Leopards and other big cats ARE on the loose in Britain - just don't tell a soul
By Mark Fletcher
Last updated at 11:42 PM on 28th May 2010
Last updated at 11:42 PM on 28th May 2010
My worst fears nearly became a chilling reality last week when two girls, Kim Howells, 15, and her cousin Sophie Gwynne, eight, were stalked in the Forest of Dean in Gloucestershire - by what appears to have been a huge black cat.
Kim described the ‘panther’ as about the size of a Great Dane. ‘We cut through the brambles and just started running,’ she reported afterwards.
When they arrived home, their feet were cut and bleeding. Sophie was in tears. But what really brought this strange case home to me was the fact that if they had come to any real harm, I would have felt responsible.
On the prowl: Leopards have been spotted in many parts of the British countryside
For six months earlier, I had visited the same spot near Cinderford while making a TV film about leopards around the world, including a short section about the (I thought unlikely) possibility of them living in the UK.
In the end, fearful of causing public alarm, I chose not to use any of the extraordinary evidence I gathered. But the encounter of the two girls last week has convinced me that might have been a mistake. Indeed, I have come to the conclusion that it is time to tell the full, disturbing story.
For the truth is I may well know the ‘mythical’ beast that chased them. Danny Nineham, the region’s local big cat enthusiast, showed me evidence of its existence when I was there last autumn. And it’s a black leopard — nicknamed Boris.
‘He’s huge, even for a male leopard,’ Nineham told me. ‘I’ve recorded many sightings of him. He’s dangerous, in my view. More so than any of the other leopards living and breeding wild in the Forest of Dean, or around the country.’
Leopards in Britain? Surely not. At least, that’s what I used to think. But after going on the trail of Britain’s big cats, I’ve discovered that they’re much more than late-night campfire tales.
There’s never been a shortage of reported sightings.
Nineham works with the authorities, logging the details. He collects possible hair and droppings samples, makes plaster casts of suspected paw prints, and sets up camera traps, all in the hope he can prove once and for all that Britain is stalked by big cats.
At night he’s out in the woods, hunter chasing hunter. During the day, he tries to warn people about the possible dangers - warnings few take seriously.
Stalked; Kim Howells (left) and Sophie Gwynne rushed home after spotting a big cat in the Forest of Dean, Gloucestershire
When we started filming the segment on British leopards, we expected it to be slightly tongue-in-cheek. I’d met a few big cat hunters around Dartmoor years earlier, and they were mainly colourful eccentrics.
One enthusiast put out a large cage trap, baited with dead pheasants. He was inside, checking the mechanism, when the cage door slammed shut. He was trapped for several days, eating the pheasants.
Much of their evidence came from sheep carcasses - and there were plenty of fakes.
‘I found a very large cat canine tooth in one mauled sheep,’ one veterinary pathologist told me. ‘It came from a tiger skin rug!’
Indeed, we planned to interview Nineham as one of these eccentric believers and had lined up the wildlife liaison officer at Gloucestershire police, Mark Robson, to balance his claims.
Amazingly, however, he did no such thing. In fact, as I listened gobsmacked, Robson told me that most big cat sightings really are of leopards, and that there are enough eyewitness reports to follow individual animals’ movements on a map.
Then he took a deep breath - in preparation for his bombshell. Around Stroud, he says, there are many disused railway lines and cuttings full of caves, and here, enough eyewitness evidence has been found to convince him that the leopards are raising cubs.
Astonished my ‘sceptic’ had turned out to be anything but, I contacted Dr Gary Mantle, head of the Wiltshire Wildlife Trust.
The local papers there run occasional stories about big cat sightings, and several villages, including Lacock, have had beasts of their own.
I told Mantle, who has earlier dismissed reports of a Wiltshire full of beasts, about what I had heard in Gloucestershire, and he became very serious indeed.
‘I have never said this before,’ he said, ‘but we get enough credible sightings for me to believe we have leopards in Wiltshire, too.
'I must urge you not to tell this story. There is no positive outcome. The leopards would be hunted down.’
It appeared that what had started out as a sceptical investigation into some long-held but rather eccentric beliefs had led me to a very unlikely conclusion: that Britain really is stalked by predatory big cats.
But how could these foreign felines have got here?
I discovered that private menageries filled with leopards, pumas, bears and cheetahs had once been considered the ultimate accessory.
In fact, my grandparents, living near Farnham, in Surrey, in the Thirties, had bought a bear from Harrods, but found it didn’t play nicely with their toddler, my mother. The receipt, my mother remembered, read: ‘Harrods. One bear — returned.’
But many exotic pets, it seems, were not returned to the shop, but to the wild, or rather the local countryside.
Sightings of large cats in Britain have increased since the 18th century. But from 1976, when the law regulating private zoos and exotic pets was tightened, they skyrocketed. The majority these days are of large black cats - most probably black leopards.
There is no doubt that leopards, and to some extent pumas, can survive almost anywhere. Indeed, if leopards can cope with Siberian winters, survive by eating rats on Indonesian rice paddies, or stray dogs in Mumbai and Beijing, they can live in rural England.
They will also find mates, even where individuals normally live hundreds of miles apart.
There are 1,000 big cat sightings a year in the UK. In Kent alone, expert Neil Arnold has been told of over 100 sightings this year.
In areas where leopards are known to live in relatively low numbers, such as China, there are rarely many sightings. Often none at all. The evidence that Britain may have its own population of leopards was mounting.
Survival of the fittest: Leopards, including this snow leopard, have adapted to climates right around the globe
But as I came close to finishing my film, I was left with a dilemma. If I announced that leopards really were thriving in rural Britain, who knows what the reaction would be. Would there be panic? Would vigilantes and poachers hunt them down?
I opted for a more muted conclusion, saying that while some believed there were a few leopards living undercover, it all sounded rather like a tall story. Meanwhile, my private, more shocking conclusion was filed away. Case closed.
Until last week, when I realised it was in everyone’s interest to know more about the extraordinary animals living in our midst.
So why hasn’t the existence of big cats been proved before? Well, many big cat enthusiasts complain of a conspiracy, even a cover-up. Certainly officials have traditionally erred on the side of caution.
In March, Natural England published a Government report of all sightings of exotic species sent to them. Their official conclusion is that big cats do not roam Britain.
But there are also stories of strange road kills being removed by police, and clues that DEFRA and others were afraid that Freedom of Information requests would reveal they knew more than they had admitted.
A year ago, it was an FOI request that uncovered two very credible sightings of a big cat by rangers in the Forest of Dean. And then there are the sheer number of prank or mistaken sightings that muddy the
Many suspected sightings, after all, tend to be domestic cats, mangy foxes, even stuffed toys.
As eminent mammal expert Professor Stephen Harris told me: ‘Black always looks bigger in the dark.’
But the truth is that the British countryside is filled with strange animals.Indeed, pets are living wild in huge numbers. There are parrots, pythons, crocodiles and capybaras. So why not leopards?
Determined to find out more, I joined big cat enthusiasts Rick Minter and Frank Tunbridge during one of their regular talks. The village hall where they were speaking, in Chalford, near Stroud, was packed, with standing room only.
The talk was of local sightings, and leopard and puma biology. Then they invited questions and comments. One after another, people stood up and said they had seen a big cat. No, it couldn’t have been a large domestic cat, or a dog.
In many cases, several people had seen it at once. It seemed to me we had more sightings in one village than Natural England had collected in nine years across the country.
Rick then asked everyone what should be done. The great majority said to leave the cats alone, that they are not dangerous. Some said they should be investigated, but not one said they should be removed.
Later, he sent me a report from the same area, of a big cat chasing a fox across the common sometime after the meeting. And slowly, I began to find more serious scientific evidence, too.
There are 1,000 big cat sightings a year in the UK. In Kent alone, expert Neil Arnold has been told of over 100 sightings this year
I found Durham Police Inspector Eddie Ball, who had kept lynx of his own and knew big cats well. He had recognised clues on a sheep kill, and finding some nearby droppings, had sent them off to expert Dr Hans Kruuk, who confirmed they were from a puma or leopard.
I also learnt that in 2003, The Bio Sciences Lab, in Essex, confirmed a batch of hair sent in by Nigel Pound of Lincolnshire Police belonged to a member of the big cat family. A lab in the U.S. supported their conclusion.
The hairs had been collected after a family had seen a large cat and called the police. Their caravan was stormed by an armed unit, and although the cat had scarpered, the hairs were found, bagged, and sent to the lab. Extraordinary indeed.
So why has so much tantalising evidence been kept secret? It’s certainly in the interests of the authorities to keep the truth under lock and key.
Leopards and lynxes are alien and potentially dangerous. If their presence is confirmed, Natural England and DEFRA may have to spend valuable time and money finding and culling them. This would be both difficult and controversial.
There is also the fear that farmers might start putting out poison, or claiming compensation. I remembered Gary Mantle urging me not to reveal the existence of leopards, however convincing the evidence.
I have to agree with him, the last thing we want is conclusive proof, telling us where and when these creatures appear in precise detail. Our record of living with large animals, however rare and beautiful, is not good.
But I do think that we should be aware that these extraordinary animals are probably out there, somewhere. And it is right that people such as those two little girls should know what they might meet on a Sunday walk.
They almost certainly pose no real threat, but it won’t hurt us to know that there are bigger beasts out there than foxes and badgers.
So, if you feel like you’re being watched at dusk, and the hairs on the back of your neck start to rise, listen to your instincts. Perhaps an ancient scent has caught your nostrils.
Don’t panic. Turn, and look very carefully around you. You may see nothing - or you may see a mother leopard slinking away with her cubs.
Either way, the British countryside will have become a considerably more magical place.