Country: Top cat in the countryside

Despite scant evidence that they exist, stories of panthers skulking in English fields are as much part of village life as cowslips and bypasses. By Harry Pearson
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The Independent Culture
THE BIG cats are back again. Every year they appear on the front page of my local paper alongside other matters of rural concern: bypass protests, hospital closures and dogs that have choked to death on cheese. They are now as sure a sign of the approach of summer as the twittering of swallows and the roar of Dutch- men's motorcycles fresh off the boat from Ijmuiden.

While the trees are in blossom and the days are long, the giant felines roam around this part of Northumberland, strolling in suburban gardens, lolloping along the side of railway lines and harassing sheep and chickens. Once the harvest is home and the weight of berries bows the branches of the elder, however, the panthers seem mysteriously to disappear.

Though no one else seems yet to have made the connection, I cannot help wondering whether the fact that their departure coincides with the ending of the summer ferry service from North Shields to Hamburg is any more than simple blind chance.

The big cat phenomenon is common to practically every unspoilt area of Britain. Experts who have made a study of British panthers tell us that they stand about 2ft at the shoulder, weigh around 70lb, have smooth fur and come in two colours: dull yellow, and black. Since this description also fits that of the common Labrador, there are those who are sceptical about the sightings. I fit into this category.

Mind you, I am careful to whom I reveal this scepticism. Last year I got into an argument about the existence of the big cats, with the builder who was fixing our roof.

"You shouldn't be so cynical," he said, and somehow I knew what was coming next. For there is an immutable law in these matters which dictates that, at some point, Shakespeare will be quoted.

The immortal Bard was a fount of wisdom whose name should be honoured daily, but there is one line for which he deserved belabouring about his shiny pate with a flatiron. "After all," the builder said, "there are more things in heaven and earth." Flush with success, he continued: "I mean, some people don't believe in mental illness."

"They would if they listened to you for 30 seconds," I replied. He still hasn't been back to re-point the chimney.

The tenant of the non-conclusive proof theory is the thing that underpins the philosophy of all people who hero-worship The X-Files's male protagonist Agent Fox Mulder (catch-phrase: "There's got be an irrational explanation for this"), a man incapable of misplacing one of his own cufflinks without suspecting alien abduction. That, and a ferocious will to believe.

A few years ago, Channel 4 ran an excellent documentary about another British big cat, the infamous Beast of Bodmin. One memorable scene featured two men watching video footage of a small area of Cornish woodland. After many hours, a cat-like creature leapt briefly into shot.

After replaying the film over and over again, one of the men sadly conceded that the animal was far too small to be a panther. His colleague was not so easily deterred. "You're right," he said excitedly, "it's obviously a cub."

The desire to search out the unknown is really nothing new. It's just that finding anything not already documented has become harder.

I grew up in the North Yorkshire village where Captain James Cook received his schooling. In Cook's day, if you hankered after discovery you got into a ship and went off in search of Australia. Nowadays you have to content yourself with staring out of the kitchen window, Camcorder in hand, in the hope that a leopard will jump over the larch-lap fence and clear the occupants of the bird-table away with one snap of its mighty jaws.

The natural world has been codified, the globe has been mapped. We live in a time of pygmies. And I should know. Last week I saw a tribe of them behind the local scout hut.

They were, in fact, too large to be pygmies. But I reckon they were definitely cubs.