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Big Cat Hunting in the Woods of Weardale

Setting off on a big cat hunting expedition, the first weird thing was not having the dogs along for the ride. But dogs are not known for quietly sitting and watching when there’s wildlife around, so for this trip they stayed at home.

Met up with J at Bull Beck snack bar for breakfast, and then headed to the North East. A closed bridge delayed us as we had to detour into the country lanes, but soon we were powering across the A66 to the East, through some spectacular scenery, and, for LAPIS, some unprecedented good weather!

Stopping off at RAF Bowes Moor, a second world war storage site for, among other things, Mustard Gas, we decided it would make an excellent spot for a SkyWatch, and that we would have to return!

Then it was on to Barnard Castle for a quick shopping stop, before heading up to Bishop Auckland to meet the rest of the team.

G was our host, as her father lives on the farm which adjoins the forestry commission land where there have been a couple of sightings of big cats. We went out to tour the area, including some off-road tracks that were beyond my vehicle and driving skills! Finding the Hamsterley Forest toll-road strangely unguarded (Beware, there will soon be ANPR camera’s and a sliding scale of charges) we managed to drive through the forest, but any self-respecting big cat will stay clear of the picnic sites until after dark I’m sure!

Arriving at the Farm we decided, on discussion with the farmer, and in order to avoid the cows, to set up camp at the very top of the top field, close to the forestry commission land. This entailed a walk through the fields, carrying all our gear, of just over half a mile, which we ended up doing twice. At this point G turned up on the back of a quad bike. This has been noted for next time!

Camp set, we returned to the farm. We had been gifted an amazing opportunity by T, G’s dad. He had organised a barbeque with several principle witnesses. J and G, the farm owners, their son S, his friend D, and neighbours B and GL. S’s sighting was 24 years ago, but was up at the top of the farm near the forestry commission land, where a track heads up onto the moors. GL’s sighting was more recent, a year or so ago, in the same location.

Once the festivities were over, we prepared for a night out in the fields. Heading up to the camp, we then headed towards the forestry commission land. Unfortunately, we were unable to cross from one property to the other due to some new and difficult to cross fencing, so we ended up walking half a mile or so down the perimeter until we met the road, before we could re-enter the forest.

My original thought when planning the evening was that, it being midsummer, there would be just enough ambient light for us to see the limestone covered tracks between the trees, especially as a large proportion of the trees had recently been felled. I misjudged just how dark that woodland is. Sat in our camping chairs on the track, we could see very little beyond the silhouettes of the trees, and very soon a mist started to rise, reducing the visibility even further.

It was at this point that a passing hedgehog made two of our party leap to their feet. (Hedgehogs make more noise trampling through the undergrowth than you might imagine!) After this things descended into an almost “Most Haunted” worthy farce, as psychology took over, and our imaginations bounced off each other as we wound each other up with a series of “What was that?!” and “Shhh!!”. No one fancied strolling further into the darkness of the forestry commission land, so we decided to head back to the tents.

A, our accompanying farmer, left for home (Farmers need to work weekends). Bravely, he strode off into the descending fog, and we watched him disappear, along with the surrounding forest, as the fog got thicker and thicker. We sat quietly chatting, and it was at this point a strange thing occurred. We had, at the start of the exercise, agreed to put our phones into flight-mode, to avoid any unwanted noise, and due to a, possibly fanciful, idea that cats can detect the electromagnetic transmissions. (There is some basis to this, as cats have been observed to react to mobile phones just before they start ringing.)

I had just turned my phone back to normal mode, but the others hadn’t. We all distinctly heard the sound of an email being received, a clear, two-tone whistle. I checked my phone, and there was no messages showing. My phone also emits a bright flash when it received a message, and no-one had noticed this. The other phones were still on flight mode… Weird, and we did check to see if there was a lost phone nearby, but this would have been an odd coincidence to say the least. A mystery that will never be solved!

The fog had continued to descend, so B decided to pace off the distance until he disappeared from view. This was how we can attest that the visibility was down to 43 metres. We chatted some more while watching the trees disappear in the fog, but discovered that we were standing in a circle, all back to back, in some sort of instinctive defence posture!

G headed for her tent, and we felt even more as if we were being picked off one by one! To avoid any further hysteria kicking in, it was time to go to sleep. It was 4am after all

The following morning we had the luxury of a quad bike to move our gear back down to the farmyard. We also discovered that a new sighting had been reported on social media just the day before, at a site just over the fields from our campsite! We headed off to have a look at Helme Park woods, after agreeing that the nights camping had been a good shake down, if not particularly successful as regards watching the wildlife!

P, July 2019

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