Just like last year the Buckinghamshire County Show was going to be an organised rush to correlate any display data I had on this year’s big cat research in the Chiltern area!
Rick was meeting me the night before at 7 pm so we could set up the main parts of the show and displays followed by a good catch up as my business this year had barely left me any time for timely research. This was the 15th year of my big cat research in Buckinghamshire but only the second year I had lived here after moving from West London. Even though I have always been a country man at heart to actually now live in a rural property in the middle of my research area had given me a true sense of belonging to this forested place.
One thing I was never prepared for when I moved to a rural village in Bucks was how even a workaholic social recluse like myself could be sucked up into the local community with new friends everywhere! Within 18 months I now knew most locals, farmers and gamekeepers. It seemed strange that although the village I lived in had never had many reports of big cats, there were big hotspots to the North, West and South East of me. That changed after six months of me moving in as the cats that had been giving me the run around for the past 15 years came to haunt my back yard.
First a large cat was seen reported within 2 miles of my home then a week by week stream of what seemed to be a single black cat hanging around an area of a three mile radius. It seemed like a new cluster had appeared on my digital map within a few months slap bang in the middle of other historical clusters going back 20 years. I had spent many evenings on the areas around these new sightings finding deer kills and smelling that strong smell of Leopard I had smelt so many times in India. But as always the camera trap and evidence gathering was frustratingly slow!
The morning of the show had arrived and I met Rick in the morning and we finished the final touches to the pitch. People soon started to pour in and as usual we were swamped with sightings ranging from 30 years to a few weeks ago. One thing that amazed me even more was land owners from last year who had cats visiting them on their property came for information and updates on his years hotspots.
I remember the first big article that really got me excited about Buckinghamshire’s big cats online that was from a 1970’s new column. A small 4 year old girl was walking with her grandfather along the back of Chinnor cement works when a dog sized black cat approached them from the side of the road on its belly. Staring at the little girl the cats eyes were wide and focused. The grandfather had to charge the cat smacking his walking stick on the road until the cat ran up a wooded bank. These were the same wooded banks I had visited only last year after two sightings of a large black leopard like creature 40 years later!
While standing with Rick at the show an old lady appeared and walked up to me. ‘Excuse me! My daughter was in the local paper years ago regarding a big black cat approaching her and my father’! So here I was standing in front of the mother of the little girl of one of the most influential big cat stories from Buckinghamshire! One that had persuaded me to get in my car and begin tracking big cats of the Chilterns! The lady also gave me many other stories historically from that area filling in spaces I never knew could be filled! What a thrill!
Writing down sighting after sighting overlaying them over last year’s sightings many new clusters were appearing all over Buckinghamshire and Bedfordshire. I had always concentrated on the Chiltern Hills territories but the flatter areas north of the county were turning out to be even more bountiful than my usual areas. Milton Keynes, Woburn, Leighton Buzzard, Winslow, Luton and the east of Aylesbury all had turned the odd dot on my map to significant clusters. Over the years my data collecting and website had generated so many sightings on these animals for my research but it was becoming clear this large data base was only still scratching the surface!
I had always assumed that new sightings would come in after someone had seen a large cat, searched for similar sightings on the internet, found the website and then maybe some would email me! The truth is I was not catching as much data as I thought. Within half a day Rick and I had logged two new horse attacks, a black leopard road kill, instances where local police forces were investigating large cats and other local researchers I had never even met before. Buckinghamshire was a hive of big cat activity.
I had always been apprehensive about talking too much about my research with the local guys I now knew at the village. This was not because I was embarrassed about my research I guess it just never entered the conversation. One after the other I started to see people who knew me! ‘Paulo you’re a dark horse’ ‘You want to hear about a sheep that had been completely eaten and a large cat we saw last year?’ And so the revelations continued all day I was learning that large cats were not that extraordinary in the countryside anymore!
As the day wore on we would chat to neighbouring stalls and exhibitors most didn’t even mention big cats even though we had it plastered all over a large banner and Boris the panther watching proudly over the stream of passing people! Nobody laughed no body frowned everyone just had a look, had a friendly chat about local sightings and left. It almost seemed big cats are just a reality to the rural folk of Buckinghamshire.
Steve and Tara who are creating a theatre production on the subject of big cats came to see us at the show and were simply blown away from the big cat experiences we were talking about. A sighting would get reported to Rick and I would catch wind of it and shout over ‘oh yes the sandy coloured cat that hangs around Wycombe Airfield, likes to hunt foxes!’ It’s funny you forget sometimes just how in depth some of the knowledge on local animals is by researchers and how amazing this is to onlookers. Steve and Tara said they started to look into the idea of big cats living in Britain and the more they dug into it the deeper the reservoir of information and data there was. They were quite simply overwhelmed!
I would say watch this space! Although there was a quiet period of activity between 2009 – 2012 the activity seems to be growing at a very quick pace in Buckinghamshire with very ‘good quality’ sightings increasing year on year! The now two years of the big cat stand at Buckinghamshire show has really pulled out some great sightings as well as new contacts, radio show appearances and an atmosphere of quiet acceptance for Buckinghamshire Big Cats.
For more information about big cat sightings in the South East and across Britain check out 'Big Cats: Facing Britain's Wild Predators' by Rick Minter. In my opinion the most holistic thorough summery of the UK's big cat phenomena to date.