top of page

Britain’s Big Cats: Did you Just See That?

Updated: Jul 2, 2023

Madelaine Stannard introduces the possibility of big cats roaming Britain, and discusses how they could be evading us.

Lynx in the woods. Credit: Marvin Langer on Unsplash

The cat is large, the musculature powerful, with rounded shoulders and a sloping back. Its tail is thick, held low to the ground where its paws leave tracks pressed into the dusty ground. It ripples onto and over the wall, a black silhouette of something disappearing into the next field. The story isn’t real, but I want you to know it could have been.

Do some digging, ask around, and you might just come across someone with a similar tale to tell. Whether it’s entirely urban legend, a drunken tale shared over a pint, or something more intriguing than that, it’s not a new idea. Sightings of big cats go as far back as the 1700s, when William Corbett described seeing a cat as big as a Spaniel climb a tree, but they haven’t been few and far between since. The Beast of Bodmin Moor, the Wildcat of Wakefield – headlines still break to this day, particularly in Gloucestershire and the South. Members of the public report their own sightings of larger than average cats, slinking shapes, and paw prints that couldn’t quite belong to someone’s Labrador.

In between the years 2017-19, there were one-hundred and fifty five sightings of ABCs, ‘Anomalous Big Cats’, reported to the police, and if talk is anything to go by, there could well have been many more unreported. After all, you see a panther on your usual dog walk, and tell your family when you return home – what’s not to believe? If this is you, don’t be alarmed. You’re not crazy, and you’re definitely not alone.

Farm animal and deer carcasses pile up, a skeleton of bones left behind, sheep are being taken. There’s speculation in the air, a question of could it really be on everyone’s tongue – enter Ted Noble, farmer from the Highlands, who in 1980 set a trap, caught the puma that had been stalking his sheep for over a year, and relinquished it into the care of Highland Wildlife Park. She was affectionately named Felicity, and her caretakers remarked on how accustomed she was to people, suggesting that Felicity had spent much of her life in captivity. Faecal analysis of her diet proved that she had been consuming deer, rabbits and sheep for some time, disproving some people’s thoughts that Noble had set up Felicity’s capture as a hoax.

So, how did she get there? The tale of Felicity’s Highland exploits likely begins four years earlier, when the government introduced the Dangerous Wild Animals Act, a new law that required all owners of exotic and, of course, dangerous pets to apply for a license, surrender them to a zoo, or have them euthanised. Instead of going through the certification to legally own these pets, the likes of which could even be purchased from Harrods back in the day, many people instead opted to simply let their animals escape into the countryside.

If Felicity had belonged to somebody with a penchant for large felines, or a personal collection of exotic animals, this would explain her familiarity with people. Living wild in Scotland for potentially four years, preying on livestock, and for the most part, hiding from prying eyes. Unfortunately for this puma, straying too close to farmer’s fields and dispatching their sheep was what led to her capture, but rest assured – Felicity was cared for in the wildlife park until her passing, and she is now preserved as a specimen at Inverness Museum. But her story invokes a pressing question: could she be the only one?

A puma, not unlike Felicity. Could these creatures really be hiding amongst us? Credit: Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

The release of leopards, jaguars, pumas and lynxes from private collections has more than likely led to the spate of sightings within the UK across the 1980s and 1990s, particularly under the consideration that through a loophole in the law, it wasn’t technically illegal to let these feline predators go until 1981. That’s right, the Beast of Bodmin Moor might have been someone’s pet before it was the panther stalking the moorland, etching itself into Britain’s urban mythology.

Is it possible that those same cats released all those years ago are the ones still making the front page of our newspapers? Big cats, which under technical terms are members of the genus Panthera (tigers, lions, leopards, jaguars and snow leopards), as well as the non-pantherine cheetahs and cougars, have lifespans that vary slightly species to species, but can live for more than fifteen years. It’s safe to assume that we’re not still seeing the same cats we were all those years ago. In an interview with the Daily Star, expert Rhoda Watkins, who has dedicated much of her life to tracking and studying big cat presence in Britain’s wild (and not so wild) areas, said we would be watching the offspring of those cats make their mark.

A population of big cats breeding in Britain, territories mapped out across our landscapes, it is possible that some escapes and even releases still occur, but what if we truly are seeing the offspring of cats from long ago, and their offspring too? A small breeding population isn’t entirely out of bounds; others in the field such as Rick Minter, one of the country’s leading voices on the matter, estimates that two-hundred and fifty individuals would be enough to sustain a population.

This is of course only accounting for what a population of one species would require – most articles and literature citing big cats as another of Britain’s marvels are discussing ‘panthers’, which are melanistic leopards and jaguars. On his website, where he runs a podcast ‘Big Cat Conversations’, Minter estimates that sightings of large black cats make up 80% of credible reports (it is important to remember that many reports made and even photographs taken could ultimately be hopeful mistakes). Lynxes and pumas also make up a proportion of supposed sightings, with pumas being more commonly reported than lynxes (5-10% of reports made).

A small population that, if real, may fail to reach the threshold of cats needed to sustain a minimum viable population, and would suffer serious repercussions. Genetic diversity is the range of genetic traits inheritable in a population – those with high diversity show greater variation in their phenotypes, in their traits that are determined by what lies on their chromosomes. High genetic diversity provides individuals with better survival odds, allowing them the ability to adapt to changes in their environment.

On the opposite hand, poor diversity leads to a phenomenon called inbreeding depression, where reproduction between closely related individuals increases the chances of inheriting multiple copies of harmful genes. The animal’s biological fitness, its abilities to survive and reproduce, are reduced, and this can drive change and shape a population over time. Some even wonder if an entirely new, smaller subspecies of big cat exists here that could explain some of those almost sightings, the ones that receive scepticism and uncertainty but still leave questions unanswered. Cats that are simply too big, too other to be somebody’s domesticated pet, but that don’t exactly resemble the big cats of Africa and beyond.

We couldn’t in good faith write an article about big cats in Britain without accounting for the fact that some sightings are without a doubt, hoaxes, or at best, misguided encounters from a distorted perspective. This is still even assuming that there really are feline predators here, making their homes in our woodlands and on our moors. This isn’t to sound disparaging, but it is simply being neutral. From a great distance, in difficult conditions or poor lighting, at a confusing angle, or in the heat of the moment, a domestic cat can appear unusually large, unusually odd. Five minutes searching on the internet will prove to you that amongst the headlines, the grainy images of black shapes in faraway fields, there is so much scrutiny, and more than that, subjectivism. Lots of sightings have been discredited, and lots have been torn apart by experts and others interested in uncovering this mystery.

The rise in keeping exotic pets, this time legally, in Britain is also a factor we should mention. Bengal cats, for example, and some generations of Savannah cats, are perfectly legal to be kept without a license. More shockingly is that other species, like the Pallas’ and Geoffry’s cats, are also able to be kept without certification – while not explicitly on the same risk level as a tiger for example, these are still wild animals, not bred for domestication. Some sightings of big cats have already turned out to be someone’s unusual and exotic companion escaped, or out for a stroll.

From a distance, unusual cat breeds like Maine Coons can appear disproportionately large, confusing members of the public. How many ‘sightings’ are genuine? Credit: Sabine Zierer on PixaBay

But what do officials say? The Government’s official status on the matter, given through a spokesperson for the Department of Environmental, Food and Rural Affairs is this: “Neither Natural England nor Defra have received any credible reports of wild living or breeding big cats in Britain in recent years. Defra is not currently engaged in any work related to the management of wild big cats in Britain and has no plans to do so.”

Like with many things, the answer probably lies somewhere in the middle. Who wouldn’t want to believe that somewhere amongst the not quites, the exaggerated perspectives, real big cats stay hidden in the shadows? That a little bit of wilderness exists out there? It’s wired within our brains to seek out the abnormal, to see what we wish was there – or are we primed for danger, seeing the ‘monster’ in the mundane?

My opinion? We shouldn’t be afraid, or ashamed, to make a mistake. It wasn’t a panther this time, but who knows about the next. So, pull the car over. Take another look. Maybe a little bit of magic is still out there after all.

About the Author: Madelaine Stannard is a Zoology student at the University of Sheffield, interested in conservation and wildlife media. @maddie_stannard_wild

10 views0 comments


bottom of page