Lachel's alleged 1928 Devon Puma photo.
When I started advising the police in 1977 I expected to hear the odd story but by 2009 -no arguments.
But here is the thing. I spoke to someone in a little English village.
"Big expert" explained not to panic if one was seen locally.
I then get told "Oh kids were told if one moves through the area keep away from the woods and high grass and crops" and what to do if face to face with a puma.
"You people have certainly done your research" I said.
"Oh, not us. Its what my mother told us because her mother told her and the brothers what to do".
Me. "I'm sorry?"
It turns out her mother -IN THE 1950s- was told the care to take "if the cat comes through" So I ask if her mother was a naturalist or-?
"No. No. Housewife and did garden work (means she planted and grew the fruit and veg for the family as well as the other stuff) but when the cats used to pass through and kill the odd deer or rabbits she was told by her father what to do. The whole village was the same."
Now, hang on. Her mother was a younger in the 1930s but someone back there was familiar enough with pumas to know their traits?
"Its nothing new, dear" she told me.
And the same story from other villages in England and Wales. When I eventually joined up with the University of Wales Carmarthen the professor there (whose pony had been attacked by a puma and various foals killed not to mention sheep -which is when villagers told her and her husband about "the cats") and her assistant found the same thing.
We could trace things back to the 17th and 18th centuries and yet, in all of that time -over 4 centuries- not one person has been attacked or killed by a wild living puma. Plenty of encounters up close but njo panic and run. There are millions of rabbits and millions of deer in the UK, water fowl -a whole pantry. There are even estates where game keepers (game keepers!!!!) protect the cats because they keep down "vermin".
None of this eventually surprised me, and when a Senior Lecturer in Zoology with an international reputation who has dealt with puma work in Canada told me he saw a black puma within 70 feet of him in good lighting and "with every diagnostic feature of a puma"....I never blinked.
Despite all the morons out there it is good to know that "Little England" (in the countryside at least) is not in panic. It treats wildlife as wildlife and "if you don't bother them they won't bother you!"
Fair enough. From December 2015: please note that after I posted the DEFRA letter there was an attempt at some VERY heavy official "leaning" on me. I offered to post other more revealing documents -silence since then.
Big Cats In The UK?
I've mentioned UK large cat sightings so time for a little bit of truth -which DEFRA really does not like. This is 10 years old now and was sent to me by a reporter, Jennie Dennett who wanted to find out more about the large cat sightings going on in Cumbria. I explained the situation so she went for a Freedom of Information request.
This was the response:
The Westmoreland Gazette
25 Market Street,
Our ref EWD 487 Delay
Date 20th May 2005
Dear Ms Dennett,
Thank you for your request for information about sightings of big non-native cats in the UK. Your request has been considered under the Environmental Information Regulations (EIR) 2004 and following careful consideration, I can now inform you that we have decided that some of the information you have requested will be disclosed and some withheld.
It may firstly be useful if I explained some of the background to the issue of big cats. There is no formal process for the recording of big non-native cat sightings. Defra’s Rural Development Service (RDS) National Wildlife Management Team does investigate claims of big cat sightings, but only in cases where there is a potential risk to livestock. Any instance where there is a potential risk to the public is a matter for the Home Office and the Police.
Any sightings reported by a member of the public to the RDS since mid-2001 have been recorded, however it is important to note that the Team covers England only. Prior to this, a member of the Team kept a personal record of sightings gleaned from newspaper cuttings, etc. This information is no longer available, but some of it was published and may be available from public libraries. I’m afraid that we do not hold copies of these two reports.:
Baker, S.J. (1990). Escaped exotic mammals in Britain. Mammal Review, 20, 75-96.
Baker, S.J. (1990). Escaped exotic mammals in Britain. Mammalaction (Newsletter of the Mammal Society Youth Group), 48, 3-4
In 1995 the (then MAFF) wildlife team conducted an investigation into reports of large exotic cats in the Bodmin area of Cornwall. A report of this investigation was published as follows:
Baker, S J and C J Wilson (1995) The evidence for the presence of large exotic cats in the Bodmin area and their possible impact on livestock. MAFF, London 16pp. No. PB2308 (available online at: http://www.defra.gov.uk/wildlife-countryside/vertebrates/reports/Exotic-Cats.pdf) For ease I attach a copy of this report.
I am afraid that we will not release details of individual sightings as we believe that this data falls under exception 12(4)(d) of the Environmental Information Regulations in that the information is in the course of completion. We intend to publish the data we have collected in relation to the dates, numbers and summary locations of exotic sightings within the next 3 months. In making this decision we have carefully considered the public interest test and have balanced the need for disclosure against the need to withhold the data. We believe that it is reasonable for us to withhold the data whilst we collate and prepare it for publication.
However, I can inform you that since RDS began recording sightings reported by the public (circa April 2001 to 31 March 2005) there have been 28 unconfirmed big cat sightings recorded for England. None of these sightings were from Cumbria.
Defra holds no physical evidence that big non-native cats are living in the wild in Cumbria or elsewhere in the UK. Release of big cats into the wild is prohibited under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 and possession of these species is regulated under the Dangerous Wild Animals Act 1976. If there is believed to be a public safety issue, for example from an escaped big cat, then this is a matter for the Police. RDS do have a record of instances of known escapes of big cats from 1977. I have attached a copy of this table for information.
I do not know whether the Central Science Laboratory or the Veterinary Laboratories Agency hold any data regarding big cats. In order for me to contact them and fully explore whether they hold such data, I regret that we must extend the time limit for responding by 20 days. I hope to let you have a response on this particular part of your enquiry by 16 June, and will keep you informed of any further delay. In the meantime I hope that you will find the attached information useful.
If you are unhappy with the way the authority has handled your request, you may ask for an internal review. Please contact Lewis Baker, Head of Defra’s Access to Information Unit at, Area1E West block 3-8 Whitehall Place London SW1A 2HH who will arrange an internal review of your case.
If you are not content with the outcome of the internal review, you have the right to apply directly to the Information Commissioner for a decision. The Information Commissioner can be contacted at:
Information Commissioner’s Office
If you have any queries about this letter please contact me.
Simon R Harding
Species Policy Adviser
Fax 0117 372 8182
I like the start of the letter: "... some of the information you have requested will be disclosed and some withheld." Well, start as you mean to go on.
Firstly, the "Beast of Bodmin" investigation was flawed from the very start. Those involved would only listen to those it decided it wanted to talk to: those whose cases could be easily dismissed or a little official scorn poured over the claims.
I spoke to five people who requested to submit evidence in the form of audio recordings which involved a quite clear call that someone at the BBC Natural History Unit (when I worked with them) said straight away "Oh,that's a leopard roar where was it from -" at this point he held up his hand and said "That sounds like sheep in the background...and a fox bark?" Then I told him where it was recorded! There were other calls and two had the recordists talking as they lent out of windows to record what was going on: "That's up by the paddock...."/ "****** it's going up toward the sheep sheds!" and some other choice words as a huge roar was recorded. The audio clips "might have been peacocks or foxes" I'd hate to meet a Bodmin 'fox' or 'peacock' at night!
"Inadmissable" the 'investigation' panel said. A professional cat tracker from Africa who had lived on Bodmin wanted to give evidence as he had seen the tracks and made casts but was dismissed out of hand. I was told later about a comment "From Africa, tracked leopards and has casts? Could have faked them" (by which they meant he could have had them with him since Africa).
"We intend to publish the data we have collected in relation to the dates, numbers and summary locations of exotic sightings within the next 3 months. In making this decision we have carefully considered the public interest test and have balanced the need for disclosure against the need to withhold the data. We believe that it is reasonable for us to withhold the data whilst we collate and prepare it for publication." Okay, where is the report? In fact the policy was that there may be large cats but just don't tell anyone.
So long as livestock are not in danger and a cat presents no clear danger to members of the public...nothing "to do with us".
Let's shed some light here.
During 1996 I visited the DEFRA offices in Bristol to meet the man who would deal with such reports. He explained that he had no knowledge of cats "but I can call on experts" -someone just said to him one day "Here. You can answer any calls on big cats" and that was it. My visit was the subject of some confusion -but not on my part. I had my ID and some Home Office and other papers in a clear folder and the person at reception shot off and in a couple minutes "the man" was there to greet me -this story and the man's name is known amongst serious naturalists.
I was ushered into an office and I took some plaster casts out of my bag and I was asked "What made those? Was it a dog?" I said no and highlighted the "pointers" on the tracks "Puma" I said. I was then told to "look at these" and a large drawer was pulled open that contained plaster casts. I pointed to one set "Lynx" I said and he said "So I've been told" and I noted leopard and puma tracks plus, I think, jungle cat.
I then said that we needed to work a lot closer to sort out some kind of plan. "Absolutely, I'mlost with this -which department at the Home Office are you in?" I looked at him and asked why he thought I was with the Home Office? Apparently, the person at reception had said so. "No. No, that's incorrect" I said showing my ID and saying "You'll find me listed as a police advisor-"
"No. No. You shouldn't be here. You have to leave now!" said "Mr Panic" and so he escorted me back out.
So, yes, MAFF/DEFRA had pretty good evidence but they were NOT investigating what was locked up at DEFRA in Bristol -inadmissable.
I also have a signed affidavit from a gentleman living in the North of England on a farm. Educated, knows what he's talking about and liaised with localpolice about a panther that walked through the courtyard regularly. A trap was set up and the idea was to trap the cat and get it to a wildlife park or zoo where it could be housed and tests run. The cat was trapped and DEFRA was contacted and very quickly an unmarked small white van turned up, driven by a vet. The witness is very precise about what happened and once the cat was tranquilised the vet told him that it was indeed a leopard but they'd take care of it.
The witness was asked to help the vet carry the cat from the cage and put it in the back of the van which he did but he was puzzled. "But the cage is too big and how are you going to get it into another?" was the question. He told me that he broke into a cold sweat when the vet responded "It's dead not tranquilised".
Very unhappy he telephoned DEFRA who said they had no idea what he was talking about so he contacted the police. They had absolutely no doubt the story was true but were told "its policy". End of story.
The witness was "gutted". However, about a week later the police contacted me "There's another one of those cats in the field by his property -how many are there?" I spoke to the witness who told me he was walking and wondered whose black dog was moving through the field nearby...then the cat emerged and ran off. He was genuinely shocked. I asked what he intended to do? "Nothing. They haven't caused a problem and I'm not having another one killed here".
I gave a copy of the affidavit to three different people and each deposited the copy in their bank. Mine is locked away safely in a bank.
I have a number of examples of this type of thing -all documented (and when DEFRA found me to be a nuisance and kept finding a fault in every renewal of my Partners Against Wildlife Crime submission (14 times it was corrected and each time "oh, this will need doing again" -despite two very senior police officers being my guarantors). When DEFRA told me "We can always go to court and have material seized" the data was distributed!
The statement that: "Defra holds no physical evidence that big non-native cats are living in the wild in Cumbria or elsewhere in the UK" is, or was, a lie. I guess a lot gets destroyed but in the UK, as I found in other work, "not everything has a paper trailor internet presence"
Small and largish cats are out there and despite all the lies you find on the internet, no wild living wild cat species has attacked a human being -and these cats have been out there since at least the 18th century.