POLICE officers in night vision glasses and rifles gripped tightly in their hands stalk the countryside, their eyes scanning the darkness for the merest movement, their ears straining to the slightest sound.
A few days later a helicopter is scrambled to the area after a frightened woman motorist calls in with yet another report of something suspicious, something not quite right, caught in her headlights.
But it's not some hardened criminal or terrorist these armed police are hunting. Instead it's a breed of wild creature which, if new statistics are to be believed, is rapidly turning vast chunks of the British - and in particular Scottish - countryside into its own territory. It has paws the size of spades, razor-sharp claws and the ability to terrify, mystify and then apparently vanish without trace.
For police in west Wales, the night vision equipment, guns and helicopters deployed last week were still not enough to help them snare the puma-like creature which has brought terror to the area around Carmarthenshire since two horrified dairy workers witnessed a dog being savaged by what they could only describe as a "big cat". Later tests confirmed that the dog had, indeed, been ripped apart by an unusually large predator.
But that gruesome incident - one of 96 Welsh sightings of big cats in the past year - is only the tip of what is becoming a rather large iceberg. For it seems big cats, whether real or imagined, are definitely at large.
The number of recorded sightings of pumas, panthers and other cat-like wild beasts throughout the UK doubled last year to more than a thousand, according to figures just released by the British Big Cats Society, the organisation which monitors and collates big cat sightings.
Here in Scotland - rapidly becoming a hot-spot for such sightings - the Scottish branch reports 209 separate sightings of "big cat" creatures, covering an area stretching from Aberdeenshire to Peebles, Ardrossan and, much closer to home, South Queensferry, Balerno and East Lothian.
That's 50 more than the previous year but even so, says the society's Scottish spokesman Mark Fraser, that hardly scratches the surface of what may be out there.
"The Pentlands has always been a hotspot for big cats but we no longer have anyone in the area carrying out regular checks, so although we reckon there is a lot of activity in that area, it's hard to come up with the figures. But I'd say it's a fair bet that if you're walking in the Pentlands then you're being watched by a big cat."
Doreen Graham, of the SSPCA, has no doubt that large members of the cat family are on the prowl. And some of them just a few miles from the centre of Edinburgh.
"We have had two reports in the Balerno area in the past year - both from very sensible people," she says.
"And although it's often easy to be mistaken - a friend of mine was completely convinced they had seen a black big cat while walking near Peebles but later discovered it was a black Labrador - we do know that there are definitely big cats on the loose in the UK.
"Perhaps we shouldn't be surprised - Scotland is an ideal territory with plenty of rabbits, a natural food supply and the right terrain to hide in."
But while the rising number of sightings is surprising in itself, perhaps of greater concern is the fact that these elusive and dangerous creatures appear to be creeping closer than ever to town.
There have been reports of a big cat seen strolling through the centre of Port Glasgow, one spotted by an esteemed astronomer padding through Foxbar in Paisley, another "eyeballing" police officers while it sauntered down an Ayrshire railway line. Then there was the particularly worrying claim two years ago when an Edinburgh woman contacted Scottish Big Cats to say she had just seen one in the heart of the Capital.
"It's perfectly feasible," says executive member of Scottish Big Cats George Redpath, a retired police officer who has spotted several of the creatures around his Fife home of Balmullo, near St Andrews.
"I had one lady on the telephone from Glasgow saying she somehow ended up with a lynx in her house.
"These creatures are losing their natural fear of humans. They are coming into town because there are rich pickings for them - just like the foxes. We are busy leaving out our scraps, so it's only natural they find scavenging in town easier than having to hunt for their prey."
His organisation - separate from the British Big Cats Society's Scottish branch - notched up 119 Scottish sightings last year, although he too believes that is far from the real number.
"There is less stigma attached to admitting you have seen a big cat these days, but people are still sometimes wary about coming forward," he says.
"But there's no doubt that every county in the country has a big cat - or cats - living somewhere in it. I reckon in Fife alone there are perhaps five or six."
Big cat fever first exploded in 1983 with the first sightings of the Beast of Bodmin Moor, and a trail of more than 80 sheep carcasses allegedly left by the Beast of Exmoor. Since then, there have been sightings in every county of mainland Britain - from lynxes and leopards to pumas and ocelots.
Most witnesses describe a large black or dark brown cat, the size of a Labrador, 45cm to 80cm tall, with a body 60cm to 120cm in length, and a long tail.
Big cat experts put the explosion in sightings down to a less sceptical public - and the probability that a handful of wild animals have now multiplied into several dozens.
And although there have been sightings of pumas, lynxes and mountain lions in Britain since the 1920s, it's generally believed most of today's "big cats" are the thriving offspring of dozens of wild animals released from captivity in the 1970s.
"Before then, people were able to keep exotic and dangerous animals as pets without a licence,"
"Then they were forced to either buy a licence or donate animals to a zoo. It wasn't until 1981, however, that it became illegal to release the animals into the wild, so before that many big cat owners took the opportunity this loophole offered.
"The animals we are seeing now could be the third generation of some of these creatures."
So should we be worried about what seems to be a growing population of big cats on our doorsteps?
Retired rope-maker Douglas Ross, 72, stressed his concerns after seeing a panther-like beast on the outskirts of Haddington, in East Lothian, last May. He was driving past the entrance to the town's Stevenson House when the creature caught his eye.
"It was a black animal, very low to the ground and moving in a distinctly cat-like manner," he said at the time.
"It came out right in front of me and moved very fast, so I only saw it for an instant.
"It was about the same length as a deer, and I had seen two deer cross the road earlier, so it could have been hunting them.
"This is an area where small children, including my grandchildren, live and I don't think it is terribly safe to have this thing running around near kids."
David McClean was equally concerned when he drove past Inchgarvie House, in South Queensferry, one morning last March and see what he at first thought was a fox but soon realised was either a puma or a panther.
"It was clear by the build of the animal and the way it moved that it was a big cat," he says.
"It easily filled the space between three trees which I estimate to be at least two feet apart and had a long, quite furry tail.
"I drove around the other side of the strip of trees to try to get a closer look but the animal could not be seen. There were several other animals around at the time, predictably several rabbits hurriedly leaving the line of trees where the cat had been seen.
"I still believe that we did see a big cat, but it looks like it may have only been passing through rather than living in the immediate vicinity."
There have been many other sightings too, all within easy prowling distance - for a big cat with a 30-mile radius territory - of housing estates, schools and playgrounds in the heart of Edinburgh.
"There have been a lot of reports in the Borders and areas around the south of Edinburgh,"
"And although big cats will probably run away if they realise they have been seen, they are still wild animals - and if it's ill, wounded or cornered, there's always the chance they will rip your throat out.
"We must be concerned if they start to intrude into towns - a child can be similar in size to a sheep.
"Although it's rare, pumas in America have been known to attack humans - perhaps two or three times a year - and if their food source is depleted they have been known to stalk schoolchildren."
George Redpath believes that the time will come when many people see big cats prowling through their garden in much the same way as they see foxes today.
"They are dangerous animals but they won't attack unless something is wrong, if they ore old and ill, shot or wounded. That's when th
ey become dangerous. But if we leave them well alone, they will leave us alone."
Spotted a big cat? Contact the Scottish Big Cats (www.bigcats.org) on 01334-870 026 or 07974 110 823, or the Scottish branch of the British Big Cats Society. (www.scottishbigcats.org.uk) on 01292 67924 or 07940 015972.
Big cat diary: twelve months of sightings
In FEBRUARY, two people in a car in the Harburn area of West Calder witness black "cat" descending from a field into a wooded area. There are five sightings of a "large black cat-like animal not unlike a panther" in the Dunbar area.
In MARCH, David McClean reports seeing a puma-like creature in the grounds of Inchgarvie House, South Queensferry. At Ancrum, in the Borders, a three-foot brownish cat, is observed for ten minutes by three witnesses.
In APRIL, a large brown/grey Labrador-sized cat is seen by a walker close to Innerleithen in the Borders.
In MAY, retired rope-maker Douglas Ross reports seeing a black, very low, animal moving in cat-like manner on the outskirts of Haddington. At Montevaite Estate, near Jedburgh, a big black cat is sighted. A similar cat is spotted at Dryburgh a week later. On the same day near St Boswells, several turkeys are reported killed by a bite on the neck, their heads and necks torn off, followed by two sightings of big cats.
In JUNE, a black cat, slightly larger than retriever, with a long tail and flattish face is seen in Cardrona, near Peebles. There are reports of a huge cat-like creature at the A703 near West Linton.
In JULY, a large black cat-like creature, 25 inches in height and 33 inches long, with a long thin tail, is seen on the outskirts of Dunfermline, between a cinema and branch of Tesco. At Gala Hill near Melrose, there are reports of a black beast. Pawprints are also found. Five domestic cats reported missing in area. On the A706 near Linlithgow, West Lothian, a motorist reports seeing a creature bigger than a fox, which moved with a cat-like lope.
In SEPTEMBER, at Eskbank, in Midlothian, there's a sighting of a puma-like cat, seen on the edge of a field near the Lasswade road. At Clovenfords, near Galashiels, a large black cat seen bounding across road by motorist, while at Bowdenmoor reservoir, Melrose, a black or very dark cat, the size of a German Shepherd, with quite a long tail is seen coming out of bushes.
In OCTOBER, at Bo'ness, West Lothian, there are sightings of a "cougar-like" creature prowling on the foreshore.
In NOVEMBER, a woman reports sighting of a mountain lion-type creature prowling close to her Balerno home.
And this month a pure-white, possibly albino, big cat, more than 3ft long, is captured on video at Cardrona, near Peebles.