Essex a wondrous place for big cats

Martin Newell: It's been a good month for big cat sightings in Essex - the subject having become a firm favourite with newspapers and readers alike.The most recent local incident was the widely-reported sighting by a mother and daughter in their car, of a large animal in Turner Road, Colchester.

Martin Newell

It's been a good month for big cat sightings in Essex - the subject having become a firm favourite with newspapers and readers alike.

The most recent local incident was the widely-reported sighting by a mother and daughter in their car, of a large animal in Turner Road, Colchester.

Our county has an impressive record for sightings and scored 62 in a comprehensive 2003 survey.

This was well down on Yorkshire's stonking 127 that year but quite respectable against Cambridgeshire's piddling 34.

The Essex Big Cat Research Group - and I'm not making this up - are now claiming an average of 12 sightings a month here, so they're obviously nurturing high hopes of going up this season.

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Big cats have become something of a sub-industry in this country, after the Beast of Bodmin - a sort of Elvis among big cats - first made headlines in the 1980s.

So many and varied were the sightings, that following several reports of mutilated moorland sheep in 1995, the Ministry of Agriculture lumbered into action and launched an official investigation.

On one occasion, Royal Marines were sent out with rifles to see if they could shoot the creature and on another, RAF personnel lay in wait with night-vision devices - all meeting without success.

The investigation's grudging conclusion was: 'that it could not prove that a big cat was not present'.

News coverage on the subject of big cats tends to be tantalising, if ultimately unsatisfying.

Typical eye-witness reports usually describe the creature as being “About the size of an alsatian - but nothing like a dog in appearance.” The accompanying photograph often depicts a cougar or panther similar to the one sighted but crucially, not the animal itself.

There's probably something in our collective psyche that actually wants there to be a big dangerous cat out roaming the woods and farmland.

In the past though, attempts to create a beast for Essex which might rival the cachet of the Bodmin animal have been largely unsuccessful.

'The Beast of Brentwood' - a sort of Billy Fury to the Bodmin cat's Elvis - came close, after being sighted in a country park but never quite managed the follow-up hits.

Over recent years there have been sightings near Rowhedge, Maldon and Billericay, as well as the latest one at Turner Road.

But somehow, the Turner Road cat just doesn't carry that authentic ring of terror.

Turner Road Cat Sighted In Garden wouldn't really convince us, anymore than a beast sighted at Lexden or Wivenhoe would.

Readers would merely imagine a rather distracted-looking puma in half-moon specs, gazing wistfully into a closed delicatessen window.

If Essex really is aiming to go up in the big cat charts this year, we need something much more impressive to usurp the Beast of Bodmin's supremacy.

Perhaps it could be small group of big cats, lovable and yet slightly dangerous, whom the public could get to know by their individual names - a sort of Beatles of big cats, if you like.

An expert might be wheeled out to say that he thought that 'groups of big cats were on their way out' and then be proved wrong when the cats in question made an early evening appearance in Colchester's Castle Park, delighting crowds by roaring at bewildered drunks before running triumphantly off towards the Riverside Estate.

In truth though, this whole big cats obsession almost certainly began with the Dangerous Wild Animals Act of 1976.

It was brought in because of a growing fashion in the 1960s and 70s for keeping wild animals in private houses.

Incredibly, up until the Act was passed, in theory at least, it was still possible to keep a panther with a diamante collar attached to a silver chain in your penthouse.

Indeed, if you had the money, one famous London store could even legally obtain you one.

What better present for a pop star's high-maintenance sulky American girlfriend than an adorable lynx? Or for the exiled foreign tyrant, biding his melancholy time in England until he could return to his own country again, how about a cheerful pair of tiger cubs for the walled compound? All manner of exotic and dangerous creatures were alleged to be living in private homes before the Act went through Parliament.

As a result, many creatures were released into the wild after its implementation.

This has been the probable cause of sightings ever since.

You can understand how it might have happened.

That panther cub that you bought on impulse some months back is now a fully-grown and frankly, unco-operative adolescent that doesn't quite fit into the weekend cottage at Elmstead Market.

It's destroyed the Chesterfield and regularly overpowers your terrified dog.

It's the cause of marital disharmony, huge veterinary and cleaning bills and is also now illegal.

What do you do? Answer: you feed it three crushed-up valium, stick it in the boot of the Cortina, drive it to Great Bentley green at dead of night and watch it stagger out of your life.

Job jobbed.

Months later it meets the former Beast of Brentwood in a spinney near West Bergholt and they get on famously.

The Essex countryside subsequently becomes a kind of slow-food restaurant and dating mecca for big cats.

Thirty years on and we have a situation.

Never mind closing adventure playgrounds down - Health and Safety ought to get onto this one immediately.

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