Big Cats at large in the UK

Something I haven’t done much work with lately, but which has formed a large part of my adult life, popped back over the horizon yesterday when I did an interview for BBC Three Counties Radio. It covers the phenomenon of big predatory cats at large in the British countryside.

During the 1960s and 1970s it became a fashion for a small minority of well-off citizens in the UK to keep dangerous or exotic animals as pets and status symbols. Most common here were species of big cat. As time wore on, the authorities decided to clamp down on this trend – in part because of the number of escapes, where large predators began to eat domestic livestock and more ‘normal’ household pets. As a result the British government introduced the 1976 Dangerous Wild Animals Act. This does several things – it designates the species covered, for example large carnivores, dangerous reptiles and venomous arthropods. It states that keeping such animals without a licence is unlawful and that the authorities are also allowed to specify where and how the animal is to be kept. This Act also requires keepers to have their animals covered by a satisfactory liability insurance policy.

When the Act was made law, many owners of such creatures simply released them into the ‘wild’ (bearing in mind that there are few truly ‘wild’ areas in Britain) – for example Salisbury Plain, Exmoor, the Yorkshire Moors and the Scots Highlands. This is especially true of the owners of large cats – leopards, pumas, jaguars, lynx, Bengal cats and so on. The majority of these particular animals survived by eating local small prey animals; rabbits, pigeons, domestic pets and livestock, deer etc. It is of course these individuals that have given rise to tales of the ‘Beast of Exmoor’ and its ilk. Often belonging to very adaptable species, they proved able to fit into the British ecosystem vey well and it is highly likely that many survived through adulthood and died natural deaths. Few, certainly, were killed by humans; even the Royal Marines, mobilised onto Exmoor with night vision gear, couldn’t find any to shoot.

Many of the cats in question reached breeding age – but in the ‘normal’ wild they would be able to find partners with whom to reproduce – this would be less easy in the UK with a tiny population at large. As a result, one would expect the number of sightings to tail off, as the cats reached old age and died (leopards typically live to around 15 years old). However there have been sightings of large cats in pairs – most notably at least two sightings (one by a car full of police officers) near York in the 2000s. It is possible, therefore, that there has been some breeding by these ‘British Big Cats’, and that we are now dealing with the second generation of cats which are now reaching maturity. Sadly this generation will probably be the last, as the population will continue to diminish in size.

Until work and travel took me abroad, I was fairly active in researching this area, travelling up and down the UK; tracking the cats, helping farmers deal with their presence on agricultural land, and advising interested parties on the situation. One thing I always refused to do was help hunters track and kill the animals – in my view they are happy minding their own business and we should leave them alone. I encountered some myself, a black leopard at close quarters in rural land outside Salisbury, and also a second one, a mountain lion or cougar on farmland outside York. On each occasion the cat fled the scene once discovered.

At any rate, sightings of the cats reach a peak annually in late summer, as daylight hours are long and this coincides with the harvest and the sudden removal of much of the long cereal crop cover that the cats use when moving through their territory. Sure enough, periodically I am called in late summer and early autumn by various reporters wanting a soundbyte about cat sightings. This proved the case yesterday when BBC 3 Counties radio gave me a bell and asked for thoughts about sightings of a possible large cat in Silsoe (and near Flitwick Woods) in Bedfordshire. I ended up chatting about it on air.

If anyone does run across such creatures, I’d welcome an email about it 🙂

Anyway I’m driving to Oman this weekend so back to the present 🙂


2 thoughts on “Big Cats at large in the UK

  1. It’s been a while, however when I was living in Scotland I used to drive from Aboyne to Aberdeen Airport regularly in the early hours of the morning. I saw a black big cat (black leopard at a guess) crossing the road in front of me. Not yet full daylight but still light enough to be sure. It was close to one of the “wilder” bits if country on this road, which is not particularly populated. I am sure that it was a big cat – at this point I’d lived in Africa and SE Asia and had some familiarity with wildlife. Furthermore – a colleague who lived in a remote cottage in the same area had also seen a black big cat in his garden one day. More data, I hope of some use.

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