Report from Chris Smith
Highland farmers are being warned that prowling big cats could threaten their stock during the lambing season.
The alert comes from former Northern Constabulary wildlife liason officer John Cathcart a week after a puma was seen and a mutilated sheep was later found in the Ardersier area.
"It was a particularly good sighting - in daylight, at a matter of a few feet - of an animal that was positively identified as a puma," said Mr. Cathcart. "The witness owns 40-kilo dogs and he estimated this thing was heavier then his dogs. Then the next day there was one sheep found dead in the area. The lamb was still alive, but the mother was just in bits."
The Ardersier sighting comes as residents of another Highland area have been alerted to the possibility of big cats on the prowl. The latest issue of the Kiltarlity Community Council Newsletter, Kiltarlity News, reports a string of livestock attacks by a mysterious beast in the area over the past two years, including the loss of more than 20 sheep by Eskadale keeper Neil Lyon.
Mr. Cathcart, who has investigated several reports of big cat sightings and kills, is certain that pumas or similar animals have established themselves in the Highlands, putting lambs and other livestock at risk.
"Lots of lambs have been taken" he claimed. "There's one farmer in the Dalcross area who lost 26 lambs last year, and I'm talking about lambs that were taken away completely without any trace."
However, despite the long series of sightings, Mr. Cathcart says the public remain reluctant to believe in big cats roaming free in the Highlands.
"You get wee pockets of belief, but generally its been Loch Ness monsterised. But there is absolutely no doubt in my mind that there area number of animals in the Highlands and even going down to Argyll and then Aberdeenshire," he said.
"My personal view is that there is a breeding population. I have one sighting from Daviot of a lioness and three cubs.. I spoke to the chap himself and he thought it was a lion but I will contend that it was a puma."
"I think that if it had been a lion, we would all have known about it by now! A puma would give the same silhoette as a lioness, so I would say yes, they are certainly breeding."
Mr. Lyon believes his sheep were victims of a big cat between October 1998 and the spring of 1999 when the mysterious attacks took place.
"My sheep were definitely not attacked by a fox or a dog," he said. "These sheep were one-year-old hoggs, they weren't small lambs and John Catcart was saying the way they had been skinned was typical of big cats."
However, Mr. Lyon believes the culprit may have had its comeuppance. A local lorry driver collided with a mystery animal between Kiltarlity and Drumnadrochit.
Hairs were sent off for analysis to Napier College in Edinburgh, where experts concluded that they belonged to an animal that was not native to Britain.
"Since then we haven't had any trouble, touch wood," said Mr. Lyon. However, Beverley Wilson of the National Farmers Union believes lambs are more likely to fall victim to more mundane predators than pumas or panthers, with dogs and foxes the prime suspects.
"Nine times out of 10 or more, if you have a sheep kill it will be a dog," she said. "This is why we say when it is lambing time, please keep your dogs inside, or at least know where they are. Even the friendliest Labrador can do a tremedous amount of damage if it gets among sheep."
And as someone who used to live on Dartmoor, home of Britain's most notorious big cat, the legendary Beast of Bodmin, Miss Wilson admitted to taking claims about puma kills with a pinch of salt. "I would have to see it to believe it," she said.
Inverness Courier, 2 nd May 2000
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