Report from Chris Smith
FOR years it was spoken of in whispered tones. In the pubs and shops of Keith, the locals would fall silent when visitors entered in case the story leaked out. For in the wooded hillsides of the small Highland town, something sinister was on the prowl.
Despite numerous sightings of large wild cats over the years, the locals have until now kept the news secret for fear that their town might become the Bodmin of the north.
The world's press has regularly descended on Bodmin, in Cornwall, in pursuit of the "beast". But incidents of mysteriously slaughtered sheep and the discovery of large marks in the snow around Keith have gone unreported.
The large cats, variously described as panther or puma types, have been spotted by a range of people including farmers, policemen and even RAF officers. Locals believe that the cats regularly roam across the farming communities of Moray and Banffshire.
Ainslie Cruickshank, a carpet-fitter, spotted a cat diving into woodland while he was out walking in August last year. He described the animal as black and similar in size to a small snow leopard.
Cruickshank, who has spoken of the incident for the first time, said: "We really don't want to create a media circus. The animal has a right to live its life unhindered. The last thing we want to see is reporters, photographers and armed marines chasing the cats like they have done at Bodmin."
At the Gordon Arms Hotel, a few miles outside Keith, the local barman said people were reluctant to talk about it in front of strangers. "People tend to keep it to themselves or try and shrug it off and pretend it's a big domestic cat," he said.
Another local who has remained silent in the past is Tanya Gilbert. The advertising officer was driving near the village of Garmouth when she spotted a cat walking across the road in front of her. "The cat was as large as a cheetah and had a creamy beige colour. It stood and assessed me for a moment before disappearing into the trees.
"It was lean and its coat was rough, almost wolf-like, but it was definitely a cat."
Mike Middlehurst, the wildlife liaison officer for Grampian police, said an average of two or three sightings were reported every month. However, these are generally from visitors.
Scottish Natural Heritage has also quietly studied the sightings and has suggested that the animals could be the result of matings between Scottish wildcats and domestic or feral cats.
Locals, however, believe that the animals are the ancestors of many big cats that have been illegally released into the wild by unscrupulous owners since the introduction of the Dangerous Wild Animal Act of 1976. This led many owners to abandon their animals rather than comply with the expensive rules on feeding and housing.
A crofter who has spotted the beasts on numerous occasions, but who wished to remain anonymous, said she feared that the village would now gain a reputation.
"If word got out we would have idiots trying to stalk them with video cameras or worse with guns. They're very beautiful and we don't want them harmed. It's why we've kept quiet," she said.
© The Sunday Times, January 23 rd 2000
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