Research suggests big cats may roam the wild
Scientific research provides tantalising evidence as to the existence of big cats stalking the British countrysideAn off-duty police dog handler took this footage of what he claimed was a panther-sized big cat prowling on a railway line in Helensburgh, Argyll, in 2009
The stuff of rural legend, for decades apparent sightings of big cats stalking the British countryside have been dismissed as fantasy or hoax.
But now, a scientist has uncovered tantalising evidence pointing towards the existence of such creatures living in the wild.
Dr Andrew Hemmings, senior lecturer in animal science at the Royal Agricultural University, in Cirencester, has been investigating the phenomenon for the past year and his – still ongoing – research has already identified the remains of some wild animals apparently eaten by creatures larger than any of the country’s known carnivores.
The project has involved an analysis of 20 skeletal animal remains recovered from across Gloucestershire and other nearby counties.
The bones had been provided by volunteers, farmers and landowners and were selected for further investigation because they had some form of unusual teeth markings on them, or the circumstances of the remains led to an indication they may have been killed by a big cat.
The teeth markings left on the bones were analysed to establish which animals had feasted on them. In a quarter of the cases, it was found that the “tooth pit” indentations – markings made by canine teeth, as they clamp on the bones – caused by something larger than species known to exist in the wild, such as badgers and foxes.
However, as dogs’ teeth can make similar indentations, a further analysis was carried out to look for markings made by carnassial teeth, used for shearing flesh and bone.
In a big cat, these are far wider apart than in a dog, so the analysis allows dogs to be discounted as culprits.
In 17 cases there were insufficient markings to make a judgement but in the remaining three they are not only clearly visible but indicate that big cats, rather than domestic dogs, are responsible.
Dr Hemmings is now looking for more samples to build up evidence, before publishing research in the Journal of Archaeological Science.
“At the moment, there are three I have found which are weighing in favour or the cat, so it is very tentatively pointing that way,” he added. “All three are certainly wider than you would expect to find in a dog imprint. But we need to let the sample size build up before we have anything approaching a statistical basis.”
The three bones were all passed to Dr Hemmings within the last three months: two were from sika deer – one a lower jaw and the other a pelvis – both found in heathland in Dorset, along the county’s Jurassic coastline, while the third was a lower jaw from a wild boar found in west Gloucestershire.
As well as more bones, he is also trying to source fresher carcasses through his network of volunteers, which may yield DNA evidence of any animal that has feasted on them.
Both Gloucestershire and Dorset have previously been identified as areas with high levels of big cat sightings. In one of the most recent, Leah Doney said that she and her children had been stalked by such a creature while picking blackberries in Rodborough, near Stroud, in September.
In Dorset, police say all reported sightings are taken seriously and have issued advice for people not to approach any such creatures.
Big cat reports have occurred across the UK for several years and in some areas have spawned legends, such as the so-called Beast of Bodmin in the south west. Reports are logged by Natural England which investigates some cases. Although none have turned up proof, the head of the unit responsible has previously said he believes the creatures do exist.
One theory is that several large species, such as panthers, leopards and lynx, were deliberately released into the wild by their owners in the 1970s after the introduction of the Dangerous Wild Animals Act, which placed restrictions on the keeping of certain species.
According to experts, the many of the sightings have hinted at the existence of either a puma (Puma concolor) or panther (Panthera pardus). Adult males can grow to up almost 8ft, from nose to tail.
Mr Hemmings said that if they are in the wild, he believes they could be surviving on a diet of small rodents, such as rabbits, as well as larger mammals, like deer.
“You can understand why they might gain a foothold and establish themselves and reproduce. I don’t know whether they are out there. I have an empirical mindset so would need to have proof. At the end of the day, science needs a body.
“It would be nice to have an entire carcass of a big cat, but they are amazingly elusive. Even on somewhere like Vancouver Island, where these things occur, there are people who have never seen one.
“Sightings are coming in on a monthly basis and some are very plausible. There does seem to be something going on in the background, so there is a hypothesis to address here.”