Although personally I am an unbeliever, there are those who firmly believe that there are big cats secretively lurking around the British countryside, invisible almost all the time and one such person is Andrew Hemmings of the Royal Agricultural University in Cirencester, Gloucester.
Rather than relying on very poor quality photographs and excitedly inaccurate sightings, Dr Hemmings is relying on the bite marks made by the carnassial teeth of big cats which are present on the remains of their prey’s bones.
The carnassial teeth are those at the back of the jaw which provide a shearing action upon the flesh of prey animals. Cats don’t grind or masticate the flesh of their prey, they shear through it like scissors cut paper. Dr Hemming says that over six years he and his team have analysed more than 100 skeletal remains from which they have 16 good examples of carnassial teeth marks.
Of those 16 he says that he is confident that five of them were made by a medium to large-sized cat. The others, he believes, were made by smaller predators but, “five certainly do fit the bill as far as puma or melanistic [black] leopard”.
The University study led by Dr Hemmings confirmed their findings by feeding black leopards and pumas at Exmoor zoo as a control. Their teeth marks matched those found on the skeletal remains of the five prey items mentioned.
The $64,000 question is how did the big cats get there (if you believe that they are actually there). We have to remind ourselves that over decades there has been no real firm evidence except for the carnassial teeth marks but even those are not conclusive in my opinion.
It is said that big cats are believed to have been released into the wild in the UK during the Second World War. They were released because meat was scarce at the time and zookeepers could not keep them. They were also released apparently in the months approaching the enactment of the Dangerous Wild Animals Act 1976. This act restricted the keeping of certain species of wild animal.
Dr Hemmings says that five of his colleagues at his workplace have reported seeing a big cat. One of them said that he saw a mountain lion jump over a dry stone wall.
Supporters of the theory that big cats exist in the wild in the UK say that you don’t see them because even in America where there are 36,000 pumas you only see them when you very rarely encounter them and even then it is because the animal might be ill. Comment: this is a bad theory as America is vast compared to the UK and 36k pumas can disappear.
Also, in response to the question as to why you never see a dead big cat in the countryside, Mr Minter, a landscape consultant, says that even on Vancouver Island where the puma is endemic it is rare to see one alive but rarer to find a carcass. Comment: 600-800 live on Vancouver Island according to Discover Vancouver Island which is 31,285 km² (1.5 times the size to Wales in the UK). He doesn’t see it as surprising that you never see a Puma dead or alive because they’re so secretive.
There have, in fact, been some confirmed sightings and factual cases of existence of large cats in the UK. A lynx, for example, was shot in Devon in 1903. In 1988 a puma was caught in a trap in Invernessshire. The cat was taken to the Highland Wildlife Park zoo.
Also in the 1980s, two jungle cats were killed in traffic accidents, one in Hampshire and the other in Shropshire. The jungle cat a small wild cat species not much bigger than a domestic cat. And in 1991 a lynx (a medium-sized wild cat) was shot after it had killed 15 sheep.
The Forestry Commission in 2009 said that rangers had seen big cats on two occasions using thermal-imaging cameras while conducting dear surveys in the Forest of Dean. Comment: why have we seen these images?
It is claimed by Mr Minter that 20 to 30 landowners know they exist. They say there have been sightings by gamekeepers or animal carcasses have been discovered in trees where they were carried by a leopard. Comment: where are the photographs?
Mr Minter believes that 80 percent of the reports are believable and based upon his work he believes that about 250 black leopards (black panthers) and a similar number of mountain lions a.k.a. pumas are wandering around the British countryside.
He believes that most witnesses are reliable people such as police officers, scientists and military personnel. He also believes that the way big cats kill prey is very distinct and differen to kills made by dogs, which makes it certain that these cats exist.
Sources: The Times, Michael Broad and various websites.