Report from George Markie
THE number of reported sightings of so-called big cats in Scotland is expected to reach 1,000 within a matter of weeks following a record number of cases logged this summer.
Although a group compiling a database of sightings of non-native cats such as pumas, panthers and lynxes is calling for legislation to protect them, the existence of the animals in Scotland remains a matter of disbelief in most official circles.
A threat earlier this year by activists to release lynxes into the Borders countryside if foxhunting were banned in Scotland has been followed by a spate of recent sightings across the area.
Large, cat-like animals have also been blamed for the death of turkeys and ducks, and the disappearance of domestic cats.
Phil Crosby, a member of the monitoring group Scottish Big Cats, said: "The Borders has certainly become a hot spot for sightings this year, but thatŐs because there is a growing acceptance that these animals exist in the wild.
"People are prepared to come forward and describe what they have seen without expecting to be ridiculed."
Mr Crosby is convinced the majority of reported incidents are genuine, although he concedes there have been many hoaxes over the years. The group has logged well over 900 incidents dating back to 1926.
He added: "ItŐs clear from the large number of recorded sightings in Scotland that big cats are established members of Scottish fauna.
"The government must give the animals full protection from abuse as they do not constitute a danger to the public and are unlikely to attack livestock."
He added that in the Borders and a number of other rural areas of Scotland there is now an abundance of deer, hares, rabbits and game birds. These provided a plentiful diet for the big cats. Extensive areas of new forestry provided ideal cover for an increasing number of the non-native species.
Scottish Big Cats believes there is now overwhelming anecdotal evidence to warrant a programme of properly funded research of the subject. The group has embarked on a limited amount of DNA-based testing to try to identify cat types, to establish the size of populations in specific areas, and to determine whether the animals are breeding or inter-breeding with other species.
Clive Moulding, who is developing a trigger camera project for the rival British Big Cats Society, believes photographic evidence would help dispel the "Loch Ness Monster image" attached by sceptics to accounts of sightings.
The Scotsman, 2 nd September 2002
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