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Last Updated: Thursday, 23 March 2006, 14:01 GMT
The million-collar question
By Anna Browning
BBC News

Lynx reportedly shot by a Norfolk gamekeeper
Kept in ice - the shot Lynx
For more than 40 years the phenomenon of the Big Cat thriving in the wilds of the UK has made headlines. But as enthusiasts gather this weekend for the first UK conference on Big Cats, are the authorities beginning to accept they may exist?

The first UK conference on Big Cats taking place in Market Harborough, Leicestershire, this weekend will give enthusiasts the chance to share footage and theories.

It comes as a newly-released police report revealed a lynx was shot by a gamekeeper in 1991 near Norwich, after it started chasing his gun dog.

Officers found the lynx stuffed in a freezer during a raid. It must have escaped illegal ownership or a zoo, they concluded.

Stuffed and mounted

In the 1960s the four-year hunt for the Surrey Puma drew public attention to the possibility there may be something more ferocious than hedgehogs, badgers, or foxes lurking in the undergrowth.

Since then the Beast of Bodmin, the Exmoor Beast and the Telford Puma have added to an ever-growing list.

In 1980, one fed-up Scottish farmer decided to trap the beast which was mauling his livestock using a cage complete with sheep's head.

TOP TEN CATS - ONE TO FIVE
The Beast of Bodmin Moor Spotted on and off for 20 years
The Exmoor Beast First sighted in the early 1980s
The Leicestershire Big Cat Footage of the beast was shot by a farmer at Measham
The Telford Puma Caught on CCTV in 1999, the RSPCA believed it was a puma
The Beast of Gloucester First reports in 1993, it has appeared around the Cotswolds and the Forest of Dean

A female puma reported by the press as "snarling and vicious" was found.

Christened Felicity, she ended her days at a wildlife park, where she was described as overweight but very tame. She now lives, stuffed and mounted, in the Inverness museum.

Danny Bamping, of the British Big Cats Society, says there are three things to do should you come across a big cat.

"Don't approach it, don't threaten it and report it," he says.

The National Farmers' Union also says incidents of animal deaths involving a suspected big cat should be reported to the police.

"We do think it's something that needs to be taken seriously," says a spokeswoman.

TOP TEN CATS - SIX TO 10
The Pontardawe Puma Spotted near Pont Abraham services - at the end of the M4
The Beast of Barnet Three sightings in two days of a puma-like creature in 1998
The Dartmoor Lion Armed police searched Dartmoor in 1998. A six inch (15cm) paw print was positively identified as belonging to a big cat
Beast North of the Border Big cats are frequently spotted in the highlands of Scotland and recently in Fife
The Terror of Trellech In 2000, an 11-year-old boy was attacked by a "leopard-like" animal near his home in Trellech, Monmouthshire

But admitting such cats are living in the countryside is one thing, agreeing that they are breeding is quite another.

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs says there have been escapes of such beasts from zoos or illegal ownerships, but it does not believe there is a breeding population.

"There is always an issue of something escaping from somewhere," says a spokeswoman.

Sightings, it says, peaked after the 1976 Dangerous Wild Animal Act came into force, which banned keeping such animals as pets. But it does not believe these creatures went on to produce offspring.

Fashion accessory

In the 1960s and 1970s having a leopard or panther as a pet was quite the fashion. You could even buy them in Harrods.

Between the 1976 ban and the 1981 Wildlife and Countryside Act, it was perfectly legal to free your meat-loving pet into the wild.

For many this is the most reliable theory of how such creatures found their way into the countryside.

But Merrily Harpur, who has written a book Mystery Big Cats and has sighted a big black cat "with a long flowing tail" while driving in Gloucestershire has other suggestions.

Given that most sightings are of black cats, not those with leopard spots, she is not convinced they are zoo escapees.

Other theories include that they are descendants of animals that lived pre-Ice Age.

Puma skull found by farmer in Devon in 2005
This puma skull was found by a farmer in Devon in 2005

Another is that they may have escaped from Roman circuses or menageries of exotic animals, which were popular in the 18th and 19th centuries, but were in existence as far back as medieval times.

And some believe they are similar to the Black Dog legend, folklore in several parts of the country, including Dartmoor.

The legend has many variations, but some say a sighting of such a dog is a sign of death. These cats may be modern-day "spectres" or phantoms, Ms Harpur suggests.

But for Gloucestershire police's wildlife and environmental crime officer Mark Robson, the Dangerous Wild Animal Act theory is the most likely explanation.

There have now been so many sightings - and in different parts of the county - he is sure these cats exist and are quite likely reproducing.

He has developed a contingency plan for police officers to follow should such a cat pose a risk to the public, and other forces' wildlife protection officers are "slowly coming on board", he says.

Gloucestershire has had around 40 to 50 sightings in the last year, with most describing a leopard with a "dirty black" coat.

But descriptions are vague as most people do not get near them, he says.

Even so spotting such a beast will always be quite rare, while currently they pose no real risk to the public.

"They will see and smell you before you get near them. You have to be really, really unlucky to get that close to put yourself in danger," he said.


SEE ALSO
Study backs big cat rise in Wales
16 Mar 06 |  North West Wales

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