Big cat sightings in Sunderland and the Durham Puma: A look at the legendary beasts said to lurk in Wearside

Black Cats are synonymous with Sunderland, being the nickname of SAFC, with two dark feline beasts adorning the football club’s crest.

But does a big black cat of a different kind stalk the city?

The existence wild big cats in the UK has become firm fixture in Britain’s folklore, with the Beast of Bodmin Moor perhaps the most famous.

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Theory has it the beasts are the result of private owners releasing their exotic creatures ahead of the 1976 Dangerous Wild Animals Act coming into force.

A black panther.(Photo by GUILLAUME SOUVANT / AFP) (Photo by GUILLAUME SOUVANT/AFP via Getty Images)

A number of sightings in Yorkshire in 2022 reported by the Echo’s sister titles, the Yorkshire Post and Doncaster Free Press, as well as others in the South West, have reignited interest in the possible existence of wild big cats in the UK.

But Sunderland and Durham are not without their own tales.

In the 2000s the Echo reported a number of sightings by readers who claim they saw a puma-like creature in Fulwell Quarry.

Other rumoured sightings have occurred on Cleadon Hills.

Picture c/o Pixabay.

However, the ‘Durham Puma’ is the most notorious beast said to lurk in the area.

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In 1995, a large cat said to be the Durham puma was allegedly captured on film with a rabbit between its teeth.

Large paw-prints were also found in Winston, County Durham, close to the banks of the River Tees.

In 2001, Durham Constabulary confirmed officers were investigating after a mystery beast slaughtered dozens of lambs at a farm in New Brancepeth, a short distance west of Durham City.

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However, officers played down the reports of a big cat, suggesting the attacks could have been carried out by a dog.

Further west, in Spennymoor in 2016, a farmer was convinced a big cat had disembowelled a calf in one of his fields, describing it as ‘like a scene from the Serengeti’.

In an article in The Guardian in 2019, a spokeswoman for the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (Defra) said neither Natural England nor Defra have received any credible reports of wild living or breeding big cats in Britain in recent years.

In the past, however, the Government has taken the issue seriously. A team of Royal Marines were deployed in 1983 after reports a mystery predator had killed more than 100 sheep in Exmoor.

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In 1995, Ministry of Agriculture officials spent six months examining eyewitness reports, video recordings and plaster casts of footprints in relation to the Beast of Bodmin Moor, concluding there was “no verifiable evidence”.

A more amusing incident saw armed police and a helicopter deployed after a white tiger was spotted in a Hampshire a field.

Specialist staff from nearby Marwell Zoo also attended to advise and potentially tranquilise the wild animal.

A golf course was evacuated and plans were put in place to close the nearby M27 motorway if necessary in case the tiger moved in that direction.

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But as police officers carefully approached the "wild animal" they realised it was not moving and the helicopter crew, using thermal imaging equipment, realised there was no heat source coming from it.

The matter was clinched when the beast – actually a stuffed toy – was blown over by downdraught from the helicopter.

Back in Sunderland, the Echo isn’t aware of any recent rumoured sightings of big cats in the area. Perhaps the beast has moved on, or died out – or just got better at hiding.

:: Have you heard any stories of big cats on the prowl in Sunderland – or have you seen one yourself? Get in touch via [email protected]