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Big cats in the UK

Ever since the 1960s sightings of big cats have been reported in different parts of the British countryside. These sightings are often claimed to be of panthers, pumas or black cats. Some, for example the Beast of Bodmin, have received much publicity over the years, but many scientists dismiss them as highly improbable. To this day opinion is split as to whether big cats roaming British countryside are regarded as an exotic part of British wildlife or a rural legend.

The argument that big cats do exist in the British countryside is not helped by the fact that many of the sightings have been shown to be false or worse, were revealed as pure fabrications. Let's take the story of the Beast of Bodmin. Numerous sightings were reported from Cornwall with farmers claiming that they had lost livestock to some form of large predatory cat. Because the number of sightings became very frequent and captured the nation's imagination, in 1995 the then Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (now Defra) decided to conduct an official investigation. They came up with nothing, and in their report they stated that there was "no verifiable evidence" of exotic felines on the loose in Britain. They concluded and that the mauled farm animals could have been attacked by common indigenous species. However, they also pointed out that: "the investigation could not prove that a 'big cat' is not present."

About a week after the report was published, a local boy came across a a large cat skull in the area. From the description, the skull could have been of a dead leopard. The story hit the news and the skull was sent to the Natural History Museum in London for verification. The museum duly confirmed that the skull was that of a young leopard. Sadly they also concluded that this leopard probably had come to the country as part of a leopard-skin rug. (The head was cleanly cut off in a way that is commonly used to mount it on such rugs). The most damning evidence however, came from the discovery of an egg case inside the skull belonging to a tropical cockroach which is not found in Britain.

Despite the fact that over the years much of the evidence for big cats in British countryside has been dismissed as false, the sightings keep coming. And some of the evidence has definitely been credible. Consider the case in 1980 of "Felicity the puma", captured by farmer Ted Noble at Cannich in Scotland. Her capture was followed by a string of sightings in the area, which continued for some time after Felicity herself was behind bars. Felicity was sent to the Highland Wildlife Park in Kinguisse where she remained for the rest of her life. Felicity was an undisputed big cat, but there was some controversy whether she ever been "wild". Another item of almost indisputable evidence is an Eurasian Lynx, shot in 1991 in Norfolk. The lynx had killed around 15 sheep in the space of two weeks. Another Eurasian lynx was killed in 1996 in Northern Irland. There are credible reports that in 1987 a police officer killed a puma near Greenwich Observatory in London. A year later a farmer shot a leopard in Devon.

Following the fiasco of the Bodmin Beast skull, another skull was found in 2005 which belonged to a large cat. The discovery was made by a farmer in North Devon and it has now been confirmed to be that of a puma. The discovery was made following many sightings of large cats (the Beast of Exmoor) in the area. Other evidence for the existance of large cats in Britain comes from videoes and photographs, the most convincing of which is a video of a large black cat known as "Fen Tiger". The video, which lasts for two minutes, shows what is probably a black puma stalking across the countryside. The video was made by by Mr. William Rooker in Cambridgeshire in 1994 and it remains the best film evidence to date. Among other evidence is some CCTV footage including what is quite possibly a black panther caught on CCTV in a working brickyard near Telford, Shropshire in the summer of 1999, and a probable puma which caught by a CCTV camera at a car park in Hertfordshire in August 2005.

In 2000 The British Big cats Society (BBCS) was founded by Danny Bamping of Plymouth (current President of the Society). The BBCS is based at Dartmoor Wildlife Park and is in the process of becoming a charity. The main aim of the society is to scientifically identify, quantify, catalogue and protect the Big Cats that they believe to freely roam the British countryside. In their latest study they have compiled all the evidence for the period between April 04 and July 05. This was published in the April 2006 issue of the BBC wildlife magazine. It reported on 2123 sightings of big cats mostly from South-West England with hot-spots in Devon, Cornwall and Somerset. There was also a decrease of sightings reported in Scotland. More significantly, there was an increase of sightings of big cats with cubs (17 cases), which, if true, suggests that the animals are now breeding in the wild. For more details see the BBCS website.

The BBCS is hoping for support from the Government, in particular the police and Defra. Some constabularies are sympathetic, but Defra remains unconvinced. In a recent interview, a Defra spokesperson told BBC Wildlife magazine that "Based on the evidence, Defra does not believe that there are big cats living in the wild in England. We do not have a remit for animals in the wild in Wales, Scotland or Northern Ireland." So it seems BBCS has more work to do if they are to convince the powers-that-be.

The question remains, if there are big cats living in the British countryside, and certainly some of these sightings have been proven to be genuine, where did the cats come from?

ago, an extinction which coincided with the end of the last Ice Age. The Eurasian lynx was thought to have become extinct before the Roman invasion, but some lynx bones had been found in Scotland dating to about 180 AD. A more recent study by David Hetherington dates a skull found in Yorkshire to around 500 AD. Therefore it seems that a small number of these animals may have survived till then. But it is very unlikely that they did not become extinct before modern times.

Both the leopard and Eurasian lynx were once native to Great Britain. However, the native population of leopards became extinct around 12 thousands years

However, another possibility is that what we see today are animals which escaped, or were released and have gone feral. For example it has been suggested that some big cats could have escaped from circuses or been released for hunting purposes in Victorian times. Also in the 1960s and 70s it was relatively easy to import big cats as pets. Some of these could have escaped and become feral. Finally, in 1976 the Dangerous Animals Act forbade keeping dangerous animals at home. Some owners could have released their big pets in remote locations to protect them from being put down or taken away. The latter is probably the most likely. Indeed the BBCS claims to have evidence of at least 23 big cats released following the 1976 Dangerous Animal Act. These animals included a panther, pumas, and lynxes as well as caracals, ocelots and jungle cats.

Something to think about next time you go for a picnic.

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