Report from Chris Smith
Are they overgrown pussycats, the figment of over-active imaginations, or something much closer to jungle reality? The mystery surrounding Scotland's big cats has grown to Nessie proportions. Now experts claim there may be 50 of them prowling our countryside
The eyes flicker gold against the dipped headlights. The bared fangs belong to a David Attenborough wildlife documentary. The coat appears a buff fawn. The shape is unmistakably that of a big cat - possibly a puma. But this is not Saskatchewan - it is Scotland.
It is a clear February night. My car is parked in a lay-by on the A712, a remote road which winds its way through the Galloway Forest. I have taken a short break from a 200-mile journey home from friends in the North. I am awe-struck. I move my left hand slowly across to the passenger glove box where I know my camera is loaded with flash and film. The plastic lock unclips and the camera drops into my hand. I look up - but the beast is gone.
Like many others before me I have my one and only brief encounter with one of Scotland's mysterious big cats. No physical evidence, just what I saw with my own eyes. The mystery beast - possibly the famed Galloway Puma - could be one of up to 50 big cats roaming free in the UK.
During the past two decades thousands of people have reported sightings of big cats from Cornwall in the south to Caithness in the north. In Scotland, the Galloway Puma has cousins in Angus, Argyll, Aberdeenshire and Moray. Experts are now united in agreeing that the cats are real, may have been at large for more than 20 years and bred generations of offspring.
Marcus Matthews, who has researched big cat sightings since 1986, is convinced. His 165,000-word manuscript on UK sightings is set to become a definitive book on the subject. His study-bedroom is cluttered with 25 files and 5,000 letters he has collected on the subject.
"I have over 1,000 letters confirming sightings," he says. "But for every reported sighting there are probably two or three others which have never been recorded. We are talking of maybe 50 big cats out there, ranging from black leopards to lynxes and smaller jungle and leopard cats. The evidence is there," he urges. "For instance the skull of a puma found on Exmoor in 1993 was certainly genuine."
In Scotland, a puma was caught in the hills north of the Great Glen in 1980, a leopard cat was shot near Jedburgh in the Borders in 1988 and another killed in Berwickshire a year later.
The Ross-shire puma was found in a trap by a Cannich farmer following an eight-month hunt during which he had lost many sheep and foals. The beast - suffering from chronic arthritis - was taken to the Highland Wildlife Park near Kingussie, where she lived out her last years, dying in 1985. The origin of the Berwickshire leopard cat remains unknown, but the Jedburgh cat originally came from Edinburgh Zoo and had escaped from a private collection in Cumbria.
Last month, Buchan welder John Aitken revealed he had two encounters with a big cat within a year at Crimonmogate, near Fraserburgh. His sightings are part of a wave of new reports of puma-like creatures across the North.
Last year farmers in the Kiltarlity area in Highland blamed a big cat for a spate of sheep killings. Alan Syme, of the Scottish Agricultural College's veterinary laboratories in Inverness, later confirmed that at least one of the sheep had been killed by "some creature other than foxes or dogs".
Other sightings of big cats have been made near Stonehaven, Findhorn, Lochinver, Turriff and Huntly.
In South-west Scotland, the existence of the so-called Galloway Puma was recently given credence when three Canadian tourists staying in holiday chalets at Newton Stewart reported seeing the cat. They said it was identical to animals "back home" in Vancouver.
Sightings in the Forfar, Dundee and North Perthshire areas of the black-coloured "Angus Big Cat" have been reported for many years.
In 1994, Tayside Police followed their Grampian counterparts in appointing an officer to investigate reports of a predatory big cat roaming the rural areas and killing sheep.
And the big cat story is getting bigger:
First there was the Beast of Exmoor and the Surrey Panther.
A swamp cat was run over by a car at Hayling Island, Hampshire.
A Devon farmer shot a South American leopard.
The history of big cats in Scotland can be traced back to the 1920s when three lynxes were killed in traps set at individual points in the Highlands. Alford vet May Crossling says she first saw a big cat 20 years ago while driving in the Montrose area. She believes the most likely explanation for continued sightings is that a number of "panther-like cats" were released from private collections and have successfully bred in the wild. It is a view shared by others.
Malcolm Moy, former owner of the Argyll Wildlife Park in Inveraray, has long espoused the existence of a number of puma-like cats at large throughout Scotland. "It started when the Dangerous Wild Animals Act was introduced in 1976," he said. "Before that you could even buy these things in Exchange and Mart and many people had them as exotic pets. But after the Act local councils told owners to either get a local authority licence and provide secure caging or have their pets put down. Many couldn't afford the expensive cages and couldn't bear to have their cats destroyed, so dumped them in remote places in Wales, south-west England and Scotland." Other beasts escaped from insecure small zoos and careless owners.
Mr Moy's conclusions were confirmed by another expert. Police big-cat tracker Steve Ashcroft claimed there were an "alarming number of big cats now living wild in Britain". He said there could be as many as 50. Mr Moy added: "By now some of these cats would have got together and produced litters."
A puma's usual prey is rabbits, roe deer or young red deer. But it will also attack stock. "We had a panther in Argyll and one farmer lost 18 sheep to it after the local rabbit population got myxomatosis," he added. New sightings in mid-Argyll have added weight to claims that a family of panthers may be roaming the area. A recent sighting at Ford near Loch Awe was the 36 th catalogued by police in Lochgilphead since 1984. The animal was caught on video tape and the film corroborated by a local SSPCA officer.
Terry Moore of the Cat Survival Trust believes the estimate of 50 big cats at large may be a little high. But he is confident there are as many as 24, from seven different species, living on the mainland of Britain.
Fears over an increase in big cat numbers have been made by zoologist Quentin Rose, who has investigated sightings for seven years. Mr Rose claims to have identified 27 reliable reports of leopards, 32 of pumas and 18 smaller members of the cat family - jungle cats, leopard cats and ocelots - in Scotland, Wales, the West of England and East Anglia. He believes the known reports are just the tip of the iceberg. And he warns that if nothing is done, the big cat population could explode, posing a threat to indigenous wildlife, livestock and humans.
Bob Fotheringham, chief game warden at Blair Drummond Safari Park, near Stirling, is less alarmist but still believes there are big cats at large. "Every three or four weeks we get phone calls of sightings of big cats," he told The Press and Journal.
"There are currently a lot in the Fife area and close to Balfron. We know there are native Scottish wild cats, but they are only seen rarely because there is such a vast area of Scotland in which they can lose themselves. For similar reasons I personally believe there are big cats out there."
July 7 th 1999
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