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Last Updated: Monday, 17 November 2003, 19:09 GMT
Big cat concerns continue
Jeremy Mitchell
BBC NI north coast correspondent

They roamed the north coast earlier this year, terrorising livestock and frustrating the farming community, but Northern Ireland's "big cats" have yet to be captured.

A puma
The USPCA believes a panther and a puma are at large
However, one north Antrim council is pressing for an update on the search for what is believed to be two separate animals.

On a wintry evening near Bushmills, farmer Victor Chestnutt is trying to make sure his pedigree sheep don't scatter across the field.

Stick in one hand, whistling all the time, he is checking some of his 300 lambing ewes.

The lambs are expected in the New Year, but with a big cat or big cats roaming the area, he has concerns.

"As lambing time approaches, the lambs will have to get out into the environment," he said.

"The problem of this predator at large - it's the unknown. We don't know whether it will attack lambs or not, but we suspect it will. We suspect it could kill for food or kill for fun."

Quite obviously that sort of operation can't be justified on a daily basis - the resources just aren't there
Mark Mason
Police Wildlife Officer

Those concerns have reached Ballymoney Council.

Two months ago, councillors watched as the USPCA and the police mounted a large search for what was then reported to be a puma at large in the area.

"We saw a helicopter in the air, we had police marksmen in the area, and obviously this animal was considered so dangerous that that was the appropriate response," said Mr Chestnutt.

"Councillors are a bit puzzled why now nothing appears to be happening, and yet local people are still concerned."

The first sightings of a big cat at large came in towards the end of July.

Descriptions differed however, and police and the animal charity the USPCA finally admitted there could be two, a puma and a panther. It's not known where they came from.

The police say they have had continued sightings of large cats, but on a much reduced level. They are still monitoring and investigating.

Traditional predators

Chief Inspector Mark Mason, Wildlife Officer with the PSNI says of the big hunt in September:

"Quite obviously that sort of operation can't be justified on a daily basis, the resources just aren't there.

"But I would point out that police are routinely armed in the area and can certainly bring in suitable firearms to deal with cats."

With regard to the farming community, he warns that large cats could be a risk to lambs.

He maintains police have no evidence that any fit and healthy farm animal has actually been killed by a big cat.

However, lambs, he said "would be at risk as soon as they're born because they are weak."

Mr Mason addeed that there were plenty more traditional predators out there, and warned farmers to keep their flocks monitored during lambing.

But it's quiet for the time being, or is it?

In one morning alone, I spoke to three farmers who either detailed recent sightings of a big cat, or who said they had found the mauled carcasses of farm animals, which didn't square up with attacks by foxes.

None of the farmers had passed on their information to the authorities because they said they didn't think anything would be done about it.

And that, together with the shorter days and long dark nights may explain why the big cats have seemed so quiet recently.

Big cat search abandoned
04 Sep 03 |  Northern Ireland
Fears of further big cat attacks
21 Aug 03 |  Northern Ireland
Release of wild cats 'deliberate'
19 Aug 03 |  Northern Ireland
Search for puma continues
09 Aug 03 |  Northern Ireland
'Wild cat' remains at large
11 Aug 03 |  Northern Ireland

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