Report from Phil Crosby
Are pumas and panthers stalking our forests? MORAG LINDSAY hunts for the truth behind the recent surge in big- cat sightings.
LIFE in Africa taught Phil Crosby what big cats look like up close. But nothing could have prepared him for the spectacle of seeing them in the wild back home in Britain.
Phil claims to have had not one, but two close encounters with big cats in Aberdeenshire. Last May, returning from work as an auditor for Shell, he watched through binoculars as a large, dark grey cat stalked a rabbit for a good 10 minutes in a field between Portlethen and Cookney.
A few months later, while walking his dog near his Netherly home, he was astonished to see a smaller, darker animal leap from a sitting position over a fence and into woods. After tying his dog to a tree, he crept into the clearing and got within 50 metres of the creature before it disappeared into the shadows.
"There's no two ways about it," he said: "These were big cats. I lived in Africa and I know what they look like at close quarters. I'd always been sceptical - but not any more. One sighting might have been a mistake but you can't ignore two."
After his second experience, Phil contacted Chris Smith, founder of the Scottish big cats database, and is now a committed member of her research team. He's seeking sponsors for a scientific project, which he hopes will prove conclusively that big cats exist in Scotland.
"I got annoyed with people telling me I'd been drunk," he said: "A lot of people were quite mocking, so I just thought: 'Stuff you, I'm going to prove it'."
Phil is not alone in his certainty that big cats are thriving in Scotland today.
Kemnay joiner Steven Clark recorded the latest sighting of the fabled Beast of Bennachie - a panther-like creature which strolled along the verge beside his van near Chapel of Garioch - last month.
School bus driver Doug Riley spotted a similar animal at nearby Blairdaff in December.
Insch woman Doris Moore was invited to appear on the Richard and Judy show after she was attacked by what a companion described as a sleek, black beastie, in January.
Farmer James King's sheep were savaged by a beast which killed like no other predator he's ever witnessed. "It wasn't a fox that did this," the Forgue farmer told the Press and Journal. "My neighbours have seen it in the past - a big black cat. I didn't see it, but I saw what it did to my sheep. I definitely believe there are big cats out there now."
Often sighted, rarely photographed and the subject of intense speculation, big cats are fast becoming the new Nessie.
The number of sightings in Scotland has soared in recent years, prompting Scottish National Party MSP Richard Lochhead to demand a Government inquiry, first sought by Banff and Buchan MP Alex Salmond in the 1990s.
Conspiracy theorists say the authorities fear panic on the streets - or at least in the forests - if it's proved that big cats are out there.
The website bigcats.org recorded 101 sightings as far apart as Strathpeffer in the Highlands and Hawick in the Borders during 2001. By the end of January this year, there had been 12 more, with hotspots appearing in Aberdeenshire, the Highlands, Ayrshire and Fife.
David MacKinnon, one of five wildlife liaison officers employed by Grampian Police, says the force averages a fresh sighting every month. He passes the information to researchers at Aberdeen University, who are collating the data.
He's open-minded about the possibility of big cats on the loose and attributes the increase in sightings to greater awareness rather than a population boom. Folk who might previously have only told friends and family what they'd seen now know that they're less likely to be ridiculed by going public.
THE most recent report came from a doctor who saw a Labrador-sized black beast darting across the road just outside Ballater last week.
"That's someone who has nothing to gain from making something like that up," said Constable MacKinnnon.
"But I can't help thinking we'd be seeing far more stock going missing if there were as many big cats roaming around as the figures suggest.
"We get road strikes of otters, pine martens - all kinds of wild animals - but where are the remains of the big cats who die in the wild? Why aren't gamekeepers coming across piles of bones or even tracks out in the forests? And why would big cats, which are shy and reclusive creatures, be coming down from the remote moorland, where they can hunt all the deer, rabbit, sheep and game they like, to populated areas like Ballater and Insch?"
The number of sightings has risen sharply since the introduction of the Dangerous Wild Animals Act in 1976. The legislation was introduced to curb the trend for keeping exotic creatures like leopards and pumas as pets.
Rather than have their animals destroyed, some owners are believed to have taken them to remote parts of the country and released them into the wild.
Wallabies still survive in the Peak District today and Loch Lomond once supported a colony of chimpanzees.
Only one such case involving a big cat has been authenticated, however. A farmer on Speyside captured a puma which had been worrying his sheep in 1980. Old and arthritic, she was renamed Felicity and became a favourite with visitors to the Highland Wildlife Park near Inverness, where she spent the remainder of her days.
It's 26 years since the legislation was introduced, though. Any big cats which were released back then will be long dead. In captivity, they might live to 15, but they're unlikely to survive the rigours of the wild much longer than 10 years.
Lynx once flourished in the wild in Scotland but they're believed to have been extinct since the third century. There's also evidence that a lion was kept in a cage at Dunottar Castle in the 12th century. It escaped on at least one occasion and believers say it's possible that other species, like the North American puma, made escapes and it's their descendants we're now seeing in the wild.
Mark Fraser, a big-cat enthusiast who's been researching sightings for 15 years, is certain that big cats have been around since long before the seventies.
"1976 is an old worn-out theory," he declared. "Sightings go back to the 1920s. Three lynx were actually caught in 1927 and countless other species have been caught since. Certainly there was an increase in the 1970s and we've had reported sightings of animals with cubs - and even collars.
"That tells me there are definitely animals out there who have been released from captivity and are now breeding but the big cat has been around in Britain for a lot longer than that.
"There's just not the same ridicule factor these days and people are more likely to report sightings than they were in the past."
DESPITE his fascination and hours of fieldwork, Mark has never seen a big cat in the wild - although, to his frustration, his wife has recorded three separate sightings around the couple's Ayrshire home.
He's due to visit Aberdeenshire next week for talks with some of the people behind the most recent sightings around Insch and Bennachie.
Nearly seven out of ten people describe seeing a huge black cat and think they've spotted a puma. Pumas are in fact a tawny brown colour. The black beasts are more likely to be black leopards - or panthers. Many sightings are likely to be the famous Kellas cat - the result of cross-breeding between domestic cats and the Scottish wildcat - named after the village near Forres where the hybrids were first discovered.
According to one North-east authority, others may well be cases of mistaken identity.
Dr Hans Kruuk spent years studying big cats in their native habitats in Africa and North America and took a particular interest in Scottish sightings while working for the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology at Banchory.
"I'm always conscious of how easy it is to make mistakes," he told the Press and Journal. "Very often I'd think I'd seen one kind of animal and, on closer inspection, I'd realise it was another.
"If it can happen to me, I'm fairly sure it can happen to people who don't have so much experience or knowledge.
"I'm sceptical," he acknowledged. "But I'm keeping an open mind. We seem to have a great many sightings but little evidence in the form of tracks, remains and carcases. You come across these things when you're looking for big cats in Africa and North America and I'd expect people to be coming across these things in the countryside here."
Tom Pottinger, chairman of the NFU Scotland's Highland regional board, has never come across any prowling pumas or panthers on his land in Caithness - but he reckons it's quite possible that big cats could be living undetected in remote forests and moorland.
"If they were surviving on things like sheep, we'd soon know about it," he said: "But a sheep would probably be too big for them. They're more likely to be surviving on rabbits and ground game. Nobody's too worried about them eating rabbits but it might be that foxes are being blamed for the disappearance of ground game when we should be looking for big cats.
"I'm quite sure they do exist," he added: "And that they're animals which were released into the wild.
"A fellow who worked for me swears he saw one about 10 years ago. He had a lot of experience of wildlife and the countryside and I believe him - although it did happen fairly close to a pub on a Saturday night!"
Big cat sightings 2002
Press & Journal, 5 th March 2002
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