As a bigfoot is reported lurking in a country park, Nick Morrison looks at accounts of exotic creatures apparently living in our midst.

BLURRED photographs, mysterious footprints, odd shaped droppings, mauled livestock - sometimes it must seem as though the weight of evidence is overwhelming. While we blithely go about our everyday lives, a host of weird and wonderful creatures, most of which have no right to be here at all, are apparently living right under our noses.

The Durham puma is probably the most well-known of the North-East's exotic creatures, but it is not the only big cat to be seen in these parts. A lion, or at least a lion-sized cat, has been seen at Malton in North Yorkshire, and a panther was spotted near Scarborough.

And nor do big cats have a monopoly on fleeting appearances. A motorist reported seeing a kangaroo hop in front of his car near Ripon, before it swiftly hopped off again; a wallaby jumped in front of a car near Darlington and a small kangaroo was seen near Barnard Castle. Giant pike are regular marauders, one said to have eaten a dog foolish enough to jump into a pond at Fatfield, near Washington, and another all but wiping out the duck population of Stockton's Ropner Park.

Perhaps most chilling of all were the sightings of a crocodile, anything from six to 14ft long, in a park in the middle of Newcastle. An extensive search of the park failed to find any sign of the scaly snapper.

But there is a new entry in the pantheon of mysterious beasts roaming our parks, moors and ponds. A bigfoot - or sasquatch, or yeti - has been spotted by anglers at Bolam Lake country park, at Belsay in Northumberland. Eight feet tall, with glowing eyes, it must have been a terrifying sight as it loomed in the middle of a track ahead of three fisherman, who promptly fled. Another witness reports hearing a creature growl outside his tent as he camped at the lake, and when he emerged the next morning, presumably having slept only fitfully, he found his fishing tackle had vanished.

The reports have been detailed by Newcastle-based researcher Geoff Lincoln, who has set up the British Hominid Research organisation to investigate bigfoot sightings in this country. And he has reason to believe they are genuine.

"This figure that appeared and observed these people matches a lot of those seen in America, where most of the sightings occur. Researchers say these things appear from nowhere. You could be driving down the road when your car breaks down and while you're fumbling under the bonnet you could see something standing there, observing.

"If you go looking for them you never see them. If they feel threatened they tend to merge back into the background. These creatures seem to be totally passive, there are no reports of them attacking anyone - that's if they exist because I can't say for sure that they do," he says.

One man who has had more experience than most of looking into reports of the weird and the wonderful is Sergeant Eddie Bell, a wildlife officer with Durham Police, who since 1985 has investigated some 400 sightings of unusual animals. He has managed to provide an explanation for every one, although in around 60 cases it did turn out that that there was a creature not meant to be there.

He says the most common reports are of big cats roaming wild, and there is hard evidence that at least two types of cat are on the loose. One is the lynx, once native to this country and thought to have been wiped out in Roman times. But Sgt Bell says it is likely that some survived in isolated pockets and have managed to prosper largely hidden from human eyes, emerging only to terrify passing motorists. Puma are non-native but were kept as pets and released into the wild after the Dangerous Wild Animals Act of 1976 forced owners to buy a licence for their wild cats.

"I've got a photograph taken in Stanhope market place in 1971 which shows a puma sitting in the back of a car, and there was a woman in Chester-le-Street who released four pumas into Weardale in 1977," he says.

As well as the lynx and puma, there is a strong likelihood of the existence of a wolf pack in Northumberland, after wolves escaped from a van north of Newcastle, and wild boar have spread into the Tyne and Derwent valleys after escaping the butcher's knife.

Some sightings, however, carry a little less weight. A bear spotted near Stanley is likely to have been a Newfoundland dog and a report of a tiger the size of a labrador at Medomsley is unlikely to be true, if only because a labrador is nowhere near the size of a tiger. But reports of strange creatures should not be dismissed out of hand.

"Being a witness lands you in all sorts of embarrassing situations," says Sgt Bell. "The first thing is, people think you are drunk or mad, but you have to remember that people genuinely believe they have seen what they say they have seen. Quite a lot of them get offended or upset if you suggest what they have seen is something more banal or ordinary.

"But you have to remember that what you are looking at almost certainly has a genuine explanation. Big cats and wallabies do exist, although with something like a bigfoot it is unlikely they exist anywhere else in the world, and that means it is even more unlikely there has been one in Northumberland.

"This is a country of 57 million people, some of them go walking, some of them are massive, some of them wear very funny clothing. The likelihood is, they have seen somebody with moonboots and a big fur coat."

But even if bigfoot was not spotted at Bolam, the reports may not just be down to a fur-clad rambler and a trick of the light, and even perhaps a drop of ale. There may be a deeper reason why we are so keen to see the fabulous in the fir trees.

"We genuinely want something to be different in our lives, I think everybody suffers from that," says Sgt Bell. "We want to be excited, to take us away from our boring, everyday lives.

"But most people don't have much idea about wildlife: what is out there; what it looks like; how big it is. You get people saying they have heard a big cat following them, but if a big cat was following them they wouldn't hear it. I got a call saying someone had heard a cat galloping across a field, but that was a horse.

"And I don't think people realise how big the areas are that these things live in. There isn't an area around Bolam remote enough for a group of eight foot tall creatures to have existed in since the Ice Age. It couldn't happen."

Sgt Bell may have, perhaps rather rashly, staked his reputation on bigfoot not being found at Bolam, but Geoff Lincoln, for one, is not to be deterred. Armed with advice from American experts who have been tracking the sasquatch, he is now planning an expedition to the lake, to get some hard evidence of his own.

"They say the best thing is to go up there during the night, don't take any cameras or anything in your hand that looks like a weapon. Go to a place where there's been a report of a sighting and make noises that are totally non-threatening, baby noises or something, to arouse their curiosity.

"I've got recordings from America of supposed noises they make and I might play a tape and see what happens. You read things and think these people are madmen, but I'd like to try it. These chaps obviously saw something, so you just don't know."