It is estimated that up to 7,000 people a year see panther-like (black) animals, or puma-like (brown) animals at large in the UK, though only about a tenth of these come to light via police, newspapers or websites such as www.bigcatsinbritain.org (external - login to view), run by the doyen of ABC research, Mark Fraser. In fact, it seems probable that more Britons have now seen a big cat than have ever seen a pig.
Sightings of mystery 'big cats' in Britain's countryside have snowballed since the 1980s, dividing opinion about their existence
Wednesday March 22, 2006
Angus, a Warwickshire gamekeeper, went to feed his pheasants in a spinney one afternoon in November 2004 when he surprised an unusual poacher. He recalls: "A black animal emerged with a hen pheasant in its mouth. It recoiled as it saw me and then took off, running down towards the brook. It was hardly more than 6ft away so I had a good look at it. It was definitely a big cat. A black panther - bigger than a Labrador, with a longer body. Its fur was scruffy and muddy. It had a long tail, and pointed ears like a cat - and as it ran the ears went back. I've lived in the country all my life and I've seen everything - foxes, deer, badgers. I know what should be there and what shouldn't."
As it fled it left a footprint, 5in long and 4in wide, in the thick clay which, cast in plaster by the police, became one of many fragments of "hard" evidence for the existence of big cats in the wild in Britain. But while sightings of anomalous big cats (ABCs) have snowballed since the 1980s, investigators are still searching for irrefutable proof: bodies, alive or dead, or unambiguous photos and films.
The absence of "proof" is odd because of the huge scale of the phenomenon. It is estimated that up to 7,000 people a year see panther-like (black) animals, or puma-like (brown) animals at large in the UK, though only about a tenth of these come to light via police, newspapers or websites such as www.bigcatsinbritain.org (external - login to view), run by the doyen of ABC research, Mark Fraser. In fact, it seems probable that more Britons have now seen a big cat than have ever seen a pig.
Eyewitnesses come from every walk of life and have one thing in common - their sighting was unexpected. Wiltshire landscape gardener Colin Booth was trimming a hedge when a black, panther-like animal, the size of his own Alsatian, emerged from it. They studied each other from a distance of 20ft before the animal turned and strolled off, leaving Booth stunned.
Lindsay Burnand-Smith was driving near Wakefield, West Yorkshire, in January when, she says: "A black big cat ran across the road in front of me. Not a pet cat, dog, horse or anything else - a huge bounding animal, about 4ft in length. There is not a shred of doubt in my mind that I saw a black panther. I was amazed. It took my breath away."
One theory claims such animals are the descendants of pets released into the countryside by their owners in 1976 when the Dangerous Wild Animals Act made it expensive to keep big cats; yet this is unlikely, for three reasons. First, only three people have ever claimed to have deliberately released big cats - it would have to be done on a vast scale for breeding populations to become established all over Britain, including the Isle of Mull. Second, there have been no bodies of big cats found alive or dead, despite intensive hunts over many decades. Third, while about a quarter of animals sighted have plain, sandy brown fur similar to a puma's, the others reported are jet black.
This is the central conundrum, for the only big cat with a rare melanistic (black) variant - popularly termed a "black panther" - is the leopard. A black leopard cost £500 in 1976 - the price of a small car - so there would have been every incentive to sell such an animal rather than release it. Furthermore, while hundreds of these rare black leopards are apparently at large on our island not one of their spotted brothers has ever been reported.
These mysteries divide those researching the nature and provenance of ABCs. The literalists speculate about hybridisation creating black pumas; the possibility of a relict population of native pre-ice age big cats lingering on unnoticed; and some suspect foul play - the captive breeding of big cats for criminal purposes, such as baiting or as "frighteners".
These nuts-and-bolts theorists shake their heads sadly over commentators who tend to place ABCs among the elusive creatures of cryptozoology, or as modern versions of the spectral "black dogs" of English folklore or the cait sith - the fairy cat - of Highland legend. They protest that ABCs are wholly corporeal, citing occasions when they have been seen drinking, eating, crapping, spraying. Mark Hill, for instance, watched one a few feet from his car bonnet as it clawed at and ate from a discarded chip wrapper - something no phantom black dog would be seen dead doing.
Whatever the opinions, a unique event is set to bring all these factions together to discuss, and perhaps throw light on, the big cat mysteries: the British Big Cats Conference. Angus the gamekeeper will be travelling from Warwickshire with the plaster footprint to compare it with others obtained in similar circumstances. Numerous photographs and nearly all the film footage of alleged big cats at large in Britain will be shown - some that have never been made public before.
Whether or not all this evidence will be enough to pin these animals down for sure, the philosophers and psychologists in the gathering will be sure of one thing: the experience of seeing a big cat changes perspectives on ordinary existence. As Burnand-Smith puts it: "Nothing like this has ever happened to me. Before Saturday, I was simply not interested in these sorts of things."
Above all, perhaps, it is the intensity of such experiences that invites deeper investigation. "It was a beautiful creature, and it had a profound effect on me," Booth says. "I will remember it for the rest of my life."
Over four decades, the Surrey Puma of the 1960s has been joined by the Exmoor Beast, the Beast of Bodmin, the Fen Tiger, the Beast of Ongar, the Pedmore Panther, the Beast of Gloucester, the Thing from the Ling, the Beast of Borehamwood, the Wrangaton Lion, the Beast of Shap, the Beast of Brentwood, the Lindsey Leopard, the Lincolnshire Lynx, the Wildcat of the Wolds, the Beast of Roslin, the Kilmacolm Big Cat, the Beast of Burford, the Chilterns Lion, the Beast of Castor, the Beast of Sydenham, the Shooters Hill Cheetah, the Beast of Bucks, the Plumstead Panther, the Beast of Bexley, the Beast of Barnet, the Nottingham Lion, the Durham Puma, the Horndon Panther, the Beast of Cricklewood, the Beast of Bont, the Beast of Gobowen ... and many more.
· The British Big Cats Conference takes place on March 24-26, in Market Harborough, Leicestershire. Tickets in advance or at the door. For more information, go to www.harpur.org/conference.htm (external - login to view)