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The big cats are out there - a guide to British beasts

January 17, 2013
by Laura Canning | guides


Lion dog. ‘How YOU doin’?’ Reports of a lion roaming the streets this month in Virginia, USA, were greatly exaggerated.

As the roaring beast was in fact a poodle, reports to police were greatly exaggerated indeed by panicked residents upon their sightings of the unfortunately named ‘Charles the Monarch’.

But it’s not as if we can claim much more sense on this side of the pond, such as when goggle-eyed holidaymakers at St Osyth in Essex rang police last summer in a panic about having spotted a fierce lion in the fields. Which turned out to be a large cat named Teddy Bear.

Undeterred, the safari hunters insisted, Mulder and Scully-like, that ‘a big cat is out there’. As is our wont, we were inclined to scoff at this and suggest they should have gone to Specsavers, but then we decided, also Mulder and Scully-like, to believe, mainly because it provided a fun hour of Googling when we should have been doing something else.

It turns out there are quite a few strange beasties roaming around Britain, from the return of native species like wild boars to those that must have been smuggled in years ago, like wallabies (spotted in Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire) and – shudder – tarantulas (spotted nowhere we’d like to research).

Then there are the not-so-verifiable-but-we-want-to-believe-in them-anyway, like dragons and pookas. We knew there be dragons… And there be beasties in Ireland too – not only the alleged Beast of Craggy Island, but also possibly the mashed-up leprachauns suspected to be in our pub champ last week (the waiter claimed it was pesto).

Sticking strictly to beasts that can be verified without the use of Photoshop, wild boars are, er, in the wild again. These tasty-looking critters were hunted to extinction in the seventeenth century, but have now been spotted roaming around the Forest of Dean in Gloucestershire with others spotted in Dorset, Kent and Exmoor.

At first we thought that rising again after centuries of dormancy was suspiciously Sauron-like, but the boars are back in the wild again because of escaping or being freed from farms. Hurrah!

Also hunted to extinction in recent years was the great bustard, which canny conservationists are starting to reintroduce to Britain from flocks in Russia. You can see some flying overhead at the release site in Wiltshire, with luxury Peruvian yurts – and an alpaca herd – at Alpaca Yurt Holidays from £250 for four nights for four people from March.

(If you’re a fluttery type in general, bring your binoculars to one of our 2800+ sites with birdwatching ahoy or take a trip to Birdfair in August, described as ‘the birdwatcher’s Glastonbury’.)

'If you go down to the woods today...' But it’s the non-native species we’ve been reading about with thumping hearts and slack jaws, as they’re the reason we’re packing running shoes on our next camping trip.

Due to climate change, zoo escapes and people bringing exotic animals into the UK which are then released or escape, there have been over 10,000 reported sightings of strange critters in the UK and around its waters since 2000, including monkeys in the forests in Oban, 5,931 big cats (not Teddy Bear), over three thousand sharks, ten crocodiles, three pandas and one lonely penguin.

Alas, we cannot claim to have seen lions, tigers or bears roaming around the countryside, although we did once see a seal frolicking in the River Lagan in Belfast at 6 am on a Saturday morning.

And moving on to other critters that could be spied at 6 am on a weekend morning – dragons. We’re firmly asserting that there are in fact dragons in Britain – the last report was in 1689 in Henham, Essex, but we know that the lack of sightings in recent years just means that the scaly ones are hiding underneath mountains guarding dwarvish gold. If you want to go dragon-hunting, here’s a handy list of UK sightings from Dundee to Devon.

For spotting of non-legendary wildlife in the UK or Ireland, we have around 200 sites listed as in a wildlife haven –and over 50 sites with a David Bellamy Gold Conservation Award– covering all types of accommodation: caravans for hire, lodges, tourers, motorhomes, tents, lodges, shepherd’s huts, bell tents, gypsy caravans and tipis, yurts and wigwams. Sadly we can’t make claims that you’ll see a dragon or even a big cat, but keep your eyes peeled – the beasties are out there.