Express & Star

Long history of big cats being sighted in the region

The number of big-cat sightings is said to be on the rise – and recent reports have certainly stirred up memories among our readers.

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must creditThe Asian jungle cat which was found at Richards Castle in 1989 and taken to Ludlow Museum for identification and recording. Picture: Gareth Thomas.

More recently, Stephen Jones recalls seeing a big cat near Cleobury Mortimer during the summer of 2001, while with a friend on his way to a midweek cricket match.

“As we got down to the ground, a 6ft long, jet-black cat with short legs and triangle shaped ears and a long tail just walked in front of us,” he says.

“We stopped the car and it just stood there and looked at us. We were no more than 10ft away, could see its eyes, it then sunk to the ground and skulked off up the bank.

“The whole incident was about 30 seconds from about 10ft away,” he says.

“We spoke to the away team and they all said there had been big cat sightings around there.”

MUST CREDITThe Asian jungle cat which was found at Richards Castle in 1989 and taken to Ludlow Museum for identification and recording. Picture: Gareth Thomas.

Retired businessman David Seipel recalls seeing a big cat on two occasions while living in Monkhopton, near Bridgnorth, during the mid 2000s.

“Quite a few people, mainly working in rural areas around Wenlock Edge and surrounding places, had seen this animal, although they kept it quiet as they did not want to be ridiculed,” he says.

“I think there was a mention of a police officer seeing it. I have seen it twice, but not since I moved to Bridgnorth town in 2007.”

Mr Seipel says his first sighting was on Wenlock Edge, on the minor road down to Kenley, at dusk, from a distance of about 35 yards.

“It definitely slunk along, cat-like, and was the size of a labrador or german shepherd,” he says.

“I mentioned it to friends, and was told a gamekeeper sometime earlier had recovered a small lamb which had its carcass deposited up a tree. Dogs don’t do that, big cats do.

“The second sighting was one Sunday morning, some months later, probably around 2006, and it crossed the road in front of me in Aston Eyre.

“It was less than 20ft away. It was the size of a small-to-medium-sized dog, and it walked like a cat.

“It had a longish tail with a tuft at the end, and its erect ears had tufts on them. Its face was roundish and ordinary sideways on, but not like a dog. Its colour was large, patchy dark brown and black fur, in large patches. I guess it could have been mistaken for all black at night.”

Mr Seipel went home and tried to identify the type of cat he had seen, and the closest he could find in appearance was either a lynx or brown puma.

“I believe one or more lynx or pumas live or travel through the woods of Wenlock Edge,” he says.

Mr Seipel says the one thing that surprises him is the lack of reports of dead animals, or of prey being eaten. This suggests they are probably only occasional visitors to the Edge, he believes.

“Wenlock Edge is miles long and well wooded, with few human visitors,” he adds.

Going back a little further, Geoff Lewis remembers seeing a big cat along the route of the old railway line at Compton, near Wolverhampton, in the summer of 1979.

“I was walking my young son, now 49, along the railway line and, out of the bushes, about 60 metres ahead, walked a huge black cat, about 4ft long,” he says.

“I stopped and walked back the opposite way and kept a look out, I didn’t see it again. I reported it to the police but heard nothing.”

Our newspaper archives show no sightings from 1979, but there were plenty during the summer of 1980.

The mystery began early in the morning on July 23, 1980. A man walking his dog along the canal towpath near Compton reported seeing a “cheetah” stepping out in front of him, before retreating back into the undergrowth. He went back home to fetch his binoculars, but when he returned, the animal had gone. He told Jim Davies, owner of Compton Wines, who alerted police.

Later that day, officers received two further reports that such an animal had been seen in a garden, and walking along the towpath in the direction of Aldersley.

Dudley Zoo expert Mike Williams

Officers warned people to keep away from the towpath, fearing the beast could be a danger to the public. Mike Williams, a curator at Dudley Zoo, was sent to the area with a dart gun to stun the animal if necessary. Police officers with tracker dogs spent the day searching the canal bank and nearby woodland, but to no avail. They searched their records for registered owners of such animals in in the area, but also with no success.

Peter Wait, curator of mammals at Chester Zoo, warned: “If the creature is a puma or cheetah, it could be extremely dangerous if cornered.”

As the search entered its third day, the beast attacked a dog being walked by a girl near Bhylls Lane. On the afternoon of July 25, the search party tracked the animal along the disused railway line running through Castlecroft towards Penn. At one point Mr Williams caught a brief glimpse, but did not get close enough to positively identify it. Woodland between Compton and Aldersley was also scoured.

But fresh sightings led police to switch their attention to Wombourne on July 26.

“Whatever it was than apparently moved on to Dunstall, and later Wombourne,” said a police spokesman.

Large paw prints were also reportedly seen near Fir Street on Penn Common.

A statement at the time said: “We have had police out early, but there have been no more sightings.”

Dudley Zoo keeper Alan Margerrison, who also saw the animal, went out in the search area with a photograph of a puma in an attempt to identify the animal.

Both experts described the animal they saw as about the size of a large dog, but cat-like in both its appearance and its movement. But Mr Williams said he could not confirm it was a puma until he either got a close look at it.

He believed the likelihood was that someone had been keeping the puma illegally.

After five days the hunt was called off, although police stressed they were ready to resume the search if there were any more sightings.

Chief Inspector Jim Pountney, head of Wombourne Police, concluded the animal was more likely to be a large dog or a large male fox.

“We would have expected that, if reports of these sightings were correct, that such an animal would have needed to feed,” said Chief Inspector Pountney.

“But we have received no reports of any livestock being attacked in the area.

“However, if anyone does see anything which he thinks could be a large cat or puma, it should be reported at once to the police – and we will send someone to investigate.”

The trail went cold for a while. Then the hunt switched to Powys in Mid Wales after a large cat-like animal was spotted at Pantdrain Farm, near Llangurig, shortly after four sheep had been savagely killed and half-eaten. Noises were heard coming from a barn, where the animal was thought to be hiding. Police believed it was the same animal seen in Wolverhampton. Police marksmen and an RSPCA man with a tranquiliser gun surrounded the barn on the night of October 23, and waited for the beast to make the first move. The following day they were still waiting.

“We assume now that it is a large cat, possibly a puma or lynx,” said police.

“If that’s right, you’re talking about a body weight of 200lb and claws like bloody needles.

“If there’s something there that’s capable of killing sheep and eating half a carcass on the spot, you’re thinking in terms of not going in too quickly.

“I think it’s a case of stand well back, and keep your eyes peeled.”

And then the story went quiet. By the following day, the news agenda had moved on.

It seems people were more concerned about a bad-taste Halloween party at a Wolverhampton nightclub, Tom Baker’s replacement as Doctor Who, and the impending death of Doris in The Archers. It is probably safe to assume that there was no puma in the barn, given that Welsh newspapers continued to speculate about the beast some time later.

And then the story took a fresh twist. On December 21, the animal was spotted again – but back in the Wolverhampton area, this time in Coven.

Michael Polak and his wife Debbie were driving back to their home in Broadacres when they spotted an animal in Lawn Lane.

“We saw it in full beam of our headlights,” said Mrs Polak. “We both straight away thought it was some sort of wild cat.”

Mr Polak called police when the couple arrived home, and the following day they returned to the scene with police officers, to show them the tracks. Officers took plaster casts of paw prints found where the animal had been spotted.

Jean Delaney, of Humphries Crescent, in the Bradley area of Bilston, also reported seeing a large animal running along a canal towpath behind her home.

“I heard a strange noise outside,” she said. “At first I thought it was someone crying for help,” said Mrs Delaney.

“Then I thought it must be an animal, and when I looked out of the window I saw it running along the old canal.

Mrs Delaney said she and her husband initially thought it was a large fox, but then noticed it ran like a cat.

The trail again went cold, until March 15, 1981, when a family of four in Perton spotted the creature while tucking into their Sunday lunch.

The family were sitting in the dining room of their newly built home in Rockingham Drive when they spotted the animal.

Near their home was a partially built house, and the family watched the animal climb the scaffolding which surrounded it before jumping into the house through an open window.

They described the animal as being about 4ft long and dark brown.

The time elapsed between the sightings – and the fact that Mr Hall saw a black animal, whereas the Polaks described a brown creature – suggests it is unlikely to be the same one.

What became of the beast? No body of a big cat has ever been discovered, which probably adds credence to the theory that people had seen a large fox or dog, although those who witnessed it were in no doubt about what they saw.

Geoff Lewis insists: “Some people have suggested these are nothing but large domestic cats, believe me that is not the case, not 4ft long.”

A rash of sightings close to Ludlow in 2021 led an organisation called Puma Watch to conclude: “Undoubtable big cat sightings in Shropshire.”

In 2018, teaching assistant Dawn Paige captured compelling footage of a large feline close to bins at her Oldbury home. Unlike so many other captured images, the video provided the vital ingredient of scale: the cat’s size could be measured against objects next to it.

Without that, a household moggie can easily be mistaken for something a lot more savage.

“I thought it was a big dog,” Dawn said, “but it moves just like a cat. I took the footage into work and asked some of the teachers what they thought. They agreed it looks like a leopard or she-lion. I’ve got a little dog and I’m absolutely terrified for her safety.”

Back in 2010, retired union officer Andrew Hall contacted police after being startled by what he believed to be a black panther resting in a tree bordering his Wednesfield home.

Dawn, Andrew and the scores of fellow eye-witness saw something, their belief it was a big cat is unshakable. What they actually observed has divided critics. The jury remains out.

A covering of snow brings a glut of large paw pics. They are the imprints made by rabbits, not pumas, panther or even lions.

One apparently convincing image circulated online clearly showed two indentations at the front made by a bunny’s front legs with one at the back, its rear.

The vast majority of paw marks captured on film feature claws, therefore the animal is a dog. Cats have retractable claws and never bare them when walking, canines do not.

Are wild, exotic cats out there? Most definitely, though most could not be termed big. And their presence may have more to do with criminality than crypto-zoology.

One senior West Midlands detective – a big cat believer – said: “You can get anything into this country.

“For some years, owning a big cat was something of a status symbol for criminal hierarchy – blame Mike Tyson.

“Some of those pets escaped.”

Have the beasts bred in our countryside? Not a chance. We have proof the animals are – or certainly have been – with us. On February 3, 1989, an Asian jungle cat – actually, not much larger than a domestic moggie – was discovered dead on the roadside at Richards Castle, Ludlow.

There have been others. A puma was shot in Inverness in 1980, a lynx captured in Cricklewood a year later. All are believed to have been on the run from captivity.

The British Big Cats Society claims to have evidence of 23 big cat releases into the countryside after the Dangerous Animals Act came into force. The same organisation caused a storm in 2005 when revealing a puma skull discovered by a Devon farmer. It was a puma skull.

Back in 2015, TV naturalist Gordon Buchanan said in an interview: “I said about five years ago that, with everybody carrying mobile phones with cameras, we will soon have conclusive evidence if there were really big cats out there.

“So far, that has yet to materialise. Having spent some time with big cats, I know they are expert at concealing themselves and hiding, so it is possible.

“But in the absence of hard evidence, I think it’s looking less likely.

“That’s not to say that people are making stories up.

“A friend-of-a-friend showed me a picture of what they thought was a big cat, and I thought it looked like the real deal.”

He said: “It didn’t look like a domestic cat, but when I saw where it had been taken, and paced out the distance, I realised it probably was a feral cat.

“But the way the image had been taken, unless you actually went out there and paced the distance you wouldn’t have realised.”

Reported sightings of big cats since 1980:

May 2018: A big cat-like creature is caught on CCTV by Dawn Paige at her home in Oldbury.

September 2, 2017: Taxi driver James Bedworth sees a big cat near Hortonwood, Telford.

October 2015: A mother spots a creature described as ‘pure black’

and larger than a normal cat while taking her daughter to school in the Telford area.

May 2015: A big cat was been spotted in Telford climbing a fence in a garden, witnesses believed it may be a panther.

March 2014: Brecon, animal footprints found on Black Mountains, thought to be from a big cat.

June 2013: Meifod, puma spotted in a field, bigger than a dog.

January 2013: Brecon, big cat sighted. Size of a cougar, too big to be any local dog.

February 2012: Brecon, big cat sighted, the size of large dog. Moved like a cat.

January 2012: Brecon, reported big cat footprints, quite big with claw marks.

January 2012: A4067, sighting of a large cat type creature. Crouched as if to spring. In headlights it looked brown.

December 2010: Knighton, large animal, definitely a cat, passed vehicle in the dark. Tracks in the snow also found two days before.

December, 2010: Knighton, panther sighting in a garden. Large cat, jet black.

October 31, 2010: Andrew Hall sees large panther-like creature near his home in Sundour Crescent, Wednesfield.

September, 2010: Oswestry, big cat sighting, running, size of sheep dog.

August, 2010: Brecon, foal eaten by suspected big cat.

June 2010: Builth Wells, large wild cat chased caller. Not a dog, making growling noises.

September, 2009: Llanidloes, large black cat sighted in field, size of a golden retriever.

July, 2009: Builth Wells, lamb badly injured, lower jaw bitten off. Panther in area.

February, 2009: Brecon, big cat sighted size of large dog. Moved like a cat.

February 5, 2003: Report of leopard-like creature in the garden of a house in Cradley.

April 5, 2002: Market Drayton – sighting of “black cat which looked extra large”.

April 3 2002: Build was – large black cat, described as a panther, reported near a mobile home. Woman caller worried because of children in the area.

April 3 2002: Shrewsbury and Ludlow – police receive reports of big cat sightings near both towns.

April 2002: Ironbridge – various reports of a big black cat.

March 2002: Market Drayton – claims of big cat in Salisbury Hill View area.

November 18 2001: Tilstock, Whitchurch – two large cats climbing trees.

September 2001: Bucknell, near Ludlow – two sightings of a puma-type cat.

September 4 2001: Trench, Telford – big black cat seen.

September 3 2001: Prees, Whitchurch – farmer claims two calves eaten by a “black panther”.

September 2 2001: Shifnal – large cat, “paw prints quite large”.

August 23 2001: Whitchurch – puma seen.

August 17, 2001: Dawley, Telford – motorist sees big black cat on Dawley Road.

August 5 2001: Whitchurch – puma seen on bypass.

August 5 2001: Leegomery, Telford – puma reported near houses in Montgomery Mews.

August 1 2001: Ellesmere – farmer Don Stokes gets sighting of “puma” and reports a calf taken from his farm.

Summer 2002: Jet black cat, about 6ft long with short legs, seen near Cleobury Mortimer.

July 7 2001: Wem – big black cat seen at Hawkstone Park.

June 15 2001: Whitchurch – puma in field.

May 31 2001: Wellington, Telford – puma in the back garden of a house.

Apr 22 2001: Malinslee, Telford – sighting of “a jaguar feeding from rubbish bins”.

March 26 2001: Newport – black cat size of labrador.

February 10, 2001: Caller reports a panther climbing a tree on the embankment of the M54 between junctions two and three.

January 12, 2001: Craven Arms – big black cat seen climbing a wall.

November 17, 2000: Lilleshall – caller reports a lynx-type cat, “the size of a springer spaniel”.

October 22, 2000: Telford town centre – sighting of a panther near Do-it-All.

September 30, 2000: Hilton, near Bridgnorth – large/sandy cream coloured cat “three times the size of a fox”.

August 25, 2000: Craven Arms – member of the public reports puma in field behind house. Claims police officer saw it and that the creature attacked a dog and a cow.

August 18, 2000: Clee-St-Marchgaret, near Craven Arms – sighting of large black cat.

May 18, 2000: Much Wenlock – large black cat leaving large paw prints.

March 12, 2000: Newport – large black panther-type creature seen at Coopers Bank near the rugby club. Young man reports finding a pool of blood and alleges creature was stalking him and his friend.

March 8, 2000: Oswestry – caller reports cat larger than a dog.

March 8, 2000: Tong, Shifnal – Motorist reports black panther running in front of his car.

February 8, 2000: Craven Arms – farmer Chris Jones sees light brown big cat on Craven Arms to Diddlebury Road.

September 22, 1999: Hortonwood, Telford – another reported sighting of a big black cat.

September 18, 1999: Rear footpath of Wonderland, Telford town park – cat bigger than dog making a noise like the big cats at safari parks. Police attend. RSPCA put on standby with tranquiliser equipment.

September 12, 1999: Lilleshall – caller sees a black panther.

September 10, 1999: Donnington, Telford – Caller spots a puma at 4am in Grenville Road.

September 10, 1999: Lilleshall – black panther reported.

September 6, 1999: Hortonwood, Telford – big black cat caught on security camera at power tool manufacturer Makita.

September 1, 1999: Madeley, Telford – black “panther” leaves large paw prints behind.

August 26, 1999: Majestic Way, Telford – large black cat seen.

August 21, 1999: Woodside, Telford – report of panther.

July 19, 1999: Shawbury – caller sees a black puma for the second time in four days.

March 15, 1981: Animal spotted around partially built house in Perton.

December 22, 1980: Brown cat spotted by Michael and Debbie Polak in Lawn Lane, Coven.

October 23, 1980: Four sheep savaged by cat-like animal at Pantdrain Farm, Llangurig.

July 24-28, 1980: Various sightings of a big cat in the Wolverhampton area, including by two experts from Dudley Zoo.