The Surrey Puma was one or more phantom cats reported in south western Surrey and an adjoining part of Hampshire from 1959 to the present year.
Sightings and potential damage
The Surrey Puma refers to a clutch of sightings reported to police and newspapers of phantom cats categorised into slightly larger than domestic cats resembling Iberian lynxes to reports of large black cats from an early stage so identified in the press and by some sighters, as pumas: in the wild, barring escapees, a Pan-American genus. By the mid-1960s records included:
A plaster cast of a paw print less than five inches handed into Godalming Police Station where it was the public display piece of a minor priority ‘big cats’ file that centred on damage to livestock
A 1966, black-and-white photograph of a longer than usual cat by a former police photographer, Ian Pert next to a house in Worplesdon.
There followed an 18 year-hiatus in non-testimonial allegations with corroboratory evidence until a report to police with a hair sample of a puma taken from Peaslake, in the heavily wooded part of Greensand Ridge. Twenty-one years after this a colour video was recorded of a cat or big cat walking away beneath a branch. A Surrey Wildlife Trust officer in the local press at the time considered the animal filmed was not a “Surrey Puma” as the woman recording thought but was consistent with an Iberian Lnyx, assessing this and the organisation’s own reports of that year in its ranges in the borough to the north, the Borough of Guildford. The video was taken at Winkworth Arboretum (NT), Busbridge in the south-west of Surrey. The loosely corroborated sightings have been in south western Surrey (and one in a neighbouring part of Hampshire) from 1959 until about 2005. Anonymous and vague sightings in Surrey have been reported to the police, the local and national press sporadically since 1959.
In 1975, an eight year old boy was playing alone in woodland in Chiddingfold (grid reference SU 96344 35611). The woodland backs onto a field, and it was from this field that a golden coloured big cat entered the woodland. The cat walked in a westerly direction, staying close to the edge of the field. As it passed the boy, at a distance of approximately 10m, it turned its head and stared momentarily at him, but was disinterested and carried on walking. The boy, named Patrick, lived at the house now named “Bluebells” in Pockford Road. When asked if it could have been a dog, the boy replied “no, because it had a long curved tail, a wide head and it picked its feet up like a cat… but it was the same size as a big dog”.
The first possible sightings were recorded in 1959, when police received a number of reports of big cats[vague] in the Farnham area, near the Surrey/Hampshire border.
1962 and 1963
Two further sightings were recorded, in 1962, by water board personnel in Hampshire, and a third in the winter of 1962-3, a “cat-like beast” was seen at Bushylease Farm, Crondall, Hampshire. When a police officer sighted the supposed Shooter’s Hill Cheetah in south-east London in 1963, media interest turned to other big cat sightings.
Injured livestock of 1964, police-taken paw cast and naming of ‘the Surrey Puma’
In August 1964, a bullock at Bushylease Farm was found severely lacerated. Following press coverage, numerous reports of contact with the animal, dubbed the “Surrey Puma”, came to the press, ranging from the fanciful to some taken seriously by the police; at Godalming Police Station 362 reports were received in a two-year period. The station from this period kept a cast of a five-inch paw print on display identified as that of a puma by London Zoo. Reports noted that its size implied an extremely large specimen and that there were distinct differences between it and the alleged European prints of other pumas. The investigation file was closed in the summer of 1967.
In August 1966, Pert took a grainy shot which he claimed showed the Surrey Puma in Worplesdon with the cat facing the camera and a longer-than-average cat length body.
1968 and 1970
In 1968, a farmer claimed to have shot a puma, but could not provide any evidence. Sightings gradually tailed off, although paw prints found in the snow in 1970 generated a flurry of further reports.
Albury History Society has a 1991 publication, About The Hurtwood, interviewing Hurtwood Control’s ranger, Bob Ware, who claimed several sightings. The Hurtwood spans Farley Green, Pitch Hill, Peaslake and Holmbury Hill.
In 1984 hair samples taken at Peaslake were identified as puma. In the previous year an unclassified big cat dubbed ‘alien’ featured in The Archers and the Beast of Exmoor made national headlines.
The Surrey Advertiser newspaper reported a sighting was recorded by police officer Steve Ashcroft in 1995 outside hilltop St Teresa’s School Effingham.
Detective Constable Stephen Ashcroft saw the same or similar ‘up at Holmbury (Hill)’ in June 2003, an area with sightings logged within the following 12 months by Peter Hayes, warden of the Hurtwood which covers the hill and the ridge to its north and west.
The newspaper added residents of Abinger Common (the neighbouring woodland and farmland area) reported that in the ‘last two weeks’ they had seen a big cat, relying on the Big Cat Survey by the British Big Cats organisation.
A Mr Fowler, visiting with partner, Winkworth Arboretum, sent their video camera footage to a local newspaper, which they reproduced in stills. They described this animal as “gingery-brown colour, about the size of an alsatian dog but it definitely wasn’t a fox”. Surrey Wildlife Trust ranger Mark Havler having looked at this believed it was a Iberian lynx (lynx pardinus) and received 15 calls of sightings of similar in the two weeks thereafter, many much backdated.
Reports that year logged at the Surrey Advertiser headquarters were of more than one non-native wild cat in the Borough of Guildford and neighbouring districts: some of “spots and a bob tail on a sandy-coloured animal, suggesting a lynx”, others of “no spots and a long tail, which could mean a puma”; two residents walkers’ names were included in their published overview report across the years since the 1960s. The reporter interviewed the Animal Liaison Officer of Marwell Zoo outside of the sightings’ area to assess whether the old and findings were linked, who explained the need for sufficient breeding pairs given these animal’s wild lifespan, with say at a 1 in 99 likelihood in ideal conditions of having multi-generational offspring, if the first alleged sightings were true and he expressed doubt on the veracity of most reports.
“…If there are [black pumas] living in the wild nowadays they will be second or third generation animals so to keep this recessive gene in the wild here is unlikely, especially in Surrey. However, lynx and puma are a possibility….it would take six to eight animals living in the same area to keep a species line going”.
The report states that ‘over 40 years ago, [thus around 1964]’ it reported the first appearance of a “golden brown animal of around three to five feet in length while he was blackberrying one lunchtime” by George Wisdom, who described himself as a ‘Munstead workman’. Munstead is a wooded part of Busbridge noted for the vernacular style Arts and Crafts house and garden at Munstead Wood.