Not in our back yard, say celebs to the tiger farmer

Vanessa Thorpe hears howls of rage over a plan to bring big cats to the Cotswolds
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The Independent Online
The thatched roof, the ancient beams, the timeless peace of the Cotswold cottage: it all sounds idyllic, until you find that the sleek jaguar waiting in the driveway is not the kind with power-assisted steering but the sort with claws and a long tail.

Yes, big cats are coming to the Gloucestershire village of Blockley and the wealthy weekenders who have made the place their second home are not pleased. Many fear that the leopards, tigers, jaguars and pumas likely to take up residence on a neighbouring farm will pose a threat to livestock, pets - and humans.

"It really is asking too much of us," says Laura Thompson, who moved to the village two years ago and has organised a petition against the proposed big-cat enclosures at Sleepy Hollow Park Farm. "There have been at least two escapes of lynx from this farm in the past, so the farmer is asking us to have faith in something that has already gone wrong twice."

What is more, Miss Thompson points out, the country homes of some influential people fall within prowling distance of any escaped beasts. Two national newspaper editors, Alan Rusbridger of the Guardian and Will Hutton of the Observer, plus columnist Henry Porter, have homes near Blockley, as does the novelist Joanna Trollope.

Then there is the chef Prue Leith, the Health minister Tessa Jowell and her husband, former Formula One adviser David Mills, the actors who played the late lamented Mark Hebden in The Archers and the chubby one from Lovejoy, and one of Britain's main BSE advisers, Professor Roy Anderson.

Miss Thompson, who works as a part-time mini-cab driver, has had plenty of opportunity to sample village opinion. She believes it is not a question of snotty newcomers opposing the schemes of the pro-tiger Blockley locals. "Five or six of the people who have signed the petition have lived here for more than 20 years," she says.

According to Miss Thompson and her 139 signatories, the lives of all these eminences and their nearest and dearest will be in jeopardy if farmer Tim Spittle at Sleepy Hollow is granted planning permission next month. "Mr Spittle is looking at it as a campaign against him, but it is just that the escape record isn't good. The lynx was out for two or three days last time and had to be shot in the end."

Other residents confirm the story. Two elderly ladies were evidently so unnerved by their encounter with the lynx that they have never fully recovered. "And, after all, you don't get a second chance with a tiger," Miss Thompson observes.

Blockley is a pretty place which was once an important silk centre, yet it is no stranger to public uproar. It saw rioting in the 1800s, and later skirmishes have centred on the volume of the church bells and construction of some contested pathways.

This time the trouble started when Farmer Spittle announced his plans to expand. He applied to the Cotswold District Council for permission to build some of the largest big-cat enclosures in the country on his 300 acres. He is still awaiting a verdict, but last Thursday he was granted a renewal of his zoo licence - something few villagers knew he had in the first place.

Apart from the controversial lynx, Mr Spittle keeps wild boar and looks after two tiger cubs. Two older male tigers, Jaffer and Shikar, also live at Sleepy Hollow, but are not yet on display.

"We have very high standards and are a very open park," says Mr Spittle, in an attempt to reassure his neighbours. But this very openness worries them.

"With regard to the lynx escape, it is time to move on," Mr Spittle says. "It happened over 12 months ago and our emergency plans were all effective. One of the lynx was destroyed and that was not taken lightly. A lot of people seem to have thought we were very flippant about it, but we have to work to the highest level of safety."

He points out that Sleepy Hollow's zoo licence would not have been renewed unless the government inspector had been satisfied it was safe. The licence granted by the district council will run for six years and inspections will be carried out in that period. The animals will be looked after by a specialist from Zimbabwe who has worked with such cats all his life.

"We are a domestic and small exotic zoo with a specialism in big cats. It is something we can do very well," Mr Spittle says.

The objectors still feel his plans are dangerous and out of keeping with Blockley.

"What he has got there at the moment is a lovely farm park with sheep and cows," says Miss Thompson.

"The cats just seem to be a totally inappropriate use of the area. If it had been deer or something, well, fine."