By Ollie McAteer
I meet big cat detective Charlie Bones in St Leornard’s Forest car park before we head into the dense undergrowth.
He isn’t wearing a deerstalker and doesn’t greet me with a raise of his pipe.
Instead he’s clad in green. I ask if it’s for camouflage. He laughs: “Nah, it’s cheap.”
Charlie fishes deep into his white van and retrieves a map of the forest and surrounding area.
His cheeky-chappy face lights up as he stabs the paper.
“The last sighting was two or three months ago, around these parts,” he caresses a section of print illustrating part of the forest nearest to Horsham town.
Unarmed with the many instruments I’d hoped for - binoculars, compass and a small whistle emitting some sort of feline mating call - we set off in search of a big cat.
The 45-year-old detective claims he’s spotted the creatures in numerous locations across Sussex since 2000, including Steyning, Dial Post and Ardingly.
He’s had a keen interest in the animal since his teenage years. Someone he knew from work kept one caged up in their back garden.
Big cat sightings have been rife in the UK since the Dangerous Wild Animals Act of 1976 made it illegal to keep untamed pets. It’s widely believed that many owners of exotic cats like pumas or lynx simply freed them into the countryside.
Are there any in Horsham?
Charlie thinks so. And he’s dedicating all of his spare time to help prove their existence in the area.
The cat we’re looking for is brown and around 22 to 26 inches tall - about the size of an Alsatian.
I’m told this beast has been seen by walkers in St Leonard’s for the past three years.
Detective Bones marches on ahead and indicates left with his arm before darting off the footpath and into a holly bush.
Branches ping back in my face as he ploughs through like an unstoppable boulder.
I learn to keep a short distance very quickly.
We arrive at the top of a small cliff where a stream lies below.
Charlie wants to get down there and inspect the sodden ground for paw prints.
He practically falls down the cliff. I clamber down, notepad in mouth.
“I know a cat’s been through here a couple of months ago,” says Charlie who’s now perched by the water. “Not been seen here since but there’s nothing to say it’s been through here again and hasn’t been spotted.”
He visits the same locations and scours land for prints and carcasses of wildlife.
The detective takes chunks of the dead animals which he sends off for DNA testing at Warwick University - which apparently funds a small department of specialists looking into the big cat phenomenon.
Unfortunately, experts have drawn a blank with every sample Charlie’s sent.
We begin to wade our way through the foliage again.
I ask the Dial Post man what he thinks of those who don’t believe big cats exist in British countryside.
“Well that’s fair enough, they’ve got their opinion. And to be fair there’s not that much concrete evidence around. There’s hardly any DNA evidence, so they do have a point.
“But I’ve seen them, I’ve spoken to people who are adamant they have.
“To be honest if everyone thought the same thing, it wouldn’t be quite so mysterious, so it does add some interest.”
We’re lost. But after three dead-ends the detective’s found a way out. Except it involves conquering a 7ft high vertical wall of mud. Charlie pounces up no problem. He’s surprisingly nimble for a man of his stature. Maybe Charlie is the big cat.