeeper while eating (scavenging?) a lamb.
1998 Raccoon Procyon lotor Darlington Found in a shipping container from the USA at Cummins Engines.
2001 Wild Boar Sus scofra Chopwell Woods On the loose for several days before being killed by a car.
2001 Brush-tailed Possum Trichosurus vulpecula Riding Mill One was seen in the wild over several months during which time it evaded attempts at capture. It was thought to have been an escapee from a private collection near Consett. It eventually turned up as a road casualty.
2001 Arctic Fox Alopex lagopus Iveston Seen outside the front door of house at night.
2002 (approx.) Raccoon Procyon lotor Castle Eden Walkway, Stockton Notice put up offering reward for lost Raccoon.
2005 Red-necked Wallaby Macropus rufigriseus Elwick, Hartlepool Escaped and not recaptured.
2007 Red Deer or Wild Boar Elwick, Hartlepool Large print found in a stream bed in woodland. Cast taken, showing dew claws. DEFRA unable to say whether it was from Red Deer or Wild Boar.
2008 Wild Boar Sus scofra Between Hexham and Corbridge Road casualty – the dead animal was photographed.
2008 Wild Boar Sus scofra Sedgefield Road casualty near Hardwick Hall, Sedgefield.
2009 Red-necked Wallaby Macropus rufigriseus Kielder Escaped from the Bird of Prey centre.
2010 Raccoon Procyon lotor Shadforth, Durham Filmed by Durham Wildlife Trust in a private garden. It had been visiting the garden for the previous two years though it disappeared shortly after it was filmed.
2011 Chipmunk – spp unknown Stobswood, Morpeth Seen on the loose; unclear whether more than one animal involved.
2012 Raccoon Procyon lotor Sunderland Seen in a private garden for several days in July 2012. Durham Wildlife Trust has a report of a Raccoon in Sunderland for the previous two years which may be the same individual.


The question of whether big or exotic cats are at large in Britain is one that has surfaced quite regularly in the media over the years and it is probably fair to say that hardly a week goes by without a sighting being reported in some local newspaper across the UK. In fact reports are now so frequent that a recent book addressed the issue of how we should respond to the situation where big cats have become part of our fauna (Minter, 2011). That exotic cat species can turn up in the wild in Britain is not disputed: there have been a small number of cases where this was well documented including the Eurasian Lynx Lynx lynx, that was darted in Cricklewood in 2001 and taken to London Zoo, or the Jungle Cat Felis chaus killed on a road in Shropshire in 1989. More locally a Leopard Cat Prionailurus bengalensis was found dead between the Reston and Grants Houses area of North Berwick in 1988 and a second in August 1990 at Hule Moss, Greenlaw and sent to the Royal Scottish Museum in Edinburgh (Bob Wilkin, pers. comm., 2012). The mainstream consensus seems to be that such instances are isolated though it is interesting that at least one county account of mammal fauna (Clark, 2001) considers big cats to be breeding in that county (Hertfordshire) and even gives advice on what to do should you encounter one.

The North East has one of the longer traditions in this subject. The so-called “Durham Puma” became well known as several reports featured quite prominently in the local newspapers in the 1980s. In fact the eponym has become so well entrenched that sightings of big cats are often assumed to be of Pumas Puma concolor, even though the animal described is usually of black colouration; black Pumas have never been definitively recorded anywhere in the world. Eddie Bell, who was a Wildlife Liaison Officer for Durham Constabulary and who is was the primary researcher on this subject at that time, was aware of almost 300 reports from the period 1986-2000 (Minter, 2011).

In the 1990s reports seemed to shift to Northumberland or at least interest in them did. Many of these were published in a series of newsletters edited by John Tait. The ones for which there was a reasonable amount of information, which was by no means all of them, were tabulated in the November 1997 edition (Tait, 1997). From January 1995 to October 1997 some 37 reports had been collated for Northumberland. Of these, 26 referred to “Big Black Cats”, often described as a black panther, with five reports of Puma and one each of Lynx, Ocelot Leopardalus pardalis, Bobcat Lynx rufus, Leopard Panthera pardus (of the normal spotted type), Wildcat Felis sylvestris grampia and one of an alleged corpse where the species was not stated. Reports were mainly from the Elsdon, Kirkwhelpington, Harwood Forest area with another cluster of reports around the Hexham/Haydon Bridge area and some from Morpeth. There was no apparent distinction in the distribution patterns of reports of Pumas and black panthers with both types being reported in the same area.

The pre-2000 period also provided what is to date the only hard evidence for the presence of exotic cats in the North East. In 1992 professional photographer Philip Nixon took a photo of what he observed as a cat carrying an adult rabbit in its mouth, in the North Pennines near Ireshopeburn. The picture is believed by many to show a Jungle Cat though others maintain it merely shows a Fox Vulpes vulpes. Then in 1993 a dropping was found at Whorlton near Barnard Castle, which, it was claimed, was identified by Hans Kruuk of Aberdeen University as being from either Puma or Leopard. In the late 1990s, John Tait had a cast from Northumberland identified as Puma by someone who was experienced at tracking the species in the USA.

In 2010, Northumbria Mammal Group’s “Big Cat Diaries” were compiled into a book, which also attempted a brief but more serious analysis of the reports (Bond, 2010). As of August 2010, some 134 reports had been collated. Of those, 102 were described in sufficient detail that they could be at least notionally attributed to a particular species. By far the majority of those, 88 in total, referred to a large, black, pantherine species, presumed to be a melanistic Leopard and subsequently referred to as panthers, with a further seven to Pumas, six to Lynx and a single one to Serval Felis serval.

In addition there were seven reports of black cats that are very much bigger than domestic cats but which clearly were not panthers. According to the Big Cats in Britain organisation, which catalogues reports across the country, this is the second most common category for “big cat” reports nationally (Mark Fraser, pers. comm., 2009). An example of such a cat, which was larger than a Fox in the same video clip, was seen on ITV news in 2012. The news clip included comment by Professor Steve Harris, currently chair of the Mammal Society, who described the cat as “the largest predator currently at large in Britain” though he concluded that it was just an outsized domestic cat. A further five reports where the species was seen clearly and at close range and described in detail do not fit any known species. Some may postulate that these represent hybrids or even an unknown species but it may in fact just be a measure of the potential for unreliability in some of the reports. Nevertheless a number of those 134 reports were seen at close range by people who were experienced at observing animals and, in the author’s opinion, it is reasonable to say that examples of Leopard, Puma and Lynx have been reliably recorded in the North East within the past 10-15 years.

Reports of panthers have occurred throughout much of the North East over the past decade though there are two particular areas where there are notable clusters of records. One of these is Tynedale, particularly around Stocksfield and Hexham. The other is in southeast Durham between Hartlepool and Sedgefield, particularly around the Wynyard area. The latter may be a case of recorder bias as this is where the author is based. Just as significantly there are certain areas where there are few if any reports, for example northeast Durham and south Tyneside, North Tyneside and several areas of Northumberland, including until recently Kielder, Europe’s largest man-made forest.

The few reports of cats resembling Puma and Lynx have been spread across wide areas of the North East, with the only place where either of these species has been reported more than once being Wynyard with five of the 11 reports of Puma that the author has received to date.

Reports continue to come to light, if anything with increasing frequency, though this is largely due to them being forwarded from the national Big Cats in Britain website, which being web-based has probably smoothed out some of the effects of recorder bias. As of mid-2012 the author has received at least 200 reports. Even so these reports certainly do not represent the full picture. That there are potentially many more reports of exotic cats than those received by the author was demonstrated by a Freedom of Information request to Durham Constabulary in 2011 asking for details of reports of big cats over the previous five years. It transpired that Durham Constabulary had logged 28 sightings over that period and on matching those with reports received by the author it appeared that only three were the same report.

While the distribution of the reports would suggest that there has been more than one individual of certain exotic cat species at large in the North East, that is not to suggest that those species might have established themselves. Only two of the reports that the author has received have claimed to be of mother and cubs. For Lynx, Hetherington (2005) has calculated that it would require a founder population of around 12-32 animals in order for the population to have a 95% chance of persisting 10 years after the release. Even if, for example, individual cats near Hexham and Hartlepool could meet up the statistical chances of a population resulting from that must be very small. The maximum that an individual cat might be expected to live in the wild is into the low teens, though these are the exceptions (Guggisberg, 1975). The reports have continued for several decades now, therefore the conclusion must be either: that virtually all of the reports are cases of mistaken identity; that there are continued releases; that the animals are breeding in the region, or that there is a breeding population outside of the region from which individual cats are emigrating. None of these strikes the author as very likely but one, or a combination of them, must be the case. It will be interesting to see if the next few decades shed any further light on this.


Written by Ian Bond (last updated Nov 12)