Unsolved:British big cats

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Short description: Reports of large non-native feline sightings in Britain
A sign requesting information on big cats in West Sussex.

In British folklore and urban legend, British big cats refers to the subject of reported sightings of non-native, typically large felids feral in the United Kingdom . Many of these creatures have been described as "panthers", "pumas" or "black cats".

There have been rare isolated incidents of recovered individual animals, often medium-sized species such as the Eurasian lynx, though in one 1980 case, a puma was captured alive in Scotland.[1] These are generally believed to have been escaped or released exotic pets that had been held illegally, possibly released after the animals became too difficult to manage or after the introduction of the Dangerous Wild Animals Act 1976.[2]

The existence of a population of "true big cats" in Britain, however, especially a breeding population, has been rejected by experts and the British government owing to a lack of convincing evidence for the presence of these animals.[3][4] Supposed sightings made from a distance have been largely written off as domestic cats close to the subject being misidentified as a larger animal sited farther away,[5][6] with one folklorist considering such sightings of creatures to be little more than a "media artifact" driven by British journalistic practices in the 1970s and 1980s[7] while another described it as the result of a situation where "media-generated interest encourages rumour, misinterpretation, and exaggeration".[8]

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

Reported sightings and attacks

Folklore and historical stories

A medieval Welsh poem Pa Gwr in the Black Book of Carmarthen 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.[9]

The New Forest folktale of the Stratford Lyon tells of how John de Stratford pulled a giant, red, antlered lion from the ground at South Baddesley in the New Forest in the year 1400. The story is first recorded in the marginalia of an 18th-century bible. In the late 20th century, sightings of the lion were recorded in the vicinity of the Red Lion Pub, Boldre.[10][page needed]

William Cobbett recalled in his Rural Rides how, as a boy in the 1760s, 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" (Canada lynx) "and it seemed to me to be just such a cat as I had seen at Waverley."[11]

Contemporary claims

Phantom sightings are common throughout much of the UK, with BBC Wildlife Magazine in 2006 reporting the "top ten" counties or regions of Great Britain where claims of sightings had been between April 2004 and July 2005 were as follows:[12]

Region Devon Yorkshire Scotland Wales Gloucestershire Sussex Cornwall Kent Somerset Leicestershire
Number of sightings 676 127 125 123 104 103 99 92 91 89

Since the early 2000s, there have been several claims by individuals in different parts of the UK of having suffered attacks at the hands of supposed big cats, though to date, no substantive evidence proving these were in fact attacks by a non-domestic species of cat. Examples of this include that of an eleven-year-old boy in Monmouthshire,[13] a man in southeast London,[14][15] a seventy-four-year-old woman in the Scottish Highlands,[16] and a man in Cornwall.[17]

Phantom big cats have also formed the basis of several local urban legends within the United Kingdom where unexplained animal deaths, typically livestock, would be blamed on such imagined creatures, such as the Beast of Bodmin Moor[18] and the Cotswolds Big Cat.[19] The search for physical "evidence" to support these claims has typically been found to have far more ordinary and less sensational origins. In the case of the Beast of Bodmin, when a skull found in the River Fowey was presented to the Natural History Museum as proof of its existence, it was found to have been cut from a leopard skin rug,[20][8] while in the case of the Cotswolds Big Cat, the only predator DNA that was found was of foxes.[21]

Beast of Exmoor

One particular instance of note of this phenomenon is the "Beast of Exmoor" (sometimes referred to as the "Exmoor Beast"). While stories about the Beast of Exmoor originally surfaced in a similar fashion to other local "big cat stories", with sightings of the creature reported as early as 1970,[20] the story came to national prominence in the United Kingdom in 1983 when a South Molton farmer named Eric Ley claimed to have lost over 100 sheep in the space of three months, all of them apparently killed by violent throat injuries.[22][23] The claim that these livestock had been killed by a mysterious beast led to "nationwide interest", with the Daily Express offering a substantial financial reward for video footage of the creature, while the government took the unusual step of deploying a team of Royal Marine snipers to hunt down (and presumably kill) the creature.[23][8][24]

Despite extensive media coverage and both professional and amateur hunting for the creature, which in one unfortunate case saw a cryptozoologist have to be rescued after spending two nights stuck in his own trap,[25] no large cat has ever been positively identified to explain such incidents as the 1983 livestock slayings, with them now being attributed to other causes such as large dogs.[26] Despite the lack of evidence, the Beast of Exmoor persists to some extent in the public imagination; alleged sightings continue to be reported occasionally around Exmoor long after an escaped exotic pet (such as a leopard or puma) would have died,[23][27][28] while one national newspaper reported a found carcass alleged to be the Beast of Exmoor that was later identified as a dead seal.[29] Beyond these rumors regarding the creature itself, it has been posited by one journalist that the lasting legacy of the urban legend may be as a mythological base that real-life wildlife stories such as the Emperor of Exmoor can reference.[30]

Proven captures and remains

This puma (Puma concolor) 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.
The Taxidermied remains of a jungle cat (Felis chaus) killed by a car on Hayling Island

A Canadian lynx shot in Devon in 1903 is now in the collection of the Bristol Museum. Analysis of its teeth suggests that prior to its death, it had spent a significant amount of time in captivity.[31]

In 1980, a puma was captured in Inverness-shire, Scotland, and was subsequently put into the Highland Wildlife Park zoo, being given the name "Felicity". Zoo director Eddie Orbell concluded that the animal had been tamed and might not have been released for long, noting that it enjoyed being tickled.[32]

On two separate occasions, jungle cats have been found dead after being hit by a car, with the most accepted theory being that these are individuals escaped from private ownership.[33]

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.[5][34]

In a well-reported 2001 case ("the Beast of Barnet"), 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.[35][36] The captured lynx was found to be only 18 months old, although considerably larger than an average domestic cat.[5]

In 2006, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has published a list of predatory cats typically kept as exotic pets that they know to have escaped in the United Kingdom, although most of these have been recaptured.[37]

See also


  1. Strachan, Graeme (28 October 2020). "Big cats: The hunt for the puma caught roaming the Highlands in 1980" (in en-US). https://www.pressandjournal.co.uk/fp/nostalgia/2591020/big-cats-the-hunt-for-the-puma-caught-roaming-the-highlands-in-1980/. 
  2. "Essex lion: Charting the big cats of Britain". BBC News. 28 August 2012. https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-england-19397320. 
  3. Wilding, Mark (14 April 2019). "On the trail of Britain's wild big cats". The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/global/2019/apr/14/britains-big-cats-are-pumas-running-wild-or-is-it-our-imagination. "A spokeswoman for the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (Defra) said: “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.”" 
  4. Franklin, Adrian (2016). "Far from the madding crowd: Big cats on Dartmoor and in Dorset, UK". in Hurn, Samantha. Anthropology and Cryptozoology. Routledge. ISBN 978-1315567297. "According to recent accounts by social scientists and environmentalists (widely supported by scientists and governmental agencies), most claims and beliefs about the presence of so-called ‘alien big cats’ (henceforth big cats) in Britain are largely imagined fantasies, social constructions and media-driven hysterias (Buller 2004; 2009; Monbiot 2013)." 
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 Hambling, David (19 July 2001). "It's a lion... no it's a cat". The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/science/2001/jul/19/highereducation.education. 
  6. "The mystery of Britain's alien big cats" (in en). https://theweek.com/articles/444317/mystery-britains-alien-big-cats. 
  7. Goss, Michael (1992). "Alien Big Cat Sightings in Britain: A Possible Rumour Legend?". Folklore 103 (2): 184–202. doi:10.1080/0015587X.1992.9715841. ISSN 0015-587X. https://www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/1260889.pdf. 
  8. 8.0 8.1 8.2 Simpson, Jacqueline; Roud, Stephen (2000) (in en). A Dictionary of English Folklore. Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-210019-1. https://books.google.com/books?id=iTcdvd1iRXsC&q=exmoor&pg=PT17. 
  9. "Arthur and the Porter". http://www.maryjones.us/ctexts/bbc31.html. 
  10. Lyndhurst (1989). History of the Red Lion Boldre. Christopher Tower Reference Library. 
  11. Cobbett, William (2001). Rural Rides. London: Penguin. p. 204. ISBN 978-0-14043-579-5. 
  12. BBC Wildlife Magazine. April 2006. 
  13. "Police 'big cat' warning". BBC News. 25 August 2000. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/wales/895643.stm. 
  14. "'Big cat' attacks man in garden". BBC News. 22 March 2005. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/england/london/4370893.stm. 
  15. Davenport, Justin (22 March 2005). "Hunt for 'beast of Sydenham'". Evening Standard (London). https://www.standard.co.uk/news/hunt-for-beast-of-sydenham-7249671.html. 
  16. "Expert tears into cat conspiracy". BBC News Online. 29 December 2008. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/scotland/highlands_and_islands/7802874.stm. 
  17. "Man swiped at by 'panther-like' big cat in Cornwall". itv.com. 18 January 2019. https://www.itv.com/news/westcountry/2019-01-18/man-swiped-at-by-panther-like-big-cat-in-cornwall/. 
  18. "HI-tech search for Beast of Bodmin". BBC News. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/518673.stm. 
  19. Morris, Steven (2012-01-16). "Cotswolds big cat speculation mounts as second dead deer found" (in en-GB). The Guardian. ISSN 0261-3077. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2012/jan/16/cotswolds-big-cat-deer-dead. 
  20. 20.0 20.1 Regal, Brian (2009) (in en). Pseudoscience: A Critical Encyclopedia. ABC-CLIO. p. 21. ISBN 978-0-313-35508-0. https://books.google.com/books?id=c6PACQAAQBAJ&pg=PA21. 
  21. "No evidence for Cotswolds 'big cat'" (in en-GB). BBC News. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/av/uk-16849307. 
  22. Channing, Iain (2016). "Post-PACE: Police and Policing in the South West Timeline" (in en). University of Plymouth. p. 3. https://pearl.plymouth.ac.uk/handle/10026.1/14214. 
  23. 23.0 23.1 23.2 "The mystery of Britain's alien big cats", The Week, January 8, 2015
  24. "Big cats in Britain: in pictures". https://www.telegraph.co.uk/expat/expatpicturegalleries/9504485/Big-cats-in-Britain-in-pictures.html?frame=2321896. 
  25. Monbiot, George (2017). Feral: Rewilding the Land, the Sea, and Human Life. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press. p. 54. ISBN 9780226325279. https://books.google.com/books?id=CC-OBAAAQBAJ&dq=%22beast+of+exmoor%22&pg=PA54. 
  26. Eberhart, George M. (2002). Mysterious Creatures: A Guide to Cryptozoology. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO. ISBN 1576072835. 
  27. "Pumas and cougars guide: what's the difference between them, where do they live and what do they eat?" (in en). https://www.discoverwildlife.com/animal-facts/mammals/facts-about-cougars/. 
  28. "Leopard Fact Sheet | Blog | Nature | PBS" (in en-US). 2021-04-15. https://www.pbs.org/wnet/nature/blog/leopard-fact-sheet/. 
  29. Monbiot, George (2017). Feral: Rewilding the Land, the Sea, and Human Life. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press. p. 56. ISBN 9780226325279. https://books.google.com/books?id=CC-OBAAAQBAJ&dq=%22beast+of+exmoor%22&pg=PA56. 
  30. Charles, Alec (2012). "Deer departed: a study of the news coverage of the death of the Exmoor Emperor". Journalism Education 1 (1): 56. https://journalism-education.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/04/1-1-Deer-Departed.pdf. 
  31. Morelle, Rebecca (25 April 2013). "'Big cat' Canadian lynx was on the loose in UK in 1903". BBC News. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-22263874. 
  32. McAllister, Bill. "Was it really a leopard that was spotted?". The Inverness Courier. http://www.inverness-courier.co.uk/Opinion/Bill-McAllister/Was-it-really-a-leopard-that-was-spotted-06052011.htm. 
  33. Naish, Darren (17 March 2013). "Meeting the Hayling Island Jungle cat". Tetrapod Zoology. https://tetzoo.com/blog/2022/3/23/meeting-the-hayling-island-jungle-cat. 
  34. "'Big cat' sightings (FOI request)". http://www.psni.police.uk/big_cat_sightings.pdf. 
  35. Hewett, Chris (11 March 2014). "What became of the 'Beast of Barnet'? Times Series investigation reveals Cricklewood lynx Lara's legacy lives on". http://www.thisislocallondon.co.uk/news/11068162.What_became_of_the__Beast_of_Barnet___Times_Series_investigation_reveals_lynx_s_legacy_lives_on/. 
  36. O'Neill, Sean (9 May 2001). "The Beast of Cricklewood is caged". The Daily Telegraph. https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/1329632/The-Beast-of-Cricklewood-is-caged.html. 
  37. "Reports received by Defra of escapes of non-native cats in the U.K. 1975 to present day". http://www.defra.gov.uk/wildlife-countryside/vertebrates/reports/exotic-cat-escapes.pdf.