Big cats in Buckinghamshire: Why they may just be out there
PUBLISHED: 16:45 29 September 2016 | UPDATED: 16:45 29 September 2016
Sometimes known as The Chiltern Puma, sightings of big cats not only abound, but are increasing. Jan Raycroft got her claws into this one…
Two chaps running a particular stand at the recent Bucks County Show were so inundated with visitors wanting to relate their personal experiences that they actually felt overwhelmed.
For Paulo Nicolaides, manning the exercise with Rick Minter, author of Big Cats, Facing Britain’s Predators, it was one of the most extraordinary days of evidence gathering, matching in one go some 15 years of Paulo’s recording sightings and searching for the elusive animals he believes live out their lives here, mostly undercover in our extensive woodlands.
At the show there were people admitting that their families held previously unseen photos of possible big cats, estate managers and land owners who suspect big cats return to prowl on their properties every few months, and the very many who wanted to ‘confess’ to having spotted something for which there was no obvious explanation. Definitely not a Labrador, not a large domestic cat, but the sort of creature we usually only see on wildlife documentaries filmed overseas.
All this was happening on the back of a surge of sightings – perhaps two a day around Buckinghamshire itself and the borders with Herts, Beds and Oxon.
As for Paolo, he was delighted when wife Claire agreed to up sticks and move from their London home to the top of a hill between Amersham and Great Missenden, a great spot for following his dream of proving that The Buckinghamshire Beast, or perhaps many beasts across the Chilterns, is a reality. A landscape gardener who recently launched Ecospaces, a business specialising in sustainable, ecological gardens, he is definitely a man on a mission.
“It all started when I was 11,” he says. “We lived on the edge of the countryside in Harrow and one day my dad told us how he had got up at 3am to have a cigarette downstairs. He saw a huge animal drinking out of our pond. When he banged on the window it turned its head and he could see the two large discs of its eyes and that it had a really long tail.”
The search was on… and Paulo thinks he’s spotted a big cat at a distance perhaps three times: “I’m 90 per cent certain on all three, but not 100 per cent. They appear and are gone so quickly you can’t be absolutely sure.”
He’s not put off by the fact that many doubters simply consider such ‘sightings’ to be urban myths. Try telling that to anyone who believes they’ve had a close encounter. As for lack of good photographic evidence, Paulo points to the fact that sightings happen when you least expect them and that more than swiftly grabbed camera phones are needed to get the ultimate shot. In any case most people are spellbound and the creature is gone in seconds.
And TV wildlife documentaries have shown how the experts can set up high resolution hidden night time cameras for days on end without recording the shy big cats they seek.
“I believe they are living amongst us and have done so for a long time,” says Paulo. “In the past big cats such as black panthers roamed our land – it’s actually animals like rabbits which have been introduced here.
“When you look in to it they have everything they need to thrive and don’t need to show themselves much as their source of food, other wildlife, is all around them in abundance and tons of meat are laid on for them as roadkill.”
One of the interesting facts is that over many years virtually all sightings in this country have concentrated on three species, whether it’s the Beast of Bodmin or the wilds of Scotland, and always in the same proportions. Around 60 per cent will be of a black panther type cat, double those of creamy coloured pumas, with the remaining 10 per cent described as lynxes (the Eurasian lynx still thrives, mostly in the East but is being reintroduced to Western Europe). Some spotted leopards have also been reported in Bucks.
So how could the big cats survive over many years? The possibilities include that they are ‘ghosts’, for some reason people keep releasing new felines in the same places as others did many years before (hence sightings covering a century or more) or, as Paulo, likes to think, enough exist for limited breeding.
Among those who think the whole thing is an urban myth are those who have posited that our brains could conjure up these ‘sightings’ because when out in the wild we might be instinctively aware of past times. But that doesn’t explain someone driving home thinking about their dinner or gas bill when suddenly spotting a big cat on a wooded hillside.
And it’s a fact that, however they got here, some big cats have been found. A puma, possibly previously domesticated, was captured in Scotland in 1980. A sheep-killing lynx was shot in Norfolk in 1991 and since then the shootings of an ocelot on the Isle of Wight and a caracal (lynx type cat) in Northern Ireland have added to reports. Closer to home, a Eurasian lynx was captured in north London in 2001.
The proof in the end of The Chiltern Puma may come from DNA – and Paulo is very excited as we discuss Big Cat Poo, officially known as scat. “You should see it, we are talking huge, and with whole hooves in it…”
Paulo operates the website bigcatsofthechilterns.weebly.com where you can find out more and let him know of any sightings. He also regularly updates the popular Facebook page Big Cats of the Chilterns with the latest news of incoming reports and searches.
Sightings since 2000
The list below is definitely not exhaustive, and as well as comprehensive eyewitness accounts, these cases includes multiple sightings in some areas around the same period by people who did not know each other:
• Black Panther - High Wycombe, Princes Risborough, Cookham, Marlow, Hazlemere, Beacons Bottom, Medmenham, Nettlebed, Henley, Chorleywood, Forty Green, Coleshill, Chinnor, Stokenchurch, Ashridge, Bovingdon, Chesham, Tring
• Puma - Chalfont St Giles, Marlow, Wargrave, Stewkley, Little Chalfont, Princes Risborough, Burchetts Green, Gerrards Cross, Saunderton, Wendover
• Lynx - Saunderton, Bradenham, Beaconsfield, High Wycombe, Denham
• Adam Henson extols the virtues of the Berkshire pig - Keen-eyed fans of ‘Countryfile’ might spot a new addition to my livestock the next time the cameras come to film on the farm.