Report from Chris Smith
A hill farmer has become the latest Highlander to have a close encounter of the big cat kind.
David McLeod was out walking in Glen Loy near Spean Bridge when he became aware that there was something distinctly spooky about footprints in the snow.
"I suddenly realised they were not common tracks," said Mr McLeod of Glenloy House, Letterfinlay.
"They were carefully spaced, one in front of the other, they were about four and a half inches wide, and where the hill became slippery, I could clearly see where the claws had dug into the ice."
He said he deliberately walked alongside the spoor so he could compare his size seven boots with the cat's print. "You could see by comparing the two how large the footprints were. I would say it would have been about the size of an Alsatian dog. "I have never come across anything like it before and I have been farming the area for the past 12 years. However, about two years ago, there were reports of big cats about the size of a deer and a large cat was spotted crossing the road. This was reported to the police at the time."
Mr McLeod said that farmers in the area had from time to time reported "black holes" - cases where sheep or cattle had disappeared without trace. And he said a former gamekeeper of his had reported finding deep scratches on a tree some feet above head height.
"I used to scoff before this, but it has made me think again," he said. "I was not the only one to see the tracks - there was at least one other chap. I cannot say what it is for sure, but it was a big animal, far bigger than any of the natural wildlife around here."
John Cathcart, the former Northern Constabulary wildlife officer who has become an expert on big cats, said the Fort William/Spean Bridge area had not produced many sightings. But he said there had been very positive reports last year from nearby areas such as Fort Augustus, Drumnadrochit and Kiltarlity.
"There is absolutely no doubt that these animals can cover some ground," he said. "A puma will range over about 60 miles looking for food. When they run out in one area, they will move on to another. "This is a very interesting sighting."
Reports of mysterious big cats in the Highlands have become increasingly common - to the extent that they even have their own site on the internet. The Scottish Big Cats website was established by amateur researcher Mark Fraser of Kilmarnock to provide a log of reports of unusual animals on the loose in Scotland from the far north to the borders.
Last year's sightings included an Inverness man who claimed to have seen a panther at Rogie Falls near Strathpeffer in January.
In May, mutilated sheep and the sighting of a puma like animal near Ardersier, and attacks on livestock in Kiltarlity were blamed on a "catlike" predator.
In July, more animals in the same area were claimed to have fallen prey to "The Beast of Boblainy" and September brought a further report of a lynx-like creature being spotted on the Nairn Dunbar golf course.
Experts believe the big increase in sightings followed the introduction of the 1976 Dangerous Animals Act which placed new and tougher restrictions on the private ownership of exotic creatures. This is believed to have led to the "dumping" of some big cats in the wild. Reported sightings began coming in from the extreme south west of England to the far north of Scotland, sparking the legends of "The Bodmin Beast" and "The Surrey Puma".
Nessie's Loch Ness Times, 3 rd March 2001
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