Are big cats like black panthers and leopards really roaming the UK?

The picturesque landscapes of the United Kingdom, with their rolling hills, dense woodlands, and vast moorlands, have long captivated the imaginations of nature enthusiasts and adventure seekers. Yet, amidst the tranquility of these idyllic countrysides, whispers persist of an enigmatic presence that elicits both intrigue and awe: the elusive big cats that are said to roam freely across the UK.

Rumours of big cats, such as leopards and mountain lions, living wild in the UK have been bubbling for decades. Now, reported DNA evidence of a black leopard (Panthera pardus) in Gloucestershire and a recent spate of eye-witness accounts have renewed interest in the idea that large felines roam the nation. Here is what we know about these mystery cats.

Are there big cats roaming wild in the UK?

Stories of encounters with these magnificent felines, reminiscent of creatures found in far-flung lands, have sparked curiosity and ignited debates among locals and visitors alike. From the sprawling moors of Dartmoor to the lush forests of the Scottish Highlands, reports of sightings and unexplained phenomena have woven a tapestry of mystery around these elusive creatures.

At the heart of this captivating narrative lie two iconic species: the black panther and the leopard. Their dark, sleek forms and piercing eyes have become synonymous with the allure and mystique of the untamed wilderness. While historically associated with exotic locales such as the African savannahs or the dense jungles of Southeast Asia, it is within the boundaries of the United Kingdom that these elusive beings have allegedly found an unlikely home.

The term “big cat” typically refers to species that belong to the genus Panthera, such as lions, jaguars and leopards. However, cheetahs, lynxes and cougars – also known as mountain lions – are commonly associated with the phrase.

There are a few cases of such animals being seen in the UK, such as a puma captured in 1980 and a lynx shot by a farmer in 1991, but, according to the UK’s Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), there has been no credible evidence of big cats presented to Natural England, a public body responsible for the protection of England’s natural environment, in recent decades.

“If we were presented with credible information to suggest there was a big cat living wild and posing a threat to public health and safety, we would report the matter to the local police and the Home Office,” a Defra spokesperson told New Scientist.

But a handful of people disagree with this official assessment. This includes Rick Minter, the host of the Big Cat Conversations podcast, who believes the evidence strongly suggests the presence of large felines in the UK countryside.

Where are they and how many are there?

Alleged sightings of big cats have been reported across the UK. The British Big Cats Society says that it receives between 500 to 600 reports a year, but these are mostly unverified and anonymous. Freedom of information requests to UK police forces have also revealed a small number of reports over the past decade.

The bulk of the reports have been of black leopards, also known as panthers, says Minter. Around 15 per cent of sightings are of sandy-coloured cats, which could be mountain lions (Puma concolor), says Minter, and the remaining 5 per cent are of lynxes.

To keep a stable and healthy population, there would probably need to be at least 300 individuals of each species, says Minter. There is no evidence of this though.

Is there any evidence, beyond reported sightings?

The origin stories behind these purported residents of the British countryside are as varied as the landscapes themselves. Some believe that these big cats are descendants of animals that escaped or were released from private collections during the tumultuous years of World War II when many zoos and menageries were forced to close their doors. Others claim that they are the remnants of a thriving population that existed long before humans settled on the island.

The allure of the unknown has led numerous enthusiasts, both amateur and professional, to embark on expeditions to uncover the truth behind the tales. Experts armed with advanced tracking technology, camera traps, and night vision equipment have meticulously scoured the countryside in hopes of capturing evidence that might confirm the existence of these legendary creatures.

Nothing firm, despite the number of people saying they have seen big cats. “There should be scientific evidence to back all of this up,” says Andrew Hemmings at the Royal Agricultural University in Cirencester, UK.

One way to identify the presence of these cats is to look at the carcasses of animals such as foxes, deer and sheep; Hemmings and his colleagues have analysed over 100 carcasses. To date, only four exhibit tooth marks, also known as tooth pits, that suggest the involvement of a medium-to-large feral cat.

These analyses alone can’t provide definitive evidence though. “The gold standard would be to combine what we’re seeing with our tooth-pit analysis with verified DNA evidence,” says Hemmings.

Do we have DNA evidence?

We delve into the captivating realm of big cat sightings in the United Kingdom, unraveling the stories, legends, and scientific investigations that surround these elusive predators. Join us as we navigate the shadows of uncertainty, peering into the misty landscapes of the British countryside, in pursuit of the truth behind the existence of black panthers and leopards roaming free in this land of ancient folklore and natural beauty.

Documentary producer Dragonfly Films recently claimed to have found the first DNA evidence for a big cat in Gloucestershire. Hemmings and Minter are optimistic about the claim, but others are sceptical.

“Unless they actually recorded how that hair sample was captured and tested, [the claim] will have a grey cloud over it,” says Danny Bamping at the British Big Cats Society.

If the big cats do exist, are they dangerous?

There have been no confirmed incidences of wild big cats attacking people or their pets in the UK.

“If given the choice, they would always avoid human contact,” says Hemmings. “In my opinion, they pose a negligible risk to people.”

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Stevie Flavio
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