Does this new dossier prove big cats ARE on the prowl in Scotland?

Livestock ripped to pieces. Carcasses with huge puncture marks deep into the bone. More than 1,300 reported sightings. And wildlife experts are taking them seriously… Does this new dossier prove big cats ARE on the prowl in Scotland?

  • Two men in Brydekirk reported seeing a large cat the size of a labrador in 2018
  • It is believed the creature roaming around Dumfriesshire was a black leopard 
  • The Scottish Big Cat Research Team says preliminary findings may back this up

It was just after 10pm and light was draining from the sky when the two villagers saw it. A very large black cat, the size, said one, of a labrador. 

Silently the animal stalked the edge of a field close to the village of Brydekirk, near Annan, before vanishing quickly out of sight.

Large housecat? Well-fed dog? Or could it be that the creature roaming this bucolic corner of Dumfriesshire was, in fact, a black leopard?

Astonishingly, Paul Macdonald, head of the Scottish Big Cat Research Team, who has already dispatched a field researcher to the area following the sighting last week, says that preliminary findings may point to the latter.

‘We are convinced it was a genuine report and that it is something of interest to us given the size of the cat and the description of it,’ he says.

Two people spotted a very large black cat, the size of a labrador sometime after 10pm the edge of a field close to the village of Brydekirk, near Annan, last week

Without photographic or DNA evidence however, last week’s sighting may remain one of the thousands of unsubstantiated reports that have plagued the Scottish countryside for decades, and fuelled the eternal question: are big cats living wild in Scotland?

Recently released documents, however, might just put paid to the doubters.

Details of a number of sightings of big cats have been released by the makers of an upcoming documentary, suggesting that the thorny issue of whether or not panthers, lynx and black leopards roam Scotland has been taken seriously by several official bodies.

Researchers obtained 86 pages of correspondence and pictures under freedom of information laws from Police Scotland, the Scottish Government and NatureScot. 

They include tantalising reports about spates of livestock killings where sheep carcasses were stripped of meat in a way which didn’t resemble fox or bird attacks, and one officer who recorded three to four sightings of a big cat.

Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) recorded a description of a big cat ‘the size of a Labrador’ which killed 36 sheep between August 2015 and January 2016, described as ‘black or black/brown depending on the light’ and ‘panther/melanistic leopard’.

In April 2019, the charity Scottish Wildcat Action was told of a ‘lynx type cat’ near Montrose.

‘The body was about the size of my female black lab,’ the sender of an email said. 

‘Back legs and chest were a lot more defined on the cat and muscular, short tail, maybe four or five inches long, all the little tufts of fur sticking out past the top of its ears.’

In November 2018, experts found a ewe carcass had been dragged 20 yards ‘up a rock face’.

And a police officer told Scottish Wildcat Action about ‘lots of reports of big cat sightings and activity on the north coast’.

The officer said: ‘I was present when a ewe was brought in off the hill with two puncture marks on the front of her right shoulder and two at the back of it. The wounds were over three inches apart.’ 

Other carcasses had ‘very large puncture marks into bone’.

Local resident Andy McLachlan, 54, of Kirtomy with the remains of savaged sheep Swordly, near Bettyhill, in north Sutherland in 2012

Mr Macdonald, who has been steadily mapping all reported big cat sightings in Scotland over the past five years, is not surprised.

‘We believe that there have been sightings fairly frequently over the years but we only receive the smallest proportion of those,’ he says. 

‘In fact, we conservatively estimate our mapping to document no more than 1 to 5 per cent of all sightings there have been in Scotland, and we have over 1,300 pinpoints on the map.’

That’s a lot of big cats. Then again, when you consider that as of 2020, according to charity Born Free, 320 wild cats including 11 lions, eight tigers, 11 leopards, 18 pumas, ten cheetahs, two ligers (lion and tiger hybrid offspring) and one jaguar are currently being kept privately in the UK, it seems eminently possible that a few big cats may indeed be roaming the British countryside.

‘There has always been an illicit trade in exotic species,’ says Mr Macdonald. ‘I think it’s almost impossible to eradicate that completely. And as long as that’s existed, then associated issues have existed with it as well.

‘If owners ever find themselves in a place where financially or logistically, those big cats and animals become unsupportable, releasing them into the wild is a way of making them disappear quickly without having to actually destroy them.’

Dr Mark Jones, head of policy at Born Free, agrees. ‘These figures are likely to represent only the tip of the iceberg,’ he says.

‘They only record those animals being kept and registered with a Dangerous Wild Animals licence. Born Free believes that many additional dangerous wild animals are being kept without a licence.’ 

Although sightings of big cats in the Scottish gloaming go back to the 1940s, there was a huge uptick in the late 1970s following the Dangerous Wild Animals Act of 1976, which meant licences had to be sought from local authorities in order to keep anything other than a regular domestic pet.

Many owners of big cats decided that instead of giving their animals to a zoo or a wildlife park, they would prefer to release them.

That was certainly the case with Felicity the puma, who was caught by a farmer near Drumnadrochit in 1980. 

A big cat footprint was discovered by police and animal welfare experts in the woods near Balbirnie Park golf course in Fife in 2005

For years the area had been plagued with reports of a big cat killing sheep and even stalking Shetland ponies, until farmer Ted Noble, concerned about the threat to his livestock, set a trap to find out exactly what was going on. 

But even he was astonished to find a fully grown live puma in it.

The puma was taken to Highland Wildlife Park where it soon became clear that rather than a vicious wild animal, Felicity had clearly been a pampered pet, used to dining on cooked food and enjoying pats on the head. 

She died five years later at the age of 20, far beyond the lifespan for a wild puma, and was later stuffed and put on display in Inverness Museum and Art Gallery.

Former pets or not, however, one has to wonder: do big cats roaming wild – and Mr Macdonald estimates that most sightings in Scotland have been of pumas, lynx and melanistic (very dark brown or black) leopards – pose a risk to the public?

‘There have never been any recorded incidents of direct impact on humans with big cats,’ he says. 

‘We believe that the reason for that is that actually, the UK offers quite an ideal environment, a perfect, lush, pretty, abundant environment with healthy cover.

‘We think they’re living comfortably enough. They’re not desperate enough in terms of food shortage to see us as prey.

‘Big cats on the whole tend to avoid human contact and will avoid any animal it can perceive as a threat. Because if a big cat is injured, it can’t hunt, which means it dies.’

The makers of the documentary Pantherus Brittanica Declassified however, who released the documents on suspected big cat attacks, said the threat has more to do with a lack of responsibility.

‘Any “concerns for public safety” linked to big cats on the loose were glossed over with the reassuring sentiment from one detective inspector who said he was “happy that there’s not an imminent risk to public safety if it’s well fed”,’ a spokesman for the documentary makers said. 

‘But without reliable and accurate data on the number of big cats at large and precisely how well fed they are, this might do little to reassure anyone.’

Indeed. And it would seem that any big cat population could pose a threat to livestock. In addition to the attacks detailed in the FOI papers, Mr Macdonald says he has had reports of sheep and deer carcasses found up trees.

It’s one of the reasons why Mr Macdonald says he keeps the precise details of many of the big sightings reported to him under wraps. 

A mystery beast believed to have savaged 18 sheep was caught on camera near Embo in Ross-shire in 2011

‘There are certain gamekeepers and farmers that have made themselves known to us and made their intentions clear that they would shoot [a big cat] on sight.

‘We have known of cats that have been shot and gone to ground over the years, and that includes black leopard and lynx. Unfortunately, we’ve not been able at this stage to recover any of those remains yet to get further evidence.’

Indeed, despite a lack of concrete evidence, Mr Macdonald also has a tantalising theory about the lynx, thought to have become extinct in Scotland 1,300 years ago, whose controversial reintroduction to the land is currently under proposal at Holyrood. He believes the plans are obsolete, because lynx are already here.

‘I’ve had a meeting already at Holyrood with an MSP leading the debate on lynx reintroduction, and we see our evidence so far as presenting an interesting picture, and one that can potentially even change the question from one of reintroduction to one of boosting a current population,’ he says.

‘It’s also one that counters any negative opposition to the whole idea of lynx being back in Scotland again, which is largely based on fearmongering that they will devastate flocks overnight. 

‘But if they’re already here, then the flocks are doing just fine.’

It’s an intriguing thought, although one likely to irritate farmers and gamekeepers. Earlier this year, National Farmers’ Union of Scotland president Martin Kennedy called on Holyrood to reject any proposals to reintroduce lynx, saying it was ‘causing considerable angst and anxiety to those who keep livestock in Scotland’.

And yet while concrete evidence remains slim, certain big cat sightings over the years have caught the public imagination. 

In 2007, the ‘beast of Banff’, a big, panther-like black animal was spotted prowling above the Links in the Aberdeenshire town by a holidaymaker and a local.

In 2015, a dog walker on the outskirts of Galashiels spotted a large black creature running past her which she described as ‘much bigger than my labrador’ and with a long tail. 

Six years before, a local councillor saw a panther-like cat at the edge of a forest in the same area. He claimed to have watched it for long enough to convince him that what he could see was a genuine big cat. 

Possible big cat sighting taken in the Irvine area of Ayrshire in 2001

There have also been sightings of a big black cat in 2018 and 2020, 30 minutes down the road in Hawick.

In Angus there have been many sightings of a big cat roaming the area over the past 20 years, particularly near Edzell, where witnesses reported seeing a panther-like creature in nearby woodland. 

One man even claimed that in 2001 he came face to face with the animal lying on a wall by the roadside.

Not all sightings pan out, though. In Helensburgh in 2009 a ‘panther-sized’ cat was caught on video by an off-duty police dog handler wandering near a railway line. It turned out to be an over-grown and well fed domestic cat.

As for the Brydekirk sighting? When it was posted on a local social media page, it turned out that the two villagers who spotted something slinking along the side of a field last week weren’t the only ones to have had an encounter with the creature.

‘I watched a big black cat for ages in the field from the park a couple of months ago,’ wrote one local. ‘It looked bigger than a domestic cat but not as big as a medium/large dog.’

So is it another animal misidentified? Or yet more evidence that there really ARE big cats on the loose in our countryside…

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