Farmers Weekly columnist Guy Smith farms in north-east Essex, neighbouring the farm where the Essex “lion” was first spotted. Here’s his account of the bank holiday lion hunt.
“When my farming neighbour phoned up last Sunday afternoon to say a caravanner had mistaken an overfed household cat in one of his wheat stubbles for a lion, we both had a good laugh. When he phoned up two hours later to say there were two police helicopters hovering over his farm, plus 19 armed police marksmen in his yard, and that he had been told not to leave his house, we both thought that someone had forgotten the limits of a practical joke.
But that wasn’t the end of it. Within hours #essexlion and #stosyth were trending on Twitter, surpassing the recently announced death of one of history’s greatest men, Neil Armstrong. By first light the following morning the nation’s media was camped outside the previously unheard of St Osyth farm and “Essex lion on the loose” was the second item on the BBC national news, only considered less important than the civil war in Syria.
“I’ve seen many remarkable sights that will stay with me for the rest of my days – from an escaped eagle owl sitting on a seed trailer to a couple having sex on a deckchair in the middle of a flowering rape crop”
Finally a grainy photo of the alleged lion that had caused the rumpus was produced and, sure enough, the news story took a U-turn. Only someone with bad eyesight and an overactive imagination could argue it was evidence of anything more than a pussy cat. A rather embarrassed Clacton police started muttering about prosecuting individuals for wasting their time.
Like most farmers, I’m lucky enough to spend most my working hours outdoors in the countryside. With my binoculars beside me in the cab I’m seldom short of something interesting to see. Despite what the RSPB might tell you, wherever you look on British farmland you will find some wildlife to entertain you. Occasionally you even spy something unusual that needs a double-take to check you saw what you actually thought you saw.
I’ve seen many remarkable sights that will stay with me for the rest of my days – from an escaped eagle owl sitting on a seed trailer to a couple having sex on a deckchair in the middle of a flowering rape crop.
But here’s the thing: while I’ve seen plenty of household cats in my fields, I’ve never seen a big cat. No panthers in my paddocks, no lynx in my linseed, not even an Ocelot outside my office. Admittedly we did have a Bobcat in the yard once but we traded it in for a JCB.
Now, I know this issue excites deep and violent passions in the farming community. There will be farmers out there who will want pistols at dawn with me for daring to insinuate that they might be some way muddled as to what they saw.
Call me an cynic, or something worse if you like, but I tend to file claims of seeing super felines in the same draw as reports of UFOs. Despite hundreds of sightings of such things, no one has ever produced clear photographic evidence, even in an age when everyone carries a camera-phone. What’s more, no one has ever produced a dead one.
While our roads are often littered with large mammals such as deer, foxes and badgers, for some reason nothing exotic has turned up as road-kill. Just as I cannot prove Nessie, Big Foot and the Yeti do not exist, that doesn’t mean I should accept they probably do.
Having poured boring cold water on this bit of north-east Essex bank holiday nonsense, I have to say it produced much hilarity. The laughter in the pub that night was so raucous that I was still roaring as I walked back home. That probably got reported to the police as well.”