Opinion

Sussex folklore: The continuing mystery of big cat sightings

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 neil.arnold@live.com

4 comments on “Sussex folklore: The continuing mystery of big cat sightings

    • Neil Arnold, is rather too often refered to by the press as a ‘Big Cat expert’ when nothing could be further from the truth. He appears to have no direct experience of working with big cat species. Not even so much as a Saturday job cleaning cages at Howletts.

      Importantly, he also appears to have no formal training as a naturalist/ecologist/zoologist or indeed in any other legitimate scientific discipline that would relate to the study of wild animals. His KBCR page does not even attempt to present findings in a scientific style. Arnold has therefore never published findings in a peer reviewed journal.

      Arnold also claims to ‘work with’ zoologists, (Sources given later in article) but in what way? Research? I think we’ve established that he’s not qualified to do that in any meaningful sense.

      So does he name any? No, not as such… The only qualified zoologist cited on KBCR, is one Karl Shuker, a Phd in Zoology. Shuker, take note, is another regular of the woo circuit with a nice line going in cryptozoology publications. As far as I can find out he has yet to publish a legit paper on UK big cats in any peer reviewed natural history journal.

      There is a picture on the KBCR page of the BBC’s Chris Packham, but that should not be taken as an endorsement, only that Arnold once appeared on Packham’s kids programme investigating cryptozoology.

      Arnold can often be found giving talks to the credulous in church halls around the South East. You can hire him as a speaker for about £50 a time…

      My conclusion on Neil Arnold? I’m still in two minds if he is just a chancer or honestly deluded. What I am sure of, is that he writes and publishes nothing on big cats of any use other than to fright the ignorant, and THAT is something that should always be called out as the Bull-Shine it is.

      Stripped animal carcasses, without being properly logged and tested forensically can only prove that something or things killed and/or ate them. Not necessarily what, or even where, the deed took place. Neither can they prove claims of breeding populations of multiple species of big cats in the UK England. Neil Arnold’s book (albeit at first glance) seemed to provide no information on how this evidence was assessed or by whom. I refer readers back to my previous points about credible sources and qualified peer review of evidence.

      Evidence…Proof? NONE……………..

  1. Big cat tracking expert Frank Tunbridge said the animal looks like a cross between a black leopard and a puma.
    He said: ‘It is what we would call a British Big Cat.
    ‘Looking at the curve of the tail it is very feline. Cats lay down to eat like that, unlike dogs or foxes which usually stand up.” (Daily Mail)

    What a load of old mince. Sadly to say Frank the “expert” has never tracked, found, caught, caged, or anything with any “big cat”. Even Neil Arnold made a fool of himself in the sister paper in Kent. Mr Arnold talks what most consider laughable trash and make money from his kidology. If these odd, mega egoecentric fools have ever the wit then shame how not one has ever published one paper to go before other academics and peers to be scruntinised. Shuker, he again has some uses but the big cat myth, no chance. Minter, he is trying via to gain his PhD via writing trash about “big cats” and then we have McGowan and his daft dog poo, “Oh I can smell them, they are here, he even names at least 18 sub species of cats that he says are here and breeding”, well what a prat.

    “Invariably some “expert” will state that the big cat was a “Panther”, Panther-Like, Puma-Like. The moment that word “Panther” is used then I would call such expertise into question. No one within a zoological, zoo or working with big cats, including myself, will ever call such a feline a “Panther”, let alone a “Black Panther”. This is not to dispute that the word does not exist because it does. Lions are Panthera Leo; Tigers are Panthera tigris and the Leopards are of course Panthera pardus. Of the three the only one to be called a “Panther” is the Leopard and then only it is was a melanistic or black leopard. If it were it would be called a “Black Panther” and not simply a Panther, but zoologically speaking there is no such animal called a “Black Panther”. Within zoos and the zoological world, such people including myself would term Black Leopards rather than make up some pseudo name. There are indeed black jaguars too Panthera Onca and once again these animals would be called Black Jaguars and NOT black panthers or panthers. No expert let alone zoo staff will use the term “Panther”. Those so called “experts” who go on about big cats within the UK will go on record stating it was Panther-like, Puma-like etc. The Puma and the Cougar are not Panthera cats and as far as I am aware zoologically speaking there has been only two ever recorded cases of black Puma, one being in Brazil in 1843 and one being in Costa Rica in 1959.

    These “experts” who tend to be associated with groups who are dedicated to proving the existence of wild Big Cats in the UK, although they will say that this or that was here or there, or that someone saw this or that, a body was found or that there are sheep and deer kills, the evidence is now where to be found or seen. These groups will always say that they do have such picture, video, body evidence but when the time comes to show this then the evidence fails to stack up and holds to credulity to it. One cannot help admire their dedication, their hobby, it is not a bad hobby but these people are indeed very misinformed, mind you there are some who are seen as total eccentric to a few who are very keen.” (Peter Dickinson, 40 years as a zoo keeper and curator ret.)

    Given the lifespan in the wild and require both sex to mate and produce, then take into geography as well as the probability of one sex being of cycle and then meeting another opposite sex of the same genus. Sorry Do the math. Even from the 1976 Act, the 1982 and 1984 Act, given that felids Fears that black panthers are roaming the Scottish countryside following the release of the Helensburgh mobile phone footage have been firmly debunked by international experts. According to big cat conservationist Dr Luke Hunter, ‘The footage looks very much like a very well fed domestic cat to me. ‘Leopards (black panthers are melanistic leopards) do not carry their tails upright, which you see in the footage, while domestic cats characteristically do. He added ‘I’ve seen big cats –leopards, lions, cheetahs, jaguars, tigers and cougars – in the wild thousands of times and nothing about this footage has the appearance or look and feel of any of those species. No way is this a big cat.’ And the lack of evidence leads Dr Hunter to remain unconvinced about the existence of big cats in Scotland.

    He claims there are 100 or so Asiatic cheetahs left roaming in massive areas in Iran ‘yet we are able to camera trap them and find their tracks. They are even killed on roads. So by comparison, it’s ridiculous to claim that big cats in Scotland are elusive and can hide. When cats occur, it is pretty straightforward to find evidence of them. ‘Nothing I have seen or been asked to comment on in the last decade or so is remotely convincing as a big cat.’ Dr Andrew Kitchener, principal curator of mammals and birds at the National Museums of Scotland agrees. ‘It’s curious that none of them are getting killed on the roads.

    Either they are not there or they are very scarce indeed.’ Dr Kitchener says that it ‘was pretty obvious that the animal in the Helensburgh footage was a domestic cat’ He believes there’s a problem with perception when trying to judge the size of any animal from a distance.

    Graham Law, a zoologist at Glasgow University who has worked with leopards for 23 years, also said the animal was more likely to be of the domestic variety.

    He said: “The video isn’t of a good enough quality to verify exactly what the animal is. A leopard would not confidently walk down a railway line. It would more likely move along the sleepers or stay in heavily forested areas.

    “People like the idea of believing there’s a mysterious beast roaming around, which is why the sighting may have been hyped up a bit.”

    have a certain life but I have heard some crank stories but these big cat sighting are just that, full of hype. Now just before Mark Fraser shut up shop and closed down his BCiB site, he said this in the press: “People don’t usually report such sightings in fear of ridicule and most do feel that this is a crank subject.” & ““People don’t want publicity – they are still very reluctant. It is still a crank subject.”

    Prof Robbie McDonald, chair in natural environment at the University of Exeter’s Environment and Sustainability Institute, said: “Most reports of big cats come to nothing and the reduction could be because people are asking themselves whether it’s worth reporting to the police.

    “The drop in reported sightings might not be a reflection of how many sightings are made.

    “It is remarkable how many people genuinely believe they’ve seen a big cat out there.”

    Prof McDonald said he would expect more evidence of prey being killed if there were a number of big cats living in the wild.

    “However, that doesn’t exclude occasional animals being found,” he said.

    “If there were long-lived, wide ranging animals out there you would expect a great deal of evidence.

    “On rare occasions the odd animal might have escaped and odd things turn up but rarely persist.”

    Natural England, the government’s advisory body on the natural environment, said it “occasionally” received reports from members of the public of alleged big cats.

    A spokeswoman said: “None of the sightings of big cats have ever been confirmed and the evidence of all the sightings we have been asked to look at has either been unsubstantiated or has been attributed to other causes.

    “From time to time big cats do escape from zoos or other collections and are usually recaptured very quickly. We are confident that there is no breeding population of big cats in this country.”

    Dr Nick Royle, a senior lecturer in Behavioural Ecology at Exeter University, said people could overestimate the size of animals, which could explain sightings.

    He said that research conducted at the university had shown that when viewing an object that was the size and shape of a large domestic cat at a distance of 230ft (70m) from them 21% of people estimated the ‘cat’ to be the size of a leopard or larger.

    Dr Royle said: “The research showed that people can estimate regular shapes such as rectangles of different sizes correctly at distance, but have difficulty estimating the size of cat-shaped objects.”

    Remember “cryptozoology” is:

    Oxford
    cryptozoology
    • noun the search for animals whose existence is disputed or unsubstantiated

    Dictionary.com
    cryp•to•zo•ol•o•gy   [krip-toh-zoh-ol-uh-jee]
    –noun
    the study of evidence tending to substantiate the existence of, or the search for, creatures whose reported existence is unproved

    Wikipedia even explains the Greek roots
    Cryptozoology (from Greek κρυπτός, kryptos, “hidden” + zoology; literally, “study of hidden animals”)

    Cryptozoology concerns itself with unknown species for which there are “legends” (for want of a better word) and with supposedly-extinct species. Strictly-speaking, a species that is simply unknown is not cryptozoological. The overall problem with debating the specifics of the meaning of the term “cryptozoology” is that it is not a legitimate field of science. Any idiot can call himself a cryptozoologist as if it means something important and it does not. A zoologist is a legitimate title, as is geologist, biologist, etc. Cryptozoologist means nothing.

    One can only vision the mere myth through those who want to believe or say they have seen such cult-like mythical dross of the UK big cat hype. Every day, such nonsense about the UK having wild, free-living and breeding “big cats” makes me sick and fed up with the fantasies that such people and groups want and wish the public to hear and believe. Truth is, there are NO “big cats” in UK. peterdickinson hubpages com/hub/Big-Cat-Sightings

    Cryptozoology concerns itself with unknown species for which there are “myths” and with supposedly-extinct species. Strictly-speaking, a species that is simply unknown is not cryptozoological. Cryptozoology” is that it is not a legitimate field of science. Any idiot can call himself a cryptozoologist as if it means something important and it does not. A zoologist is a legitimate title, as is geologist, biologist, etc. Cryptozoologist means nothing.

    Application of Locard’s Exchange Principle as well as the Application of the Simons Test. Then we have Dr Luke Hunter of Panthera (well respected) & Dr Alan Rabinowitz, as well as Dr Graham Law as well as Prof McDonald, and so on who disagree completely and have shown this in the Black Beast of Exmoor Documentary. Until there is fact and proof then this myth will continue as a crank subject. Even Mark Fraser said it was a crank subject before he closed down BCIB.

  2. Neil Arnold, is rather too often refered to by the press as a ‘Big Cat expert’ when nothing could be further from the truth. He appears to have no direct experience of working with big cat species. Not even so much as a Saturday job cleaning cages at Howletts.

    Importantly, he also appears to have no formal training as a naturalist/ecologist/zoologist or indeed in any other legitimate scientific discipline that would relate to the study of wild animals. His KBCR page does not even attempt to present findings in a scientific style. Arnold has therefore never published findings in a peer reviewed journal.

    Arnold also claims to ‘work with’ zoologists, (Sources given later in article) but in what way? Research? I think we’ve established that he’s not qualified to do that in any meaningful sense.

    So does he name any? No, not as such… The only qualified zoologist cited on KBCR, is one Karl Shuker, a Phd in Zoology. Shuker, take note, is another regular of the woo circuit with a nice line going in cryptozoology publications. As far as I can find out he has yet to publish a legit paper on UK big cats in any peer reviewed natural history journal.

    There is a picture on the KBCR page of the BBC’s Chris Packham, but that should not be taken as an endorsement, only that Arnold once appeared on Packham’s kids programme investigating cryptozoology.

    Arnold can often be found giving talks to the credulous in church halls around the South East. You can hire him as a speaker for about £50 a time…

    My conclusion on Neil Arnold? I’m still in two minds if he is just a chancer or honestly deluded. What I am sure of, is that he writes and publishes nothing on big cats of any use other than to fright the ignorant, and THAT is something that should always be called out as the Bull-Shine it is.

    Stripped animal carcasses, without being properly logged and tested forensically can only prove that something or things killed and/or ate them. Not necessarily what, or even where, the deed took place. Neither can they prove claims of breeding populations of multiple species of big cats in the UK England. Neil Arnold’s book (albeit at first glance) seemed to provide no information on how this evidence was assessed or by whom. I refer readers back to my previous points about credible sources and qualified peer review of evidence.

    Evidence…Proof? NONE……………..

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