After years of false leads, exaggerated stories and made-up claims, it's
official: a forensic inquiry by a government-accredited laboratory has confirmed
for the first time that at least one big cat is living wild in Britain.
Sandy Richardson stands before the caravan in his garden where he videoed the big cat
A study of hairs taken from a site in Lincolnshire has revealed they belong to an animal from the leopard family.
The large black cat had been spotted frequenting an abandoned caravan in the garden of a retired couple, Sandy and Julie Richardson, earlier this summer. They filmed it before calling in the police who attempted, but failed, to capture the animal.
A sample of hairs was taken from inside the caravan and passed to DNA Bioscience, a company that carries out forensic work, for analysis. Rebecca Webster, the operations manager at DNA Bioscience, which is accredited by the Lord Chancellor's department, said: "The core of the hair is not that of a domestic cat. The outside of the hairs show evidence of a scaling pattern that is consistent with an animal of the leopard family. It is very exciting."
Ms Webster also sent a sample of the hair to another laboratory, RGJL, based in Pittsburgh in the United States, for a second opinion. Their analysis confirmed the hair was from an animal of the genus panthera, a subgroup of the cat family that includes lions, tigers, leopards and jaguars.
Although leopards normally have spotted fur, melanism - where the coat turns black - is quite common, especially among Asian leopards, which are called panthers, making it probable that the animal is some form of leopard which has escaped from captivity.
Pc Nigel Lound, the wildlife officer for Lincolnshire Police, said: "This is concrete proof, as far as we are concerned. It is certainly the best evidence by a long way that we've had in Lincolnshire of the presence of big cats."
The findings follow decades of claims about mysterious large cats prowling the countryside. The most famous cases include the Surrey Puma of the 1960s, the Beast of Exmoor of the 1980s, and the Durham Puma and Beast of Bodmin of the 1990s, but none was ever confirmed to exist.
The proof that the "Lincolnshire Leopard" does exist follows a large number of unconfirmed sightings of big cats in the county. The plethora of claims appears to have been sparked by an offer of a £100 reward by a local newspaper, the Horncastle News, to any reader able to provide definitive proof that a wild animal was on the loose.
Among the claims are some best described as bizarre: one out-of-focus picture shows a snow-white animal said by one observer to be "a cat the size of a small horse".
Mr and Mrs Richardson's evidence was different. The couple's four-bedroom house on the outskirts of Hemingby, near Horncastle, backs directly on to fields and its one-acre garden is littered with abandoned caravans and cars.
"About 18 months ago I saw a paw print the size of a tea plate outside the back door," said Mrs Richardson. "That was the first time we noticed anything and I took a plaster cast of it, but it fell apart."
In July, Mr Richardson, a 66-year-old retired plastics worker, saw a large black cat making its way down the side of the garden.
"A few days later I went into the caravan at the end of the garden, looking for a new spring for my grass cutter. I turned around and there it was, sitting on a mattress, staring at me from just a few feet away. It was about four feet long, plus the head and tail, and the size of one and half labradors. It was black, with yellowy-orange eyes which were evil to look at, totally dead and soulless.
"It bared its four big yellowy-brown teeth but didn't make a noise. Then it started walking towards me. Its body was sleek and very well-muscled. It kind of rippled."
The cat later reappeared, allowing Mr Richardson to film it from his back door. Police officers arrived, armed with shotguns and tranquilliser darts, but were unable to find it.
Despite the conclusions, there was still some scepticism last night. Danny Bamping, the founder of the British Big Cats Society, which tracks exotic cat sightings across the country, said he still thought the Lincolnshire Leopard was unconvincing.
"It all looks a bit fishy," he said, after viewing Mr Richardson's video. "It looks larger than a domestic cat, but it doesn't have the right profile for a black leopard."
The Richardsons are not despondent, however: since the confirmation of the forensic evidence, the Horncastle News has agreed to pay them its £100 reward.
Observer, 19 th October 2003
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