POLICE are investigating a new spate of wild cat sightings, including a puma savaging a full-grown deer.

The creature - believed to be the legendary Durham puma - has been reported prowling a remote area of east Durham.

Police are taking the sightings seriously because they coincided with the mysterious death of a deer.

Stanley greengrocer Joe Quinn, 50, said he was saw the creature near Northumbria Riding School, past the Jolly Drover roundabout, on the Consett to Stanley road.

He was delivering flowers last week during the heavy snowfalls, so the outline of the big cat in the road was clear.

Mr Quinn said: "It was massive. At first, I thought it was a big dog but, as I got closer, a Shetland pony came to mind.

"There was no mistaking the fact that it was a cat."

The cat bounded off the road and ran off across a field. Mr Quinn reported the sighting to Stanley Police.

Durham Constabulary wildlife liaison officer Sergeant Eddie Bell said the sighting came within days of a farmer seeing a cat kill a wild deer half a mile away at Iveston.

He said: "A farmer saw the cat chase the deer over a fence into a bit of woodland and kill it. They went up later and found a deer carcass, which had a bite in the front of it which appears to have been the way it was killed.

"It is probably a cat because it had to get near the deer to attack it.

"It is easy to tell the difference between a dog and a cat killing and we have recovered droppings from cats in the wilds of the North-East."

Sgt Bell said he had little doubt there are wild cats living in County Durham.

One theory is that the puma was a pet that became too big and was subsequently released into the wild.

He said: "These are animals which have lived in captivity and were kept as pets before 1976. We know they were released into the wild.

"We are not talking about yetis or bigfoots here."

Margaret Richardson, 83, of Good Street, Stanley, said she saw massive paw prints in the snow last Thursday that led from her house out towards Beamish Woods.

She said: "It must have come next door and hopped over the fence then took off across the green in front of the house.

"The prints were so big they cannot have been human and they were about a yard apart.

"It must have been a big cat. It is quite worrying that they can come so close to home."

The Northern Echo ran stories on a pet puma during the 1970s and the animals were regularly advertised in Exchange and Mart.

An ITV documentary - In Search of the Durham Puma - will delve into the mystery on Tuesday at 7.30pm.

The show's producer, Georgina Kiedrowski, got the idea for the programme after she spotted a big cat on a grassy bank as she drove south on the A1, just before the Darlington exit.

She said: "As I got closer and closer to it, I was sure what I was looking at was a big, black cat."