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Unfurgettable: why the beast of Cumbria just won't go away

Posted at Jan 13, 2021

Name: The beast of Cumbria.

Age: Hard to say. Reports of a large cat roaming around the Lake District have been logged since at least 2003.

Appearance: Big, black, shiny, panther-like, piercing yellow eyes, swishing tail, about 1.2 metres long.

Friendly? Apparently not. Likes to rip the heads off sheep.

Why is it in the news now? There has been a spate of recent sightings, with a Facebook group called Big Cats in Cumbria reporting a dozen or so in the past year.

All the same cat? Sounds like there’s more than one. Sharon Larkin-Snowden, who set up the Facebook group, says a puma, a black-and-white leopard and another big cat have all been seen.

Are you sure it’s not a scam to keep tourists out of the Lake District during lockdown? What a conspiracy theorist you are. These sightings have been going on for two decades, and there’s even video evidence of a big cat prowling the hills.

Have people been traumatised? You bet. A businesswoman, Jeni Banks, came face to face with the beast in 2012. “It was a big cat, right here in Carlisle, beside the road,” she reported, at the time. “It was surreal. When I got to Tesco, I called in for some shopping and just blurted it out to the woman at the checkout, saying that I’d just seen a panther!”

Hitchcockian. There seem to be a lot of these tales – and indeed tails. Reports of sightings of big cats across the UK are made to police on average about twice a week. In the past month there have been sightings in Cheshire, Gloucestershire and on the A55 in North Wales.

A Jaguar on the A55 presumably? Another puma, actually.

I blame George Monbiot. Rewilding does seem to be proceeding apace.

What’s the explanation? True believers put it down to the Dangerous Wild Animals Act 1976, which regulated the keeping of wild animals. The theory is that many owners of exotic animals couldn’t be bothered with the new bureaucracy and insurance costs, so set their ferocious pets free in the countryside, where they are now happily breeding.

Any evidence? Sketchy. We could do with more big cat carcasses and fewer dodgy long-lens photographs.

An urban myth? More a rural myth perhaps.

Not to be confused with: The beasts of Bodmin, Bucks, Broomfield, Buchan, Bevendean and Bury; the non-alliterative beast of Exmoor; the Fen tiger; the Shooters Hill cheetah; the Dartmoor devil; the Hull hell cat; the wildcats of Wakefield and Warwickshire; the Pershore panther; the Loch Ness monster and the hound of the Baskervilles.

Do say: “What a delightfully diverting story for a dull weekday in January.”

Don’t say: “Are you sure it wasn’t a fox?”