ARE THERE BIG CATS AT LARGE IN BRITAIN?
Every so often I hear of a reported sighting of a Thylacine in Australia, a native creature extinct in Australia for several decades. Australia is a huge place and it is possible that a relict population has survived. In Britain, pumas, black panthers, lynxes and even lions have been sighted for over 200 years - creatures either not native to our shores, or extinct here since the last Ice Age! Britain is a far smaller, more crowded island - so how could we have overlooked a relict population? And how can we be living alongside introduced big cats without know for certain that they are there?
Officially Britain's only native wildcat is Felis sylvestris grampia, the Scottish Wildcat, which resembles a large, mean tabby cat. It is a sub-species of the European Wildcat (F silvestris) which is now only found in Scotland, although it was once widespread throughout Scotland, England and Wales. It is now extending its range in Scotland and a few "out of place" wildcats have been reported in England and Wales. A number of big cats, including the lynx, vanished from Britain in prehistoric times. Despite this, there have been many recent sightings of pumas, panthers, lions and lynxes.
See also: Hybrid Big Cats In The British Countryside - Are there self-sustaining populations of hybrids of pumas, leopards and lynxes in Britain?
ALIEN BIG CATS IN BRITAIN
Cryptozoologists, journalists, biologists and other investigators have made various suggestions about the identity of Britains "Alien Big Cats" (ABCs): a living fossil which has somehow survived undetected, descendants of freed exotic pets, relict populations of lynx or nothing more exotic than large moggies or misidentified stray dogs. ABCs have even been linked to UFO sightings and conspiracy theories!
British folklore is full of mysterious 'Black Dogs' or 'Great Dogs'. Though referred to as 'Dogs', these creatures sometimes sound more like Great Cats. A yellow and grey striped creature known as the Girt Dog of Ennerdale (in the Lake District) was killed in 1810 and one eyewitness swore to his dying day that it was some sort of a cat. Black Dogs are often associated with water and while there are several fanciful theories about this, a more mundane explanation is that the creatures - and their prey - need a source of drinking water.
At present the British Big Cat's status is similar to that of the Yeti - there have been sightings, photographs and films, including fakes and mistakes, but no firm evidence. Farmers and gamekeepers have seen "leopard" tracks by carcases of deer or livestock and it is claimed that kills show characteristics of a big cat kill rather than the work of dogs. A few sheep which have escaped their attacker show distinctive leopard-like bitemarks. The vast majority of kills are indicative of dog kills - dogs kill by disembowelling rather than by neck bite or suffocation. This is backed up by evidence from highly experienced Canadian big cat experts who identified supposed "panther" tracks as dog tracks.
Small populations of big cats could easily survive on British wildlife - deer, game birds, badgers and rabbits - and on easier prey like livestock. Lambs, adult sheep, calves and ponies have reportedly been killed and partly eaten by the British Big Cats. In moorland areas where ponies, deer and sheep roam freely and a degree of loss to natural causes is expected, big cats could easily survive and breed undetected unless someone happened upon a fresh kill. Closer to towns, there are domestic dogs and domestic/feral cats and in some areas big cat sightings reportedly coincide with increased cat disappearances and with dogs suffering unexplained injuries (and/or phobias) after being allowed off the lead in fields or woodland.
Naturalist and researcher Di Francis collected together details of sightings. She suggests that big cat sightings fall into four groups: a black "panther" living in woods and killing sheep and deer; a "puma" (some showing faint stripes or spots) also living in woodland and preying on livestock; a grayish cat resembling the lynx; a sandy/tawny big cat striped with gray/brown (some witnesses compared it to a Thylacine though it could have been a lynx, since neither witnesses nor animal stayed around for formal introductions).
Cryptozoologist Karl Shuker suggests that at least some of the sightings are of large feral cats or Scottish Wildcats seen in poor light while others are either domestic dogs or escaped exotics. In one case a spotted hyaena was positively identified in Sussex, a Clouded Leopard survived in the wild for nine months before being shot by a farmer and in another case a genet-like binturong was the culprit! A variety of non-felid exotics have sometimes escaped into the British countryside and, being unfamiliar, might be misidentified as cats. Based on the variety of descriptions, Shuker suggested in his book "Mystery Cats of the World" that pumas, panthers (black leopards), lynxes and possibly a lioness might be living in the British countryside. In 1993 an ocelot was tentatively identified.
Some of the sightings are cases of mistaken identity; a 'lion' seen prowling near a rail track turned out to be a large ginger moggy cat. Others are due to poor lighting deceiving the eye, and some are deliberately faked camera shots sold to newspapers. Imaginative use of distance and perspective can make a poor quality photo of a domestic cat look like an indistinct photo of a panther - as with a photograph of a domestic cat sitting on a low wall and inadvertently masquerading as a black panther! Plenty seem genuine though; video footage from Cornwall and Warwickshire shows a large black cat, with the size, form and gait of a leopard moving from an open field into woodland. A photograph of another creature shows a 'puma' carrying a freshly killed rabbit.
In August 2012, a "lion" was reported near Clacton-on-Sea, Essex. The eyewitness reports demonstrate the layman's unfamiliarity with big cats. It was described as tan with a white chest, and the ears weren't quite right for a lion. Despite these discrepancies, the witnesses were adamant they had seen a lion and the police and zoo officials (who gave it the benefit of the doubt) were called in. A circus had been in the area previously, but it turned out they didn't have any lions. The indistinct mobile phone photos showed an animal with pricked ears, a white chest and pale muzzle and no mane, lying in a field of wheat stubble. Lions (and lionesses) are all over sandy/tawny and do not have a white chest. They have a blunt/squarish muzzle and rounded ears. The wheat stubble was a giveaway that this was a large and somewhat fluffy white-bibbed ginger domestic cat! It was in wheat stubble, not in unharvested wheat, which gave an indication of its true size. It could have been either of two local ginger and white cats that regularly ventured into that field in search of prey. Human nature being what it is, the witnesses refused to accept the mistaken identity and insisted a "lion" was still at large. This demonstrates how stories of big cats loose in the British countryside can begin.
Hot on the tail of this false lion came several other sightings from around the country. Predictably they were pumas and black panthers. One was identified from description alone as a "melanistic Savannah"; a relatively large domestic breed that I've never come across in melanistic form. The presence of a livestock carcases with the muzzle chewed off and the internal organs eaten was cited as evidence of a big cat kill according to "experts". Big cats kill by attacking the neck or throat of their prey. Dogs kill prey larger than themselves by hanging onto the animals muzzle while other pack members disembowel the prey. Once again, "experts" who were nothing of the sort fuelled the big cat myth, when they should have turned their attentions to stray dogs. There are elements in society who deliberately set their dogs on livestock for "sport".
Most British Big Cat "evidence" is in the form of paw-prints and kills. These have been shown to tracking and trapping experts with experience of big cats in the wild in other countries. These experts are people whose livelihoods depend on them being able to identify big cat signs and track and even trap or shoot big cats. They identified almost all of the paw-prints as dog, with the remainder being too indistinct for identification. In the cases of supposed ABC sheep kills, those big cat experts noted that the pattern is consistent with dogs - lacerations to the neck and belly with the skin being removed from the neck and with the belly area being eaten. Dog packs tend to kill by evisceration. Big cats go for the throat or neck and leave four deep puncture wonds. Either the neck is broken or the prey is strangled. Big cats do not leave gashes in the throat. Dogs kill more messily and leave gashes. It would seem that most of these livestock kills are caused by dogs running out of control or gone feral.
WHERE HAS THE BRITISH BIG CAT COME FROM?
If there are big cats at large in Britain, where did they come from? They could be escapees from zoos or menageries though no zoos have reported losses in recent years. An escaped panther from a menagerie was shot in the West Midlands during the early 1500s. In the 18th Century it was the height of fashion for the gentry to have private zoos and menageries of exotic animals. Many of those collections would have contained wild cats and no doubt some of those wild cats managed to escape into the British countryside. In 1903 it was reported that an escaped puma had been trapped in Surrey some time previously. In addition, some misguided individuals have, at various times, wanted to reintroduce animals such as the lynx and wolf into Britain.
Until comparatively recently big cats were kept as exotic pets and some may have escaped or been turned loose when they became too big to handle. Black panthers had an especially exotic image which could explain the many sightings of panthers. It was even possible to purchase lion cubs from some pet stores! The Dangerous Wild Animals Act which was introduced in 1976 compels owners of exotic pets to license premises where such animals are kept. Some pets, including big cats, were simply let loose by owners who couldn't afford a licence. Many sightings identify the big cats as "black pumas" in spite of the fact that melanism has not been confirmed in pumas! All cats are black, or at least dark-coloured, in poor observation conditions.
If any of the escaped or abandoned big cats was pregnant or if enough of one species got loose and met up, there may have been a viable breeding population. In 1975 a black leopard cub was captured in Kent - its parents were probably still loose and still breeding. Claims that various species have met up and interbred to create a new big cat species through hybridisation are mistaken. Female big cat hybrids are fertile when mated to a pure bred male of one of its parent species, but the male hybrids are sterile. Such fertility issues would work against a hybrid population. Also, the different species would have had to be raised together, otherwise the fight rather than mate!
Another alternative is that Britain is home to an elusive unknown species whose presence has yet to be scientifically proved or disproved. It is unlikely that a "living fossil" has survived undetected until the modern day since Britain is not a big island and massive deforestation in past centuries would have flushed such a creature out of hiding long ago. It is slightly more likely that the elusive British Big Cat is an introduced species which has become naturalised, much as introduced pet cats have given rise to feral populations in many countries. The possibility of lynxes having survived in Britain is remote, but not impossible. In 1927 three lynxes were reported in Inverness, Scotland; one was trapped and two were shot. In May 2001, a European Lynx (nicknamed "Lara") was captured in Cricklewood, North London, England following a reported big cat sighting. It was believed to be an escaped or abandoned unlicensed, unregistered pet since none were reported missing from zoos or private collections in the region. There are reports of Lynx on the loose elsewhere in the UK, leading to theories of a relict Lynx population in Britain, but most big cat sightings turn out to be large domestic cats.
Over the years there have been plenty of attempts to shoot or trap a big cat after a reported sighting. A live puma was trapped, also in Inverness, in 1980 after a series of sheep/deer killings in the area. The puma, however, turned out to be elderly, arthritic and unbelievably tame! It seems that someone had taken the opportunity to dispose of an exotic pet. Although its faeces showed it had been eating sheep and deer, it hadn't necessarily been catching its own dinners. It was named "Felicity" and lived to a good age after capture.
Stephen Harris, Professor of Environmental Sciences at Bristol University, suggested that feral cats in Britain are growing to large sizes to fill the "large predator" niche once occupied by wolves. He claimed domestic cats can be as long as 4ft from nose to tail-tip in Britain and that he had seen domestic cats exceeding 5ft in Australia. However, in Britain, their size is assessed by analysing indistinct photos rather than by shooting and measuring the animals themselves. There is no scientifically verifiable evidence supporting this claim as the carcases of purported giant ferals shot in Australia have tended to disappear. Forced perspective and photographic angle gives the impression that animals are larger than they really are.
ALIEN SMALL CATS IN BRITAIN
Specimens of another non-native species, Felis chaus (Jungle Cat), have been found dead as roadkills in Hampshire and Shropshire in the 1980s while others have been seen foraging close in towns and there is at least one pet cat suspected of being a Jungle Cat-feral cat hybrid. In the 18th Century, sailors with the East India Company sometimes acquired Jungle Cats from Indian villages. These cats were taken aboard ship as ratters or trade goods. Some may have jumped ship in Britain where they bred or hybridized with domestic cats. Early sightings of Jungle Cats in Britain tend to be centred around British ports such as Portsmouth in Hampshire. If the Jungle Cat has been living here undetected for 200 years, it is possible that wary big cats are also surviving undetected.
There are reports of Leopard Cats (Felis bengalensis) loose in Britain; one was shot on Dartmoor and another was captured in Scotland. Cryptozoologist Karl Shuker has suggested that they might hybridize with unaltered domestic cats. The hybrid offspring would resemble the wild parent, but having read Gene Johnson's "Getting to Know the Bengal Cat" these initial hybrids seem to have problems of sterility or poor mothering instincts so there probably wouldn't be any further interbreeding with domestic cats.
ABC writer Nigel Brierly wrote that the domestic Maine Coon breed is a Lynx x domestic cat hybrid. This is both incorrect and unnecessarily alarming. The Maine Coon developed naturally from domestic cats imported into America and evolved to survive fierce New England winters. The domestic cat has been hybridized with the related Bobcat, but not with the Lynx.
In recent years there were reports of mysterious black cats in parts of Scotland; not panthers, but flesh-and-blood cats which were sometimes killed by gamekeepers. The 'Kellas Cat' as it came to be called was larger than a pet cat and as wild as the native Scottish Wildcat and for a while it was believed to be a new species or melanistic Wildcat mutant. Scientific examination suggests that they are complex hybrids between Scottish Wildcat and domestic cats and that these hybrids may now be evolving into a new form to fill a vacant ecological niche. One or two turned out to be true melanistic Scottish Wildcats. These are extremely rare and since the general approach to black wildcats in Scotland is to shoot them indiscriminately, the two known specimens are also very dead.
For a detailed look at alien small cats (ASCs) in Britain and their potential for interbreeding with the Scottish Wildcat or domestic cats, see Domestic X Wildcat Hybrids in Britain. A number of exotic breeds are being hybridised with domestic cats to create wild-looking pets with docile temperaments e.g. the Chausie and the Bengal; the PixieBob is reputed to be a Bobcat hybrid and has a Lynx-like face.
SHOULD BRITAIN'S ALIEN BIG CATS BE HUNTED?
Big cat sightings often lead to ill-advised hunting expeditions and current advice to farmers is to shoot if they encounter panthers. Unfortunately this could result in a wounded and dangerous animal on the loose rather than one which has confined its attacks to livestock. Wildlife researchers Lena Godsall Bottriell and Paul Bottriell recommended not shooting for this very reason. For the same reason safari expeditions are discouraged as a cornered big cat will defend itself and could seriously injure a human.
Di Francis has suggested that farmers who have lost livestock to ABCs should put elderly barren ewes in outlying fields. The big cats would probably prey on these rather than on the more valuable younger livestock. Since the cat kills appear to have been swift and clean and old ewes would be slow and easy prey, it would not involve any more cruelty than transporting them to a slaughterhouse.
It seems that panther-like creatures, whether indigenous or introduced, do haunt parts of Britain. Some have been captured on film or have left behind evidence by way of pugmarks, tidy kills and, more rarely, their own remains. Some humans have actually trodden on a well-camouflaged ABC which was lying low in undergrowth! So far no-one is certain what they are or where they came from; but most people agree that the 'Surrey Puma' and 'Beast of Exmoor' are more than just myths so if you ever visit the British countryside, keep a loaded camera handy!
See also: Hybrid Big Cats In The British Countryside - Are there self-sustaining populations of hybrids of pumas, leopards and lynxes in Britain?