Report from Chris Smith
They were once dismissed as myth, the products of vivid imaginations. Now, with the latest mauling of a woman, there are fears that a growing number of big cats are roaming wild in Scotland
It was black as pitch by the time Doris Moore finished attending to her horses. A bitter cold had descended on the Aberdeenshire countryside and she was treading carefully over the 20 yards of ice from the steading to her car when she felt a tugging at the bottom of her trousers.
'I just heard this 'whoosh' and something got hold of the straps around my ski-pants and ripped them. It jumped on me just as I opened the car door and plunged its teeth into my leg. Oh my God, the pain was excruciating. I was hitting it with my keys, I just had to get it off,' she recalled last week, still visibly shaken by the experience.
Emotional scars are not the only reminder she has of the incident - an angry bruise and three distinct puncture marks - each some 10 cm apart - on her upper thigh are a more tangible legacy of her encounter with the mystery animal lurking in the dark.
'Whatever it was, I don't know,' she added, as she fidgeted nervously in the front room of her cottage. 'But this was no pussycat.' In those few brief seconds of last Friday night Moore, of Craigieford, near Insch, became the latest convert, albeit an unwilling one, to the cult of the big cat.
Reports abound over the last 10 years or so of at least one big cat stalking rural Aberdeenshire. Descriptions of its appearance tally - black and sleek, the size of a labrador but leaner and definitely cat-like, with long whiskers and a longer tail.
So prevalent are reports of sightings and of slaughtered sheep, that in the mid-1990s it was even given a name, the Beast of Bennachie, after the distinctive hill that dominates the part of Donside in which the cat is invariably spotted.
What differentiates Moore's experience from other reports is that she was attacked, giving her the dubious accolade of witnessing first-hand the only such incident in Scotland.
The attack has prompted the SNP MSP for north-east Scotland, Richard Lochhead, to request an investigation into the growing phenomenon of big cats be ordered by rural development minister Ross Finnie.
'Big cats are being sighted on a regular basis within a particular geographical area,' he said. 'Surely some resources have to be dedicated to find out what is actually out there, not only to put the public's mind at ease but to further our knowledge of Scotland's wildlife.'
Moore would like nothing more than to be put at ease. She says she has been widely ridiculed for her account, even though it has been backed up by her elderly neighbour, Wilfred Simpson, who was with her that night.
He described 'a sleek, black beastie' that disappeared around the corner of the stables. 'She has been quite badly affected by the attack. I think she's scared to go out on her own,' he said.
Moore is not alone in her belief that she witnessed a big cat. Across the UK, people have reported sightings of animals variously labelled as puma, leopard, panther or lynx.
Last May a big cat was spotted prowling on open land near Torphins in Aberdeenshire, followed by sightings the same week on the outskirts of Aberdeen. The following month, an Inverness engineer working in woods near Huntly spotted a large, puma-like animal with a long tail that curled at the tip.
The issue was even raised in the House of Commons in 1997, when Alex Salmond informed the then Scottish Secretary, Michael Forsyth, of big cat attacks on farm animals in his Buchan constituency. Phil Gallie has written to justice minister Jim Wallace on behalf a constituent concerned about big cat sightings in Ayrshire.
Elsewhere, mountain rescue teams have reported seeing large cat tracks in the snow, while gamekeepers have taken pot shots at big cats. A puma was even captured at Cannich near Inverness in 1980.
Tame and refusing to eat anything other than cat food, the puma, later named Felicity, lived out her days at a wildlife park. She can now be seen stuffed in Inverness museum.
The case of Felicity points to one explanation for the rise of sightings of cat-like beasts. Spokeswoman the Scottish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SSPCA) Doreen Graham traces the phenomenon back to legislation introduced in the 1970s. 'Up until 1976 you could have kept a puma or a lion, but then the government introduced the Dangerous Wild Animals Act, which stated that you had to meet certain requirements on cages and so on. A lot of owners decided that was going to be expensive and turfed their pets out.
'If we have big cats - and I believe we do - then you are looking at the second generation, and I believe they're breeding,' she warned.
Interbreeding is the genesis of one possible candidate for the 'beast', the Kellas cat, named after the Morayshire village where it was first sighted, and also known as the cait sith or fairy cat.
Jet black and growing to the size of a labrador, the Kellas is the result of hybridisation between native wildcats and feral cats. Elgin museum has a fine example, stuffed.
Moore, who has seen Kellas cats, insists that it was not one of their number that attacked her . However, Allan Paul, who looks after four wildcats at his home in Morayshire, says it is very possible that larger beasts released into the wild may be interbreeding with wildcats, Kellas or even feral cats, producing some form of unidentified hybrid.
Experts meanwhile point out that big cats usually patrol territory of some 50 to 70 square miles, which suggests that the 'absolutely pure black, sleek' cat seen by artist Karen Emslie in 1995, less than 10 miles from Insch, may just be the same beast that attacked Moore.
'It was dark but I saw it straight away as I drove round the corner. I got a really clear view of it,' said Emslie, who now lives in Shetland. 'It was long rather than tall, it was the size of a Labrador but definitely longer and cat-shaped. It had a cat head with whiskers. There was no mistaking it for anything else.'
Emslie's experience is typical. Alone and without a camera to hand, it is impossible for her to verify her story. Scepticism abounds, yet even the police agree there's something out there.
Grampian Police have had 22 reported sightings of large cats since May 2000, although they reckon just 20% of sightings are reported. 'The fact we're getting a number of sightings would suggest there is something, and we wouldn't be the only force that's getting this information,' said wildlife liaison officer with Grampian, Dave Mackinnon.
One such witness is Philip Crosby, an internal auditor with Shell in Aberdeen. Crosby is a member of an organisation established last summer called Scottish Big Cats, which is attempting to approach the mystery on a scientific basis, cataloguing incidents and rigorously combing the scant details for conclusive proof.
With two sightings near his Aberdeenshire home already under his belt, Crosby and the Big Cat team maintain large cats, in particular lynx, puma and possibly leopard, could easily live in the remote glens and forests of Aberdeenshire without being seen more often, living off rabbits and smaller deer.
Geese might also prove tasty, according to Dr Ranald Munro, head of pathology for the Veterinary Laboratory Agency, based in Edinburgh. He has studied numerous carcasses of animals supposedly killed by big cats. All bar one have turned out to be victims of foxes or dogs.
The exception was a goose from a smallholding in Essex, which he examined in 1998. He found the injury to the chest to be 'absolutely like a large cat, with claw marks deep into the muscle of the chest'. He measured the marks against specimens in the National Museum of Scotland. 'I have to say it was a surprise to me. Usually it's foxes, but in this case the evidence very strongly indicated it was a European lynx, or something very like it.' In this light, he said, the Insch incident was decidedly 'interesting'.
'I think there are sufficient reports that people should have a question mark as to whether these animals are around. There's no particular reason why they shouldn't be but it would be nice to have some concrete evidence such as a dead or decomposing body. They can't just have disappeared into the ether.'
Crosby concedes that 'until we have absolute proof it will always be down to interpretation'. Whatever is out there, Crosby is investing his bonus sightings from last year with trigger cameras and night-vision glasses, all the better to find it.
'I believe somebody's going to get it,' he said. 'It might not be me, but I don't care. I just want to establish what's out there and get it protected.'
Moore too wants it caught, but not harmed. 'There are children around here,' she said. 'I'm just desperate for something to be done about this.'
Sunday Herald: January 20 th 2002
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