Report from Chris Smith
In recent years the south-west of England has seen a rash of alleged sightings of big cats, which have been well publicised. The jumpy footage from home movies and oversized cat's poo have led naturalist's to conclude that there are very large 'something's' living in relative comfort on the outskirts of Taunton. There may be, but the South is not alone. Less celebrated are the sightings of large, wild felines in North Scotland and the season is imminent; if big cats are hiding in them there hills, then Spring is when they will come down to play and prey. Jim Lowe's story is typical: he was driving home from a fishing trip in June 1994 at Ledcrieff Loch, near Dundee, when he saw a strange creature walking quietly up a field next to the road.
"I stopped the car and watched it for about five minutes until it was within 20 yards of me. It was bigger than a dog, jet black and definitely of the cat family: smallish head, rounded ears, with an up-curved tail about the same length of its body. It was in great shape and looked well-fed. I am convinced it was a panther." Similar sightings have been made elsewhere by bemused motorists.
Philip Randall, a fireman from Saline, near Dunfermline, saw a large creature one evening on his way home; "It was about 10.30 pm and I had reached a wooded, winding road on the village outskirts. As I came down a hill and round a corner, my headlights swept round and there it was; a huge black cat running across the road about 20 feet from my car. It was jet black, with a long tail. There was no way it was a dog. It was bigger than a Labrador, but the way it moved was all cat."
Elsewhere in Scotland other recent sightings, of different types of creatures, have been made. Martin Webster, a water bailiff with Don District Salmon Fisheries Board, was counting salmon on the River Urie last December. Rounding a bend he came face-to-face with a large animal.
"The cat was about 2 to 3ft long and had a short, snub tail. The first thing I noticed about it was its head, which was definitely a cat's head, with large, pointed ears. It's tail was very short - almost non-existent, and its coat was dark brown. From seeing them on telly I knew that what I was looking at was a lynx."
Wait, there's more.......Les Hester a photographer from Forres, Morayshire, was at a seminar at Knockomie House, on the outskirts of the town in 1995. The Highland cows in a field below the house became agitated, and Hester's group spotted a large tawny cat loping down the fence-line. "It was a puma-like cat, buff coloured and definitely not black. We were all amazed. The beast was feline and had a long sloping tail and muscular shoulders. It was easily as big as an Alsation."
One popular theory is that the beast seen by Hester and others is a Kellas Cat, a curious wildcat-domestic cat hybrid. Hester refutes this suggestion. Coincidentally he has photographed a dead Kellas cat for a local paper. "A Kellas cat is only a little bigger than a domestic cat. What I saw was far, far bigger. And the Kellas cat is black." If these sightings, and the dozens of others like them, are reliable then there are panthers, puma and at least one lynx living happily in Scotland.
The leading authority on the bizarre subject is the very down-to-earth John Cathcart, of Inverness. Originally a poaching liaison officer with Highland Constabulary, Cathcart was called in by farmers who reported sheep kills and sightings of large felines. He thinks a change ion the law led to the release of big cats into the wild.
"With the introduction of the 1976 Dangerous Wild Animals Act all sorts of wild creatures which had until then been kept as pets in the home were required to be cages and licensed with a local authority. The scheme meant that keeping these animals subjected the owner to rigorous scrutiny and the cages would cost thousands of pounds. It's quite likely that owners of big cats like panthers and pumas, who had bought themselves a status symbol for only a few hundred pounds, simply released the animals to avoid the need to build a cage."
This theory is consistent with the timing of sightings across Britain, which began in the late seventies. And there is no doubt that there was at least one big cat living wild in Scotland. Felicity, a puma was caught near Cannich, West of Loch Ness, in 1979. Quite how well any other discarded cats have done in Scotland is hard to say, but Cathcart suspects they're thriving.
He cites the fact that we are now 20 years on from the 1976 act's introduction and sighting's continue: "These animals would be doing very well to survive 20 years in the wild. I believe they may be breeding. In 1977 I was told by a witness that he'd seen a puma with two or three cubs. In 1983 I was told of a big-cat kittens crossing a forest track. Sightings have continued since then."
If the creatures are breeding, is it far-fetched to expect these animals to become as well established in this country as those other introductions, mink, rabbits? If pumas are here, then the conditions would certainly suit, since they can eat anything from rabbit to dear, and are found from the Arctic Circle to Patagonia. Panthers are also super-adaptable. But if only a few of them have been released, then their population will be sensitive to a single loss: and it seems inevitable that this will happen if they attack sheep.
Whatever turns out to be living in Scotland, it's unlikely to be dangerous to man, says John Cathcart. "I've gathered hundred's of sightings, and all of them have ended with the creature turning tail and fleeing from the human's. It seems that they avoid man wherever possible."
12 th January 1997
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