British big cats

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A sign requesting information on big cats in West Sussex

British big cats, also referred to as ABCs (Alien, or Anomalous, Big Cats), phantom cats and mystery cats, are reports and incidents of Felidae not native to Britain but supposed to inhabit the British countryside. These sightings are often reported as "panthers", "pumas", or "black cats".

The existence of a population of true big cats in Britain, especially a breeding population, is believed to be highly implausible by experts owing to lack of convincing evidence. Some cases have been authenticated, often medium-sized species such as the Eurasian lynx but in one 1980 case a puma, which was captured alive in Scotland. These incidents are generally believed to have been escaped or released pets, possibly in some cases released after the Dangerous Wild Animals Act 1976 came into force or after the animals became too difficult to manage.[1] Sightings at a distance may possibly be explicable as domestic cats seen near to a viewer being misinterpreted as larger animals seen further away.[2][3][4] A fringe theory suggests that the animals may be surviving Ice Age fauna.[5]

Evidence for their existence[edit]

First sightings[edit]

In the 1760s the great radical writer, William Cobbett recalled in his Rural Rides how, as a boy, he had seen a cat "as big as a middle-sized Spaniel dog" climb into a hollow elm tree in the grounds of the ruined Waverley Abbey near Farnham in Surrey. Later, in New Brunswick, he saw a "lucifee" (North American lynx – Felis lynx canadensis) "and it seemed to me to be just such a cat as I had seen at Waverley."[6] Another old report was found by David Walker from The Times in 1827 of a "lynx" being seen.[7]

Further back there is a medieval Welsh poem Pa Gwr in the Black Book of Carmarthen which mentions a Cath Palug, meaning "Palug's cat" or "clawing cat", which roamed Anglesey until slain by Cei. In the Welsh Triads, it was the offspring of the monstrous sow Henwen.[8]

Captures and remains[edit]

This puma was captured in the wild, in Inverness-shire, Scotland in 1980. It is believed to have been an abandoned pet. It lived the rest of its life in a zoo. After it died it was stuffed and placed in Inverness Museum.

A Canadian lynx shot in Devon in 1903 is now in the collection of the Bristol Museum.[9] Analysis of its teeth suggest that prior to its death it had spent a significant amount of time in captivity.[9]

In 1980 a puma was captured in Inverness-shire, Scotland. The capture followed several years of sightings in the area of a big cat matching the description of the one captured, which had led local farmer Ted Noble to erect a cage trap. The puma was subsequently put into the Highland Wildlife Park zoo and given the name "Felicity". When it died it was stuffed and was placed in Inverness Museum.[10] Zoo director Eddie Orbell concluded that the animal had been domesticated and might not have been released for long, noting that it enjoyed being tickled.[11]

In 1989 a jungle cat that had been hit by a car was found on the roadside in Shropshire.[12]

In 1991 a Eurasian lynx was shot near Norwich, Norfolk. It had killed around 15 sheep within two weeks. The story was only reported in 2003, and the stuffed body of the lynx is allegedly now in the possession of a collector. For many years this incident was considered to have been a hoax, particularly by the hunting community, but in March 2006 a police report confirmed that the case was true. It was probably an escapee from a facility in the area that bred animals, including Eurasian lynxes.[13]

In 1994 it was reported that a large cat with leopard-pattern fur had been shot on the Isle of Wight some time earlier after feasting on chickens and ducks. The shooting was not immediately reported as the farm worker involved feared prosecution, but police reportedly concluded that the animal was an ocelot or serval.[12]

There have been reports that in 1993 yet another puma was captured in Scotland, this time in the Aviemore area.[10][14]

In 1996, police in Fintona, County Tyrone, Northern Ireland shot a cat. It was reportedly a caracal, a medium-sized wildcat species found in Africa and Asia, although a police report described it as a lynx.[2][15] (Caracals are sometimes called desert lynxes, but are not true members of the Lynx genus.)[16]

In a well-reported 2001 case, a young female Eurasian lynx was captured alive by police and vets in Cricklewood, north-London, after a chase across school playing fields and into a block of flats. It was placed in London Zoo and given the name "Lara" before ultimately being transferred to a zoo in France to breed.[17][18] The captured lynx was found to be only 18 months old, although considerably larger than an average domestic cat.[2][19]

This list excludes escapes of short duration and known origin. Examples of this include an incident in Grimsby in 1991 when four lions managed to escape from a circus (or possibly were released) before being captured the same day.[20]

Video and photographic evidence[edit]

A European wildcat, the Scottish population of which is the only wild cat species known to live in Britain.

Around 1993, a number of reports were made of a large black cat around Bodmin Moor, nicknamed the 'Beast of Bodmin', with at least two videos made. Some video evidence was examined by government scientists, who concluded from the position of the camera and animal that the sightings were of black cats no more than 30 cm high at the shoulder.[3][4]

In 1994 footage of a large black cat was recorded in Cambridgeshire and was named in the media as the "Fen Tiger".[21]

In 2004 footage was recorded of what appears to be a large black cat near a farm in Shropshire.[22] The cat had been seen by the farmers on numerous occasions.[22]

In June 2006 a large black cat was recorded in the countryside of Banff, Aberdeenshire. Footage of the cat was broadcast by the BBC on 24 May 2007.[23]

In July 2009, photographs and video footage of a large black cat were taken by an off-duty Ministry of Defence Police officer. The animal was walking along a railway line in Helensburgh, Argyll. Large cats, either black or tan, have been reported in the area before.[24]

In late 2009 video footage of what is claimed to be a large black cat was recorded in Herefordshire.[25] The sighting and video footage of the alleged big cat coincided with a spree of sheep killings in the same area.[26]

In 2010 video footage of what is claimed to be a large black cat was recorded in Stroud, Gloucestershire.[27] 'Experts' have estimated that the creature was at least five feet in length from nose to tail.[28]

In 2011 a family walking in Fochabers Wood, Inverness-shire, photographed a large black cat matching the description of a forest jaguar.[29]


In 2000 an 11-year-old boy in Monmouthshire was attacked by what he claims was a large black cat. It left him with five long claw marks across his left cheek. The police called in a big cat expert to investigate the incident.[30]

In 2005 a man who lived in Sydenham Park in south-east London was attacked in his back garden, which backed onto a railway line. The man who was 6 ft and weighed 15 stone (210 pounds) described the cat as being a big black figure that pounced on him and was considerably stronger than he was. He was left with scratches all over his body. Police were called and according to the BBC, one police officer saw a cat the size of a Labrador dog.[31]

DNA evidence[edit]

There have been conflicting reports of DNA evidence as to the existence of big cats in Britain: In 2011 it was announced by the Centre for Fortean Zoology that DNA testing, carried out by Durham University on hairs found in north-Devon, showed that a leopard was living in the area.[32] In 2012 it was announced that DNA testing on two deer carcasses found in Gloucestershire found only fox DNA, despite many locals reporting sightings and believing that the deer had been killed by a big cat.[33]


The research group Big Cats in Britain publishes reported sightings annually by county. The "top ten" counties or regions of Great Britain between April 2004 and July 2005 were:[34]

Area Devon Yorks Scotland Wales Gloucs Sussex Cornwall Kent Somerset Leics
Number of Sightings 132 127 125 123 104 103 99 92 91 89

Species that have been noted only occasionally include the Leopard cat, which is the size of a domestic cat but has leopard-like spots, the Clouded leopard, a specialised species from the tropics which was captured after living wild in Kent in 1975, and there are even extraordinary cases of lions being reported in Devon and Somerset.[35]

A Maine coon, the largest breed of domestic cat. At a recorded maximum length of 120 cm including tail, Maine coons can reach the length of Eurasian lynxes, although with a much lighter build and lower height.[36][37]
A fully grown Maine coon

In August 2012, several sightings of a lion were reported near St. Osyth in Essex. Police searched the area using helicopters and infrared cameras, instructing residents to stay in their homes. Despite speculation that the lion had escaped from Colchester Zoo or a local circus, all such animals were accounted for. The search was called off the next day with no evidence of a lion having been found.[38] A local resident claimed that a photo of the alleged animal showed their pet cat, a large Maine coon.[39]

There have been reports of a cat known as The Beast of Bevendean for several years across Sussex, including in Brighton and Hove.[40] In 2012, a local filmmaker planned to make an action-adventure film, Dark Roar, following two eleven-year-old boys who set out to trap the creature.[41]

Reported British big cat sightings[edit]

Current interest in Big cat reports appear to stem from the late 1950s, with news stories of the Surrey Puma[42] and Fen Tiger.[43] In 1963 the Shooters Hill "cheetah" was reported from that area of London.[44] and in 1964 came similar reports from Norfolk.[45] From the 1970s reports spread across the country; the Beast of Exmoor was reported from Devon and Somerset[46] and the Sheppey Panther has been rumoured to exist since that decade.[47] In 1980 came the first modern report from Scotland,[48] and the Kellas Cat was shot there in 1984.

Greater interest in phantom cats grew from headline stories of the Beast of Bodmin from 1992,[49] and Dumfries and Galloway (the Galloway Puma). In the historic Buchan area of Aberdeenshire the creature is daubed the Beast of Buchan and sightings are regularly documented.[50] A large black panther known as 'the Beast of Dartmoor' was seen by a group of fifteen people in the summer of 2011 in the Haldon Forest.[51] There were many more news stories from different parts of the country.[52][53][54][55][56][57][58][59][60]

In the early months of 2011, a great number of sightings of a 'panther' in Shotts, North Lanarkshire, stirred locals and began to be reported in the local press, after a couple of months, these reports ceased with the assumption that the 'panther' had moved onto pastures new.[61]

One of the most recent reports was of that of a lion roaming around Essex during the summer of 2012. Initially sighted from a caravan park, there were also reports of lion roaring heard in the local area. A photograph was taken by one witness. Police advised local residents to stay indoors and a search was made of the local area, but nothing was found. Local zoos and visiting circuses were contacted, but none reported an escaped lion. A Ms. Murphy later claimed the photograph was that of her pet Maine Coon cat, Teddy.[39]

In 2013, in a small village on the Shropshire-Wrexham border, two sisters reported seeing a large, black, cat-like creature with a three-foot stride jumping a fence and disappearing into a neighbouring field. On returning in the day, they discovered a large lair and paw prints too big to belong to a domesticated cat. A one time zoo-keeper at Chester zoo and Dudley zoo, Mr Larkham, agrees the paw prints do not belong to a domesticated cat but are too small to be those of a panther. He believes it could be the descendant of the Shropshire jungle cat from the 1980s, or a gigantic domesticated cat.[62]

The Cotswolds big cat[edit]

Cotswolds big cat is a purported "big cat" or number of big cats at large in the Cotswolds region of England, UK.[63][64][65]

A walker in Woodchester Park found the carcass of a roe deer on 12 January 2012, with injuries suggesting the animal may have been mauled by a large felid.[63] A second similar deer carcass was found on 16 January 2012.[64]

An analysis by University of Warwick scientists of the carcases of deer purported to be killed and partially eaten by the "Cotswolds big cat" indicated DNA evidence of only foxes and other deer.[66]

Government involvement[edit]

In 1988, the Ministry of Agriculture took the unusual step of sending in Royal Marines to carry out a massive search for the rumoured Beast of Exmoor after an increase in the number of mysteriously killed livestock, and farmer complaints over subsequent loss of money. Several Marines claimed to have seen the cat fleetingly, but nothing other than a fox was ever found. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has published a list of predatory cats that they know to have escaped in the United Kingdom, although most of these have been recaptured.[67]

Mythological explanation[edit]

For many hundred of years the myth of the spectral Black Dog has persisted in Britain – a supposed mythical creature appearing as a large black animal in remote moorland with no firm evidence beyond hearsay for its existence. It has been suggested that the stories of "Black Cats" are merely a modern continuation of such myths and stories, sharing the same elements but with the idea of a supernatural cause having fallen out of credibility and the modern, more plausible, idea of an escaped or released wildcat supplanting it.[68][69][70] In addition, the stories of big cats share many traits suitable for the tabloid press – as such leading to wide exposure of any potential "cat" and further and rapid dissemination of any speculation or supposed evidence for it, helping to build a widespread urban myth.

See also[edit]

Further reading[edit]

  • BCIB Yearbook 2007, Ed. Mark Fraser, CFZ 2008
  • Beer, Trevor The Beast of Exmoor: Fact or legend? Countryside Productions 1988
  • Brierly, Nigel They stalk by night – the big cats of Exmoor and the South West Yeo Valley Productions 1988
  • Coard, R. Ascertaining an agent: using tooth pit data to determine the carnivore/s responsible for predation in cases of suspected big cat kills. Journal of Archaeological Science 34(10): 1677–1684
  • Francis, Di The Beast of Exmoor and other mystery predators of Britain Johnathan Cape 1993
  • Francis, Di Cat Country David and Charles 1982
  • Harpur, Merrily Mystery Big Cats Heart of Albion 2006
  • Moiser, Chris Mystery Cats of Devon and Cornwall Bossiney Books 2002
  • Moiser, Chris Big Cat Mysteries of Somerset Bossiney Books 2005
  • Moiser, Chris Mystery Big Cats of Dorset Inspiring Places 2007
  • Shuker, Karl Mystery Cats of the World: From Blue Tigers to Exmoor Beasts Robert Hale 1989


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External links[edit]