By Neil Arnold
Ever since man first set foot in the wilds of what we now know as the county of Sussex, he has spoken of strange forms said to inhabit the woods. Menacing apparitions, monstrous manifestations and unusual animals.
Welcome to my new regular column on Sussex folklore. Sussex as a county is steeped in history, and with history come peculiar stories, some true, some half-hinted, some factual, and so I’ve decided into delve into a majority of these for your pleasure. I’m an author and folklorist who is of the opinion that we need mystery in our lives, and over the years, with the advancement of modern technology, we have relegated our beliefs and fears to the backs of our mind and become sceptical as to which sort of things could still hide in the darkest corners of our forests.
For this first episode I’d like to begin with a relatively modern Sussex-related mystery that many of us like to call ‘big cats.’ Certainly since the 1960s there have been numerous reports of unusually large cats roaming the wilds of the county.
Sceptics argue that such animals are probably misinterpretations of dogs, feral cats and foxes, but fail to look at the startling evidence which shows sheep and deer carcasses completely stripped of meat, huge paw-prints – bereft of a claw indentation – unlike a dog, piles of faeces measuring some six-inches in length and consisting of deer fur, scratch marks found high up in trees, and of course, those rather blurry photographs.
‘Big cats’ have a modern phenomenon, often mocked, yet continuously reported. A majority of witnesses describe three animals – the first is the black leopard (panther), which measures around 3-5 ft in length and has a tail almost three-quarters the length of the body. The leopard, native to Africa and Asia, is a secretive animal, so why on earth are there sightings in Sussex?
The second animal is the puma, also known as the cougar or mountain lion. This animal roams the wilds of the United States and Canada, and is the largest of the Lesser Cats. Pumas, despite newspaper reports, are not black; their coat is fawn-coloured, with a white underside. The puma has a smaller head than that of the leopard, but an equally thick, curving tail.
The third felid often reported from Sussex is the lynx, an animal once native to these shores but rumoured to have been wiped out thousands of years ago. The lynx is mainly identifiable by its short, stubby tail and large, tufted ears and mottled coat.
Over the years there have been numerous reports of black leopard, puma and lynx from the Horsham district, the most recent during January 2013 at Henfield when a woman walking her dog, at 6:30 one morning, noticed her dog had suddenly become frozen to the spot. The dog stared into the distance and the woman followed its gaze and was stunned to see a large, black cat pacing along a tree-line before disappearing into the woods. The woman reported: “This was no dog or domestic cat – it was a huge animal, very muscular. Normally the dog wouldn’t bat an eyelid but she was freaked out by this thing.”
A majority of researchers and believers regarding ‘big cat’ sightings in England believe such animals are not escapees from zoo parks but in fact offspring of those animals originally released around the 1960s, but mainly 1970s when it was relatively common for folk to keep such animals as pets. Nowadays people tend to own smaller, yet equally exotic pets such as snakes, terrapins and crocodiles, but in the 60s it wasn’t unheard of for people to own cats – seriously big cats, from lions to leopards. In 1976 the Dangerous Wild Animals Act was introduced in order to clamp down on so much exotic pets and some believe this forced owners to dump their ‘pets.’
Even so, cats such as the leopard only live in the wild for around thirteen years, so any animals released back then would be dead by now. This of course suggests that such animals found a mate, but there would have to be enough of each species around, and in numbers for this to occur, as a male leopard would certainly not breed with a female puma.
For more than 25 years I’ve collected reports from all over Sussex of reputed ‘big cats,’ and collated some startling evidence which suggests that the stories are not mere headline fodder. In fact, judging by the records, animals such as leopard and puma have been roaming the woods of Sussex for a lot longer than we realise!
If you think you’ve seen a ‘big cat’ in Sussex email Neil Arnold at firstname.lastname@example.org