It was just after 10pm and the light was falling from the sky when the two villagers saw it. A very large black cat, the size of a Labrador.
Silently the creature crept to the edge of a field near the village of Bridekirk, near Annan, before speeding out of sight.
Big house cat? Good eating dog? Or could it be that the animal roaming this bucolic corner of Dumfriesshire was actually a black leopard?
Intriguingly, Paul McDonald, head of the Scottish Big Cat Research Team, which has already sent a field researcher to the region last week, said preliminary results could point to the latter.
“We are confident that this was a genuine report and based on the size and description of the cat, it is of interest to us,” he said.
Last week two men spotted a very large black cat, about the size of a Labrador, on the edge of a field near the village of Bridekirk, near Annan, just after 10pm.
Without photographic or DNA evidence, last week’s sighting could remain one of thousands of unsubstantiated reports that have plagued the Scottish countryside for decades and provoked the eternal question: Do big cats live wild in Scotland?
Recently released documents, however, may pay off the suspects.
The makers of an upcoming documentary have released details of several sightings of the big cats, suggesting the thorny issue of whether panthers, lynxes and black leopards roam Scotland is being taken seriously by a number of government agencies.
Researchers obtained 86 pages of correspondence and images from Police Scotland, the Scottish Government and NatureScot under the Freedom of Information Act.
These include alarming reports of cattle killings where sheep carcasses were stripped of meat in a manner not unlike fox or bird attacks, and an officer who recorded three to four sightings of a big cat.
Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) recorded a description of a big cat ‘the size of a Labrador’ that killed 36 sheep between August 2015 and January 2016, described as ‘black or black/brown depending on the light’ and ‘panther/melanistic cheetah’.
In April 2019, the charity Scottish Wildcat Action was told of a ‘lynx type cat’ near Montrose.
‘The body was the size of my female black lab,’ said one email sender.
‘The cat’s hind legs and chest were much more defined and muscular, with a short tail, maybe four or five inches long, with small tufts of fur sticking out above the ears.’
In November 2018, experts found a sheep carcass dragged 20 yards into the ‘rock face’.
And a police officer told Scottish Wildcat Action of ‘numerous reports of big cat sightings and activity on the north coast’.
The officer said: ‘I was present when a sheep was brought from the hill with two puncture marks on the front of its right shoulder and two on the back. The wound was more than three inches away.’
Other bodies had ‘very large puncture marks in the bones’.
Andy McLachlan, 54, of Kirtomyr, carries the remains of a wild sheep, Sordley, near Bettyhill, North Sutherland, in 2012.
Mr McDonald, who has been mapping all reported big cat sightings in Scotland over the past five years, is not surprised.
‘We believe there have been fairly frequent sightings over the years but we only get a tiny proportion of them,’ he says.
‘In fact, we conservatively estimate in our mapping that no more than 1 to 5 per cent of all sights in Scotland can be documented and we have over 1,300 pinpoints on our map.’
It is a very big cat. Then again, when you consider that as of 2020, according to the charity Born Free, 320 wild cats are currently being kept, including 11 lions, eight tigers, 11 leopards, 18 pumas, ten cheetahs, two ligers (lion and tiger hybrids) and one jaguar, it seems possible that the British have some private cats. the countryside
‘There has always been an illegal trade in exotic species,’ Mr McDonald said. ‘I think it’s almost impossible to eradicate it completely. And as long as it exists, then the associated problems also exist with it.
‘If owners ever find themselves in a place where, financially or logistically, those big cats and animals become helpless, releasing them into the wild is a way to make them disappear quickly without actually destroying them.’
Dr. Mark Jones, head of policy at Born Free, agrees. ‘These figures may represent the tip of the iceberg,’ he says.
‘They only record animals that are being kept and registered with a dangerous wild animal licence. Born Free believes that too many dangerous wild animals are being kept without licences.’
Although sightings of big cats in Scottish gloom go back to the 1940s, there was a huge boom in the late 1970s following the Dangerous Wild Animals Act of 1976, which meant that licenses from local authorities were required to keep anything other than regular domestic pets.
Many big cat owners decide that instead of giving their animals to zoos or wildlife parks, they prefer to release them.
This was certainly the case with Felicity Puma, who was captured by a farmer near Drumnadrochit in 1980.
In 2005 police and animal welfare experts discovered footprints of a big cat in woodland near Balbirnie Park Golf Course in Fife.
For years the area was plagued with reports of a big cat killing sheep and even stalking Shetland sheep, until farmer Ted Noble, concerned about the threat to his cattle, set a trap to find out exactly what was going on.
But even he was surprised to find a full-grown live puma in it.
The puma is taken to the Highland Wildlife Park where it soon becomes clear that rather than a vicious wild animal, Felicity is clearly a pampered pet, accustomed to feasting on cooked food and enjoying pats on the head.
He died five years later at the age of 20, far beyond the lifespan of a wild puma, and was later stuffed and exhibited at the Inverness Museum and Art Gallery.
Ex-pet or not, however, one has to wonder: Do big cats roaming wild – and Mr MacDonald estimates that most sightings in Scotland are pumas, lynx and melanistic (very dark brown or black) leopards – pose a risk to the public?
‘There have never been any recorded cases of direct impact on humans with big cats,’ he says.
‘We believe this is because, in fact, the UK provides an ideal environment, a perfect, lush, beautiful, healthy environment with plenty of cover.
‘We think they are living comfortably enough. They are not desperate enough in terms of food shortages to see us as victims.
‘Big cats generally avoid human contact and avoid any animal that might perceive it as a threat. Because big cats can’t hunt if they are injured, which means they die.’
The makers of the documentary Pantherus Britannica Declassified, which documents suspected big cat attacks, say the threat has more to do with a lack of responsibility.
Any “concerns for public safety” related to loose big cats were met with a sense of reassurance from a detective inspector who said he was “pleased that there is no imminent risk to public safety if it is well-fed”, a spokesman for the documentary makers said.
‘But without reliable and accurate data on the number of big cats and how well they are fed, it can do little to reassure anyone.’
Indeed. And it would seem that any large cat population would be a threat to livestock. As well as the attacks detailed in the FOI papers, Mr McDonald said he had received reports of sheep and deer carcasses in trees.
Mr Macdonald says this is one reason he keeps the specifics of many of the major sightings reported to him confidential.
A mysterious beast believed to have destroyed 18 sheep was caught on camera near Embo in Ross-shire in 2011.
‘There are some gamekeepers and farmers who have made themselves known to us and made clear their intention that they would shoot. [a big cat] Sight.
‘We know of cats that have been shot and dumped on the ground and include black leopards and lynxes. Unfortunately, we have not yet recovered any of those remains for further evidence at this stage.’
Indeed, despite a lack of concrete evidence, Mr Macdonald also has a tantalizing theory about the lynx, believed to have become extinct in Scotland 1,300 years ago, whose controversial reintroduction proposal is currently at Holyrood. He believes the plans are obsolete, because the lynx is already here
‘I’ve already had a meeting with an MSP at Holyrood who is leading the debate on the Linux reintroduction, and the evidence we see so far presents an interesting picture, and one that could potentially change the question from a reintroduction to augmenting the current population,’ he says.
‘It’s one that counters any negative opposition to the whole idea of lynx returning to Scotland, which is largely based on fears that they will destroy the herd overnight.
‘But if they’re already here, the herds are doing just fine.’
It’s an intriguing thought, though it may annoy farmers and gamekeepers. Earlier this year, Martin Kennedy, president of the National Farmers’ Union of Scotland, called on Holyrood to reject any proposal to reintroduce the link, saying it was ‘a cause of considerable anger and concern for those who keep livestock in Scotland’.
And yet although concrete evidence remains thin, some big cat sightings have captured the public imagination over the years.
In 2007, the ‘Beast of Banff’, a large, panther-like black animal was seen walking by a holidaymaker and a local man over the Aberdeenshire town link.
In 2015, a dog walker on the outskirts of Galashiels saw a large black animal run past him which he described as ‘much bigger than my Labrador’ and with a long tail.
Six years ago, a local councilor spotted a panther-like cat at the edge of a forest in the same area. He claimed that he looked at it long enough to be sure that what he was seeing was a real big cat.
A possible big cat sighting in the Irvine area of Ayrshire in 2001
A large black cat was also seen in 2018 and 2020, 30 minutes down the road in Howick.
There have been many sightings of a big cat roaming the area in Angus over the past 20 years, particularly near Edgell, where witnesses have reported seeing a panther-like animal in nearby woodland.
One man even claimed to have encountered the creature lying on a wall on the side of the road in 2001.
However, not all sights pan out. In 2009 an off-duty police dog handler caught a ‘panther-sized’ cat roaming near a railway line in Helensburgh on video. It turned out to be an overgrown and well-fed domestic cat.
As for the Brydekirk sighting? When it was posted on a local social media page, it turned out that two villagers who saw something slithering along a field last week weren’t the only ones to encounter the creature.
‘I saw a big black cat in the field from the park a few months ago,’ wrote one local. ‘It looks bigger than a domestic cat but not as big as a medium/large dog.’
So is it a misidentification of another animal? Or more proof that there really are big cats in our countryside…
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