Today I received a phone call. It was like thousands of others I'd received before.
"On saturday 25th February," the man said, "I was driving with my wife from New Romney to Ivychurch. It was about 10:30 pm and we saw a black leopard cub playfully chasing a rabbit. The cat was about 2ft 6" long and had a long tail. It took a swipe at the rabbit but missed and then chased it into the undergrowth and we lost sight of it."
A sceptic, in reply to such a report could easily dismiss such a sighting and say, "He probably saw a domestic cat," but this witness, like a few fortunate others, had had a similar experience before. He continued: "We knew it was a 'panther' - the way it was built but in November 2011 I was driving between Hamstreet and Brenzett on the A2070 and the headlights picked up a set of bright green eyes in the road. I saw a huge animal - it froze in the headlights then leaopt into the undergrowth. It was a massive black cat."
Romney Marsh and much of East Kent has been a hot-bed of sightings for many, many years. When I received this call I still got that adrenalin kick that I got when I took my first ever report of a 'big cat' - when I was 9 years old, which seems like many years ago. Back then, as a kid, it was a time when the 'big cat' situation was a mystery, and the 'beast of Exmoor' a mere whisper on the wind. Newspapers covered the stories because it was new - whereas now, a 'big cat' headline is never far away. Back then there weren't big cat hunters popping up everywhere and those that were seeing such animals weren't coming forward in their droves because a majority of witnesses just ddn't know what they were seeing or what was going on. Nowadays, the 'big cat' phenomenon has embedded itself into British folklore and culture. As a child I never thought that one day I'd be researching these animals full-time - and whilst it's a privilege to do so, the element of mystery isn't what it was once, and in a way it's a good thing because it's now a serious situation, but all those years ago things felt different to my innocent mind.
When I first began researching the sightings it was a hobby - not many people took a 9 year old child seriously - but I knew these animals existed and I vowed that one day I would see one, but even then I knew how difficult it would be. Too many people think they can walk out their back door and see a 'big cat' and when they don't they get incredibly frustrated. The amount of big cat hunters out there who are desperate to see a 'big cat' goes to show how the aims of such people over the years have changed. My motives have never changed - all I wanted to do was make the public aware these animals existed because I'd begun to speak to witnesses who had seen these animals and wanted someone to talk to. I've made many friends over the years, and sadly, it would seem, a few enemies and detractors - I guess if I was still that 9 year old I wouldn't have been the target of cowards and pathetic individuals, but then again, as a 9 year old, I didn't really have a voice either.
As a kid I hoped that one day I would see a large cat - and in the late '90s the local press were running quite a few headlines about a local 'big cat' which they dubbed 'the beast of Blue Bell Hill'. Yep, it's a terrible headline, but I've heard far worse. I recall the Kent Today newspaper at the time running an article after there'd been a sighting at the picnic area which overlooks the Downs at Blue Bell Hill. A couple had been walking along the picnic area one afternoon when a large black cat raced in front of them and headed off down a wooded pathway. As we know, newspapers love these stories and within the next few weeks the 'beast of Blue Bell Hill' became embeded in the psyche of the local populace. Strangely, even sightings at Gravesend, Dartford, etc were dubbed the 'beast of Blue Bell Hill' even though this is on the other side of the river.
At the moment the major tabloids are concentrating their beastly headlines on an area of Gliucestershire where researchers, hunters and the like are setting up cameras etc, in the hope of catching a glimpse of the local beast. I've seen it all before - it happens every few months - it began with the 'Surrey puma', but since the '60s has happened all over the UK - "the beast of this...., and "the beast of that...." Witnesses come forward - some start reporting things they haven't seen, photographs of muscular domestic cats and blurry blobs start cropping up and then it fades. Nowadays of course there appear to be more concentrated efforts to find these cats - people are buying trigger cameras, there are scent traps etc. When I was a child the occasional police foray into the local woods was as far as it went regarding a search. Back then, nobody wanted these animals caught or categorised - nowadays, that's the only motive.
When the sightings began of a large cat around Blue Bell Hill in the '90s, I'd already marked out the territory of one cat. However, despite so many witnesses ringing me up, I was getting the crank calls too so I had to be careful at the time with regards to giving out locations etc. Things got rather surreal when I was threatened by the local Devil worshippers haha! Even so, one night a relative of mine, whilst travelling near Capstone Park - not far from Hempstead, reported to me he'd seen a large animal protruding from a hedegrow. His son had been with him at the tim and so, hot on the heels I made my way to the area. In most cases I receive sightings hours, or even days later and following these up is unlikley yo produce a personal sighting, but my uncle's report was only an hour or so old. I'll never forget sitting in a vehicle with the headlights on and picking up a set of bright yellow eyes. I'll also never forget seeing those sheep, huddled together in a tight-knit group, and the eyes once again, seemingly with arrogance, glaring back at us. The eyes belonged to an animal that was sitting on its haunches stalking the sheep. I'll never forget slowly getting out the car and watching the sheep scatter and the cat bound off into the distance. It was an amazing experience but I knew I could track this animal and see it again. And I did.
When it comes to research of this kind, it's all very well and good putting reports into a folder otr popping out to the woods a couple of nights a month, but you've got to put yourself out there, become one with nature, eliminate everything else and appreciate your surroundings. I'll never forget melting into the landscape of a farm in the area and seeing the long, dark form a black leopard slink through the fog. The animal had no interest in the sheep on this occasion - it was en route - and it was gone after a few seconds. The more time and effort I put in the more I began to appreciate nature in general - it wasn't just about the 'beast of Blue Bell Hill', it was about understanding. It had been a privilege in 2000 to see this cat twice, but when I saw a different black leopard in 2008, in broad daylight, in the same area, I was gobsmacked. I watched the animal as I surveyed the landscape, and it didn't have a care in the world. It slinked across a field - the same field where I'd watched a fox walk - the long tail, the muscular shoulders, the flat face. It was an inspiring site. I'd found the sheep it had killed just a 1/4 of a mile away - the carcass was fresh (see photo) and rasped clean. The farmer that lost the sheep had never lost a specimen in some 40 years of farming. The cat had preferred rabbit and pheasants, but that night it went for something larger. Bizarrely, by 2008 I'd become accustomed to see unusual cats in the wilds of Kent. I recall becoming good friends with a chap named Ian who lived not far from Higham on the other side of the river. This guy phoned me one night to say that whilst walking his dog he'd been stalked by a large black cat. I took the report with a pinch of salt - the guy seemed genuine, but when he told me he'd filmed a lynx as well as I had to laugh...until I not only saw the footage, but one summers evening at 8:45 pm saw the lynx for myself. We had been monitoring an area for some months but we never expected this lynx to run across a field in front of us. There were three of us watching that evening - two of us saw the animal as it raced across the field and slinked down into a ditch. It happened lightning fast. It was an area where we had many strange experiences, including being shot at! Nowadays the area, like so many others has changed, but it was clearly a cross-point for at least one species of cat - but both lynx and leopard had been seen there. Then, one evening I was contacted by a hysterical couple who said they'd pulled over by the side of a country lane at Higham and watched a mother and several cubs playing in a field. The reports kept coming. It was not a 'blue Bell Hill beast', just another leopard on its nightly hunt.
I'll never forget the time my father rang me and told me he'd seen a lynx whilst driving home one evening past the local rubbish tip. The cat had been in the hedgerow close to the road and sped off up the field as his car came by. He stopped the car and watched in amazement as the animal reached the top of the field and stopped and looked back at him. The animal's tail wasn't visible from a distance.
Lynx are elusive animals - although they'll take a deer they are more than happy to feed on rodents, hares and birds. They are beautiful animals and I felt so lucky to have seen such an animal.
Most people who see such animals are chance encounters. However, to track an animal is great to do. Imagine if such an animal was tagged and we could then appreciate the ground it covers. No-one appreciates how vast a territory an animal such as a leopard, puma or lynx can cover, but when there is cover and food in an area, it wouldn't necessarilly have to travel that far. My personal sightings were magical experiences. They have stuck in my mind for many years so every time I receive a sighting from a terrified, hysterical, or knowing witness, I know I can share their excitement. After all, the animal they've seen is not from another world, but simply an animal that shouldn't be there. It's not the local 'beast on the loose', or the quarry of the local researcher, it's an animal fending for itself and above all, an animal that does not care for beastly headlines or for the researchers trying to capture a glimpse of it. Without these animals there would be no mystery, and so many seem to forget that this situation is simply about these animals, and about these animals alone. It's not about the evidence really. It's not about the newspapers, or the personal aims of the camo' clad hunter.
When I was 9 years old I was told there was a 'big cat' in the local woods. There will always be a 'big cat' in the local woods. But can you imagine the day one is caught ? I've always been of the opinion that there is no mystery as to why these animals exist. The mystery is created by those who hunt and pursue them. I've also always been of the opinion that the public need to be made aware of what is going on and that the authorities need to acknowledge their existence, but every now and then my 9 year old self taps me on the shoulder to remind me that these majestic animals should be left alone to melt into the countryside...and it wouldn't be a bad thing if they did, after all, they've been doing this for far longer than we realise. Sometimes I wish there were more 9 year old researchers around because in their naivety, they'd see these cats for what they actually are, rather than what we want them to be.