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Last Updated: Thursday, 12 October 2006, 06:29 GMT 07:29 UK
Something wild in the countryside
By Niall Glynn
BBC News website

For more than a month in the summer and autumn of 2003 the story dominated the headlines in Northern Ireland.

Big cats - thought to be a panther and a puma - were on the loose on the north coast.

Numerous sightings, paw prints and the mauled remains of livestock - including a 70kg ram - seemed to confirm their presence.

Puma
The USPCA believes there are pumas living in the NI countryside

Since then the creatures have disappeared from view, but according to the Ulster Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, others are living in the wild in Northern Ireland.

"There are reported sightings from across the province that would suggest we still have a few of these animals in the wild," USPCA chief executive Stephen Philpott said.

"Probably pumas and lynx, smallish animals that could survive in our climate and live by scavenging or (feeding) on smaller native mammals.

"They are secretive and shy and only present a problem if cornered, a situation they are equipped by instinct to avoid."

Mr Philpott said reports about such animals are usually received from rural communities in counties Tyrone, Down and Antrim

"They originated from private hands having been bought from dealers. Remember it is not illegal to possess these creatures," he added.

In 1976 the Dangerous Wild Animals Act became law in England and Wales.

It meant licences were required for anyone wishing to own an animal listed under the act.

It aimed to ensure that where individuals own dangerous or exotic animals they do so in circumstances which create no risk to the public and safeguard the welfare of the animals

However, the act does not apply to Northern Ireland.

As a result it is perfectly legal to own anything which isn't listed as endangered, something which some people in Northern Ireland have taken advantage of.

"Fashions change in animal keeping and the passion for a lion or tiger in the garden shed in the 70s and 80s gave way to a demand for exotic animals perceived as less demanding, creatures such as eagle owls, wolves and non-venomous snakes," Mr Philpott said

Mauled sheep
This sheep was thought to have been killed by a big cat in north Antrim

"Things have moved on and easy availability through the internet and local dealers means reptiles, spiders and monkeys, even Caiman crocodiles, are on display in local living rooms impressing the neighbours."

After the big cat sightings in 2003 the government moved to bring Northern Ireland in line with the rest of the UK, but although it is more than two years since an order in council was published, the legislation has still not come into law.

In that time the USPCA has seized wolves, venomous snakes and toads, crocodiles, monkeys and poisonous spiders from pet shops and private homes across Northern Ireland.

These include two wolves running loose in a Bangor housing estate.

Recently the charity also discovered five juvenile diamond back rattlesnakes in a house in east Antrim.

The USPCA has long called for the law on dangerous animals to be changed in Northern Ireland, but it is also concerned about the aftermath of the change.

The worry is that dangerous animals could be dumped into the Northern Ireland countryside and the charity wants the government to make some arrangements to house such animals.

It also says changing the law will be pointless unless it is effectively policed.

"We have for some years had Dangerous Dogs Order in NI. This was designed to control and eliminate a real threat to public safety," Stephen Philpott said.

Caiman crocodile
People are buying Caiman crocodiles as pets

"It has not been effectively applied and the keeping of dangerous dogs is endemic in many parts of the province."

Northern Ireland's farmers are the people with most to fear from the release of dangerous animals into the countryside.

Joe McDonald of the Ulster Farmers Union said the Dangerous Wild Animals Act is needed in Northern Ireland, but urged owners of such animals to behave sensibly when it is brought in.

"We would certainly urge anyone who is a keeper of an animal to take the responsibility of ownership and not to release them into the wild.

"Our countryside is predominantly farmland and it is not really a suitable environment for certain types of these wild animals and it seems to have caused big problems in the past," Mr McDonald said.

"We'd far rather they try to find some sort of official outlet for the animal rather than to just let it loose and create all sorts of other knock-on problems."

And what of those two wild cats which hit the news in 2003?

No more sightings have been reported recently, but the USPCA believes they could have survived in the wild.

However, they are likely to have "melted away into the background".

Their headline-making days seem to be behind them.


SEE ALSO
Panther and puma at large
24 Sep 03 |  Northern Ireland
Law lets dangerous pets go wild
22 Aug 03 |  Northern Ireland
'Panther' escapes marksmen
22 Aug 03 |  Northern Ireland
Release of wild cats 'deliberate'
19 Aug 03 |  Northern Ireland

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