Report from George Markie
Evidence that panthers and other big cats are roaming Britain is mounting. Adam Armstrong investigates.
Last month, in a rural area of Monmouth, Gwent, 11-year-old Josh Hopkins was scratched by a black cat. Not just any cat - in the boy's own words, it was the size of a labrador.
In isolation a sighting of a large black cat on the loose might be treated with scepticism. But after a period of two years during which few sightings were recorded, there have been five in a month.
Two of those were in Fife and one on Scotland's West Coast.
On August 21 the "Beast of Bodmin" was spotted again in Devon, and then there was the Monmouth incident.
The Scottish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals has investigated the sightings, and Craig Brown, one of its Fife inspectors, is convinced that large predators are living wild in Britain. He is not the only official to believe so. Two years ago Dr Ranald Munro, a forensic veterinary scientist based in Edinburgh, was asked to carry out a post-mortem examination on geese that had been killed in the west. He concluded that they had been attacked by a big cat. So, if they are out there, how did they get there?
In 1976 the Government passed the Dangerous Wild Animals Act, which, on the grounds of public safety, prohibits private citizens from keeping large predators as pets unless they comply with certain enclosure requirements and apply for licences. Public safety is paramount.
Rather than try to rehouse their animals or have them destroyed when the Act came into force, many owners simply released them. That was 24 years ago, coinciding with the first sightings of big cats in Britain. Since then most reported sightings have been of panthers - leopards with a melanistic tint to their coats.
Leopards weigh between 90 lb and 130 lb and fit the description of most of the animals sighted. They live for 20 years at most in the wild, which suggests that they are breeding.
Four weeks ago Sheila Duff, who works for BSkyB, was driving home to Strathmiglo in the early hours when she spotted a large animal at the side of the road. Duff keeps four large alsatian dogs, and was previously an experienced driving instructor, so she knows roads and sizes and perspective. Initially she thought she was looking at a deer, but as she drew alongside she realised it was a cat, large and black and shrinking against the fence on her right. Beyond the fence is a paddock, beyond that the Lomond Hills, wooded in places, grassy in others, with plenty of sheep, deer and rabbits - ideal habitat for a leopard.
The most reliable source of information on big cat sightings in Britain is probably George Redpath, also of Fife. Redpath spent 25 years as a police officer and has been monitoring sightings for a number of years. He has plaster casts and photographs of paw prints and kills of sheep and deer that could only have been made by a large cat. Leopards pin their prey with their front paws and use their hind legs to tear their flesh. Redpath has documented sightings as recently as 5.30 am last Tuesday.
The sighting was made just outside Ladybank by a man driving to work. He pulled up when he spotted a large black cat caught in his headlights. The creature sat looking at him, its eyes emerald green and semi-reflecting.
The Fife sightings are likely to be of three or four females, each occupying a territory of from 50 to 70 square miles. A single male probably occupies a larger overlapping area. Males and females will cross each other's paths only to mate since, apart from lions, big cats are solitary.
People in Scotland, Devon and Cornwall, gamekeepers and poachers who know the countryside better than anyone, have told me of strange noises heard in wooded areas at night.
Redpath has recorded sightings of large tawny cats as well as of the black panthers. This is the puma, or North American mountain lion, sometimes called a cougar. They scream, a sound never heard in Britain's countryside before 1976. Larger than a leopard, with bigger hind legs, these creatures are more suited to mountain terrain.
I have come across cougars in Idaho and South Dakota; last summer one came into my camp in search of food. I can only conclude that it was either very old or that it had been injured.
In January 1998 I was in Hailey, Idaho, watching television, when the domestic cats started hissing on the windowsill. A cougar was in the yard. It loped on into town and devoured a dog that was tied up in a garden.
My first encounter was in 1990. Walking in the snow in the Black Hills of South Dakota, I came across a paw print so fresh that the animal was probably still watching me. It occurred to me then that I could walk safely anywhere in Britain, but not in the wilds of North America.
After what happened in Monmouth last month, armed police and the Army have been hunting the animal. Josh Hopkins possibly stumbled on a panther with young or guarding a kill. If the animal had really meant to harm him, he would not be alive. His is the first British encounter that could be described as aggressive; no one previously has been harmed.
Occasionally cougars will take joggers or hikers in North America, but that is rare. The chances of anyone being seriously injured in Britain are extremely remote, but there is now evidence that the big cats are out there. We do not need to fear or legislate or hunt. We just need to be aware that we are now in the company of a predator other than man.
5 th September 2000
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