Big Cat Mystery
On the trail with Jonathan
Naturalist Jonathan McGowan (pictured) spotted his first big cat in 1984 while on a badger watch in Dorset. He saw the puma and its cubs several times, and has been studying the mystery ever since.
He is the Dorset recorder for the Big Cats in Britain Group, and he is often called in to give expert advice.
His research has extended to Somerset, Devon and to Gloucestershire where sightings have "rocketed" in recent years with evidence of big cats breeding in the Stroud Valleys.
He led a team to the valleys where there have been sightings of puma, leopard, lynx and lynx cubs.
He found signs of big cats at quarry sites, including scats and several cat sprays smelling quite fresh - plus a roe buck wedged low down in a tree fork (see pictures below).
"It was possibly accidentally jammed in as the animal struggled to free itself from a big cat trying to overcome it," said Jonathan.
"Although roe deer territorially mark trees, they don't do it in this fashion, and only on smaller saplings in a certain way. This is odd. It also showed classic signs of cat predation"
A black leopard has been seen many times near Yeovil, Somerset, and a puma has been spotted running along the Chesil Beach in Dorset.
"There are not just two or three big cats roaming around," said Jonathan. "They are breeding and becoming quite common.
"You could say there are more leopards in the UK than in certain parts of Africa, and more pumas here than in states of America. These animals are protected in their natural environment so they should be protected by law in the UK."
Also a taxidermist, Jonathan hopes one day to find a carcase of one of the big cats.
"I'm waiting to get my hands on a dead animal so I can mount it and exhibit it in my local natural history museum as proof," he said.
There had been many cases of big cats shot on farmland or run over, including some police reports, but, oddly, carcases had never come to public view.
Alert after horse attacked
A big cat alert went out in Ayrshire, Scotland, when Strathclyde Police appealed for witnesses after a horse was badly injured near the Sundrum Holiday Park, Coylton, on July 17, 2009.
A vet concluded the injuries appeared to have been inflicted by a wild animal rather than by a human. Superintendent John Hazlett has issued a warning and appealed to residents in South Ayrshire to report any sightings to the police. He said: “After consultation with experts the evidence points to a big cat, possibly a puma, having caused the injuries to the horse."
A member of staff at Sundrum Castle (pictured) reported seeing a very large cat prowling the grounds one morning in May.
Described as sandy coloured, about four feet tall and six feet long, experts believe that this may have been a puma sighting. There have been no sightings since.
“From what we have been told by experts, it is unlikely that a puma would approach and present any danger to humans and would make every attempt to avoid them, however, the obvious advice to members of the public is not to approach this animal but report any sightings to the police," said Supt Hazlett “I would urge anyone who sees a large cat in the area to contact us as a matter of urgency, and I would also ask local farmers to take extra caution with their animals and to contact police if any of them are injured.
“We will continue to make inquiries in the area, and if anyone has any concerns or possible sightings, please contact Ayr Police Office on telephone number 01292 664000.”
Britain's youngest big cat hunter
Having started at just 18, Max Blake is surely Britain's youngest mystery big cat hunter. Most weekends he can be found scanning the countryside, photographing mutilated carcases of sheep and deer, and searching for tell-tale paw prints.
"I try to go out every week, or once a day for a series of days," said Max, pictured, of Wells in Somerset. "I take photos of any sheep killed, look around for any tracks, and keep an eye out for anything that could resemble a big cat."
As to the nature of the mystery beast, Max's opinion is down to earth. "There are big cats in Britain," he told me. "They're real, they're living. They are not being transported around by UFOs or any form of magic, or shifting dimensions, as some theories go. The first records of them being here date back to the 1800s, probably from travelling circuses which brought exotic animals from Asia and Africa and there were escapees."
Max also holds the commonly held view that the Dangerous Wild Animals Act of 1976 caused a number of big cats in private ownership to be released into the countryside. But how did he account for the hundreds of sightings of big cats now being reported every year throughout the UK? "Lots of cats!" he laughed. "I'd say that they are breeding.
"We wiped out the big predators that used to live in Britain – bears, grey wolves, lynxes. There's still a place for a top carnivore and these animals appear to be taking that job."
Max, who was planning to study zoology at the University of Bristol, has a home menagerie which includes exotic fish, beetles, cockroaches, spiders and scorpions. He is one of the youngest members of the North Devon-based Centre for Fortean Zoology, which he found out about and joined after he subscribed to Exotic Pets magazine, published by CFZ.
Lately, Max's investigations have been centred on Stoke St Michael, Somerset, where a black leopard-like creature has been seen and there have been numerous livestock kills.
Mystery big cats - the theories
Releases - the most familiar explanation. Owners released cats rather than pay for licences under the Dangerous Wild Animals Act of 1976.
Escapes - from menageries and circuses from Roman times to the 20th century. Cats bred and were later added to by others released in modern times.
Imports - cats which have been brought into the country and secretly bred for baiting or hunting deer.
Hybrids - cross-breeding by different species to produce all the variations seen in big cat colours, sizes and shapes.
Hide-outs - a relict species of pre-Ice Age cat hiding out in the wild, native to Britain but yet to be classified by science.
Spectres - the cats are “daimons” of the same ilk as fairies and lake monsters, “thought-forms” brought into being by occult practices.
Cover-ups - the Government knows all about the big cats but fears panic and insurance claims if it admits their existence. Mysterious officials are said to remove evidence such as savaged livestock and carcases of cats run down on the roads or shot by farmers.
Dorset is the UK hotspot
Your best chance of encountering one of Britain's mystery big cats is in Dorset as there are more sightings per head there than anywhere else in the country.
Dorset has a huge number of sightings dating back to the 1960s, but since then - when the famous Surrey Puma triggered this most durable of mysteries - many thousands of people throughout Britain have seen big cats resembling black panthers or pumas, as well as lynx-like animals and others resembling the Scottish wildcat.
Coming face to face with a big cat has been called Britain’s most common encounter with the unknown, and more than 2,000 sightings are now logged every year with the Big Cats in Britain Group, set up in 2005.
Big cats have increased in number in the South West of England – the Beasts of Exmoor and Dartmoor, for example – probably due to a milder climate and plentiful prey, including rabbits and deer. Sightings of lynx have also increased.
Investigators say that some of these cats are becoming so common that they are going into towns in a similar way to foxes and sometimes eating people’s pet cats, dogs and rabbits.
* For the full story of big cats in Dorset, see Merrily Harpur's book Roaring Dorset! Encounters with Big Cats - links to Merrily's website, and to that of her publisher, Roving Press, are on the Resources page.