There is a man in England who has spent the past three decades trying to prove that big cats are prowling the green and pleasant landscape.
Britain’s only large native predator cat, the Eurasian Lynx, died out around 600 AD. So, assuming they exist, Mr. Frank Tunbridge’s big cats must have come from somewhere else. Escapees from zoos is a possibility but escapees in such numbers that they could thrive in the wild, or in the English countryside, seems highly unlikely.
Most theories on the subject of leopards in the English countryside point to the passage of the Dangerous Animals Act of 1976. They propose that Act as the critical moment when Britain’s big cat population began to grow at a level that they could sustain themselves. The Act came into being because the government of the day was convinced that enough rich and irresponsible citizens were buying exotic animals on the black market and keeping them in domestic environments. The status symbols these idiots accumulated included cheetahs, leopards, lynx, pumas and even lions. Two men in London reportedly bought a lion cub from Harrods and raised it in their Chelsea apartment.
I should note here that Harrods did have a public policy that stated they could provide anything a customer could want, but a lion cub was pushing the idea just a little. As far as I know, that policy still exists!
The story goes that the 1976 Act resulted in owners releasing their “pets” into the wild to avoid fines and prosecution. Apparently enough people released their charges that a viable population was created, at least according to the thousands of people who populate big cats Facebook groups.
Why am I writing a blog on the subject of leopards and lions among the privet hedgerows of Gloucestershire? Have I finally crossed over to the lunatic side? Well, if I did, I am in good company. The Economist devoted ten pages to this topic in its latest edition.
In the autumn of 2014, John Bliney was cycling to work at around 6am along a shaded footpath in Dursley, Gloucestershire, when a small cat leapt into his way. He thought he had frightened the cat and stopped to make sure he had not hurt it. When he looked up he saw two leopards crossing the path ahead of him. They mounted the bank on the side of the path and sat down, looking at him. In panic, he quickly rode away. He contacted the same aforementioned Frank Tunbridge, who happened to live nearby, and they went back to investigate. They found “scat” and Frank discovered bones in it, which he said indicated a carnivore. They didn’t find the leopards. Surprise, Surprise!
This story is unusual in that it happened at 6am in the morning, when the pubs are all shut. Such sightings of big cats more often happen just after closing time!
Frank Tunbridge is now in his 70’s, but it still as enthusiastic as ever, and still convinced that Britain’s big cats exist. However, he now says that, if his multiple cameras ever pick up a definitive picture of a big cat, he won’t tell anyone. The media and public storm that would result would put the animal at great risk, and that is the last thing Frank wishes to be responsible for.
England is famous for its eccentrics and, indeed, they are considered an essential part of English culture to be not only tolerated but revered. Most are harmless, and some may actually hold views that will prove correct in the fullness of time. Maybe Frank Tunbridge is one of them. Certainly, The Economist seems to be hedging its bets
England isn’t exactly unpopulated. Over 60 million people living in a relatively small area doesn’t leave much room for big cats. However, the potential habitat for these creatures is actually growing in England, unlike in most of their native habitats.
Before the Bronze Age 75% of England was covered in woodland. By the time of the Domesday Book, in 1086, that number was 15%. In the early 20th century it was down to 5% BUT, today, it is back up to 13%.
Maybe there is room for a few big cats, as well as an increasing number of eccentrics. I would like to hope so, and would even work to ensure it happens if the opportunity arose.