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.
Press & Journal, 30 th April 2001
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