Report from George Markie
There have now been 850 sightings in Scotland.
THE screeching of her pet cats fighting outside was as chilling as the winter night.
Standing in pitch darkness in the isolated village of Abriachan, near Loch
Ness, the farmer's wife called them in.
When there was no response she gave up and stepped back into the warmth of her kitchen - to find her cats had been cosily nestled in the corner all along.
Next morning she found one of her pregnant ewes dead, about 200 yards from the house, her stomach cleanly ripped open and distinctive bite marks on her neck - the bite of a big cat.
John Cathcart describes such hair-raising tales with a solemn air.
The former Inverness policeman has more than 20 years' experience investigating sightings of big cats.
With a weathered tan and shock of white hair, he wouldn't be out of place in a Stephen King movie, but John takes big cats seriously and denies they're just horror fiction.
A member of Scottish Big Cats, he investigates the scenes of big cat killings. He admits there can be "cranky" sightings, but he's convinced many of them are genuine.
John, his colleague Fran Lockhart and a host of other members intend to provide a central database of sightings of "non-native" cats. With more than 850 sightings to date they are keen to shift the perception that big cats are in the same bracket as UFOs, Nessie and the Yeti.
Fran, who is the official sightings co-ordinator, explained, "The common belief is that big cats are the result of animals released at the time of the 1976 Dangerous Wild Animals Act, which put severe restrictions on the private ownership of wild animals.
"Further back, big cats were sometimes kept by royal and noble families and escapes were documented. There have also been escapes from travelling menageries, which were extremely popular in the 19th Century.
"The lynx is a native Scottish big cat which existed at least until the second or third century AD and some believe it never became extinct here."
Despite the varying theories like American servicemen having them as mascots then letting them loose when they left for home proof is limited.
Neither John nor Fran has seen a big cat, but they know a few people who have.
John's first experience was back in 1979. "There had been several sightings of pumas back in the late 1970s and early '80s and matters came to a head with the case of the Cannich puma," he said.
"A local farmer, Ted Noble, became so angry after finding his sheep savaged and killed by the cat he decided to set a trap. He bought several sheep's heads from a slaughterhouse and used them as bait inside a cage.
"He caught the puma, which was identified as female and taken to the Highland Wildlife Park near Kingussie - where it was described as very tame and named Felicity.
"Felicity stayed at the park until her death in 1985. She's now stuffed and mounted at
Inverness Museum. She's big, but not as big as some of the beasts that have been spotted of late."
John was assigned to investigate where Felicity came from. Although the end
result was inconclusive, he's been investigating sightings and kills ever since, and his approach is as meticulous as when he was a policeman.
He has amassed a dossier of witness statements, sketches of cats and photographs of dead sheep.
"I examine sheep kills that don't conform. to the normal fox or dog attacks. In 90 per cent of cases they've been killed by large bites to the throat or back of the neck.
"Farmers can be angry, but most are curious. One Wester Ross farmer was
convinced poachers were killing his sheep and skinning them leaving the fleece nearby.
"But as soon as I looked at the carcasses, I saw the classic sign of a big cat. Feral and domestic cats would skin a rabbit after killing it and the big cats can do the same with their prey - albeit on a different scale."
Fran became interested in big cats when a close friend saw a puma in her native Argyll. She's had a lifelong interest in wildlife and studied Environmental
Management at Suffolk University. Her knowledge of the habitat of the big cat is second to none.
She said, "Big cats won't often feed on livestock because there's a plentiful supply of wildlife. The larger cats eat deer, hare, rabbits and game birds, while the smaller cats will eat mice birds and even insects."
Fran says the big cat hot-spots are Drumnadrochit, the Black Isle, Nairn and Ayrshire.
She added, "Big cats tend to be sensationalised in the press as savage man-eating beasts. But the cats feel the same way about humans and avoid them that's why it's been so hard to prove their existence.
If you see a big cat, report it to us and the police. Try to obtain evidence such as pictures of paw prints - but never approach the animal. Cats are predators, well equipped to injure humans if they choose to."
John's favourite piece of evidence is a plaster cast of a big cat paw print. He explained, "Following pictures in the papers of me with Felicity, 1 got a call from a man who had a stalking estate not far from Cannich.
"He'd been on a boat on Loch Mullardoch heading toward his stalking ground and saw a large beast at the side of the loch. He was sure it wasn't a dog because of its size. He went ashore, found paw prints and thought they were so unusual he sailed home then drove to Inverness to buy plaster of Paris.
"He returned later that night to take a mould of the print, which measures a mighty 12.5 cm by 10 cm, and presented it to me.
"That cat was seen by four other people. These animals are out there."
If you spot a cat this summer contact Euan Duguid on 0141567 2779 or John
Cathcart on 01463 234801.
Sunday Post, 13 th July 2003
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