Report from Chris Smith
Sightings of mystery big cats in the Highlands have taken place over many years. Opinion is divided about the lineage of such animals. But, as Fergus Macneill discovers, these big cats could be panthers and pumas.
The paw mark undoubtedly belonged to a big cat. It had all the characteristics, even down to the lack of claw marks. Cats, as we know, are able to retract their claws. Dogs cannot.
And this print was large - very large.
We discovered the trail of the big cat at the side of a road in Nairnside more than 20 years ago in open countryside spattered with trees which led to verdant farmland - classic big cat country.
But what we did not consider was that the print could have belonged to one of two species of big cats which have been the subject of many reported sightings over the years, both in the Highlands and throughout the rest of the UK.
One Highland-based big cat expert believes there are two species of big cat living in the region in an area which boasts a huge variety of woodland and sheltered glens as protection from humans.
John Cathcart, a former detective with Northern Constabulary, who has researched big cat sightings in the Highlands for at least 21 years, is convinced witnesses have seen either a puma or a panther.
And Inverness-based Mr Cathcart says it is likely there are two different types of big cat prowling the Highlands, each with a large area of territory to protect.
He said: "There are unquestionably two types of cats, one brown, the other black. As far as the black ones are concerned - and this has been ridiculed by the experts - panthers seem to be the only thing that fit the bill. And the brown ones are pumas with long tails, in my opinion."
The difficulty for experts has been the lack of firm evidence regarding sightings. There are no recorded kills and it is highly likely such creatures would hole themselves up in their lair if they were suffering from a terminal illness.
However, big cats are a fairly common sight on Highland hills and farmland and most incidents are accompanied by tales of stock being slaughtered.
But the stamp of a big cat kill appears to be the clinical way in which livestock is butchered.
Sheep often have the fleece lying intact beside the body in a manner unlikely to suggest canine involvement. Dogs hunt in packs and rip and tear at sheep. But other kills have resulted in death by asphyxiation - a classic large feline hunting technique.
Mr Cathcart believes the huge range of these cats - from an area south of Fort William to the north of Sutherland - proves that they regularly breed with each other.
But he believes that, in common with other large cats, these animals mate, then return to their own territory.
He said: "There is no question about it; they are very timid and keep away from man. The majority of sightings are late at night when they are caught in car headlights.
"They are so widespread. They have been seen in Argyll, Spean Bridge, Aviemore and Ardersier, and they have also been seen in the Golspie and Dornoch areas.
"Other hotspots are at Kiltarlity, and that draws you over the hill to Cannich, which is another hotspot, and from there to Drumnadrochit.
"They are seen in areas with afforestation, where there is prey such as roe deer and rabbits, things which they unquestionably feed on, as well as stock.
"There are a number of them and I think there are individuals, but they have obviously bred and have managed to perpetuate themselves for as long as they have. The Highlands is a big area.
"But we will not really know what they are until one is caught. There have been sightings in this area since about 1947."
Of course, sightings have increased since the Government's 1976 Dangerous Wild Animals Act, which resulted in many people releasing such creatures into the wild.
One of the most famous cases was that of Felicity, a puma which earned fame when she was caught in a baited trap at a farm near Inverness.
Cannich farmer Ted Noble suspected a wild beast was roaming the area close to his Kerrow farm after he lost sheep and Shetland ponies and set a trap near his farm on the morning of October 29, 1980.
Inside the trap was the puma, which went on to live at Highland Wildlife Park, near Kingussie, after being captured by Mr Noble. She died in 1985 and was stuffed and displayed at Inverness Museum.
Last May, the discovery of a sheep carcase in a field at Ardersier, near Inverness, prompted warnings that a big cat may have been roaming the area.
A day before the sighting, an animal thought to be a puma or panther was seen close by.
And there has also been a string of sightings in Sutherland, in an area known as the Mound, south of Golspie, prompting the nickname, the Beast of the Mound.
Mr Cathcart said: "As far as the Mound is concerned, that has been a place where there must have been at least 10 sightings in the past year-and-a-half.
"I had one chap who told me that he hit a big cat; it went under the front wheel of the car, but he did not stop as he had a car behind him.
"He reckoned he hit it so hard it must have been killed. He said it went under the wheels of the vehicle.
"But when I went to investigate the area, I could see no sign of anything. I had my dog, Ile, and she would have smelled something, but there was no sign of anything and I spent more than an hour there.
"Over a period of three months, police officers, lorry drivers and housewives at the Mound have seen black cats."
More than two weeks ago, the so-called Beast of the Mound was spotted by Dorothy Gunn, of Bridge of Don, Aberdeen, as she holidayed with relatives in Golspie.
Mrs Gunn was travelling in her car with her two young daughters and their 10-year-old friends when they spotted the strange beast.
Mrs Gunn said: "This animal was grey and large, far bigger than a dog, and bounded out in front of us without any warning from between two parked lorries just north of the Mound.
"It looked very powerful and quite fat, with massive legs and pricked-up ears."
Mr Cathcart keeps regular records of each big cat sighting and is often tipped off by former colleagues in Northern Constabulary who take detailed descriptions of sightings from witnesses.
From there, he will get in touch with the person who has seen a big cat and make a detailed study of the type of animal and its likely habitat.
But the shyness of these creatures and the genuine shock felt by many observers makes it difficult to pinpoint precisely what it was they have seen.
Mr Cathcart said: "One that has been reported is a lynx-like animal. A lynx is the bobcat, which has a very squat tail. But on what basis are they saying it is a lynx?
"There was also one reported fairly recently at Nairn Golf Club - it was reported as a lynx at the links.
"But when I asked the eyewitness to describe the animal, he said it had a long, thick, curled tail, which is classic puma.
"There have been sightings in Hilton housing scheme in Inverness of a lynx in the early 1980s. Personally, I am inclined to think it was one of the pumas because it was raiding rubbish bins."
Press & Journal, 30 th April 2001
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