There is no doubt in Anne Terranova’s mind. There wasn’t at the time and there hasn’t been since. It was just after noon on a cold Wednesday in December. Anne and a friend were making their way up a hill above Nailsworth, in Gloucestershire, where she’s lived for the past eight years. The trees had long lost their leaves, granting glorious views back over the valley. This was a route Anne had taken once or twice before, one of many local walks she’d been ticking off since taking a part-time job at a building society. After 25 years as a primary school teacher, the job was a last stop on the way to a well-earned retirement. Reaching the top of the hill, the two women stopped to catch their breath, turning back to admire the scenery. As they did, Anne’s friend gestured down the hill. There, at the bottom of the field sloping gently away from them, was a large animal padding slowly alongside a wooden fence towards a patch of woodland. It was sleek, a dark sandy brown colour, roughly the size of a Labrador, with a long tail that looped upwards. “What on earth is that?” said Anne’s friend. “That,” Anne replied, without taking her eyes off the animal, “is a very large cat.”
Anne watched enthralled as the creature swiftly and gracefully disappeared into the trees. When she arrived home later that afternoon, she searched online for images of mountain lions. The pictures were an exact match. When she described her experience on a local Facebook group, the post accrued dozens of comments. “Had you been to the pub?” asked one, mockingly. But other Nailsworth locals reported similar sightings of their own. One resident warned: “People might laugh, but wait until you see one.”
For decades, reports of big cats have surfaced all over Britain – from Crystal Palace to Cornwall to Carlisle. There have been 155 big cat sightings reported to UK police forces in the past three years, according to forces responding to FOI requests. There are likely many more never recorded. Local newspapers publish dozens of eyewitness reports every year, and have helped to firmly establish certain creatures – the Surrey Puma, the Beast of Exmoor – in local legend.
Where might these cats have come from? One theory suggests they were released by their owners in the months leading up to the 1976 Dangerous Wild Animals Act. Exotic animals had been sold in Harrods; cheetahs could occasionally be seen being walked in Hyde Park. Given the choice of acquiring a costly licence or relinquishing their pets to animal sanctuaries, at least some owners chose a third option: sending cats out into the wild. In 2000, Leslie Maiden, a lion tamer known as One-Eyed Nick, told the Birmingham Post he’d released a panther and a puma in Derbyshire some 25 years before. “At first I was a bit worried about how they would get on,” he said. “But I went up to the moors a few weeks later and saw bones of sheep and pheasants, so I think they adapted pretty well.”
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On several occasions, big cat sightings have caused sufficient concern to prompt major official investigations. In 1983, following reports that a mystery predator had killed more than 100 sheep in Exmoor, a team of Royal Marines was deployed to the area, but failed to catch a cat. In 1995, after nearly 20 years of sightings of the Beast of Bodmin, Ministry of Agriculture officials spent six months examining eyewitness reports, video recordings and plaster casts of footprints, concluding there was “no verifiable evidence” of the presence of a big cat.
Nowadays the government is sceptical about British big cats. 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.”
On a windy Thursday afternoon in January, I stood alongside Rick Minter at Coaley Peak, in Gloucestershire, and looked out across the River Severn towards the Forest of Dean. It was a few weeks after Anne Terranova’s mountain lion sighting in Nailsworth, just a few miles away. Minter was unsurprised: he’s heard dozens of similar reports over the years. Gloucestershire has emerged as a hotspot for big cat sightings, and Minter pointed out several locations where big cats had been spotted. “It’s absolutely ongoing,” he said of witness reports. “I think it’s reasonable to say there are several territories around.”
Minter is almost certainly Britain’s leading big cat consultant, a role for which there is surprising demand. After 20 years working for the government in countryside planning and wildlife management, he now spends much of his time following up cat sightings, advising landowners on how they should deal with suspected panthers and leopards. Minter doesn’t charge for his advice, reasoning that the information he receives in return is payment enough. Several times a year he attends rural shows, two lifesize stuffed big cats in tow, soliciting witness reports and gauging public perceptions of the big cat phenomenon.
The big cat community attracts eccentric characters. Danny Bamping, founder of the British Big Cats Society, is a puzzle inventor and Dragon s’ Den contestant who once tried to launch a political party named None of the Above. The Centre for Fortean Zoology studies British big cats alongside mythical creatures, such as Bigfoot and the Loch Ness monster. Countless amateur researchers spend weekends traipsing the countryside, checking motion-sensor cameras for footage of elusive creatures. One tracker allegedly spent a cold couple of nights in Exmoor surviving on raw pheasant, after getting stuck in his own trap.
By contrast, Minter is measured, methodical and professional. His work occasionally attracts ridicule, but he enjoys challenging people’s preconceptions. “We’re not a bunch of nutters, deluded, pushing some cranky nonsense,” he said. Witnesses are often relieved to find someone who believes what they’ve seen. Minter is keen to stress he evaluates each report thoroughly. “We have to be careful we’re not gullible. Whatever the circumstances of the report, we are thinking: does it tick the boxes?” Around a third of the time, he’s just not sure. “People don’t want that response,” he said. “But you’ve got to be honest.”
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It was in 2000 when, taking a break from a meeting at a rural hotel, he spotted a large black cat strolling through the grounds. He describes the experience matter-of-factly. Over time, he began to wonder: “How does it live its life? Is it one vagrant cat? Did it grow up here?” As Minter investigated, his fascination grew, and he realised there were few others taking the subject seriously. He left his government job in 2005, but retains the serious air of a public official, choosing words carefully and presenting both sides of every story. “I see this as just a form of countryside management,” he said of his big cat work. In 2011 he published a book. “It may seem audacious to propose big cat territory throughout Britain, but I am not alone,” he wrote. “There are many closet followers of these mystery animals and yes, we do keep pinching ourselves.”
On the eveningafter I accompanied him to Coaley Peak, Minter stood before an audience of around 70 people at the Old Flying Club café in nearby Nympsfield. He was joined by Frank Tunbridge, his frequent research partner and the perfect foil to Minter’s academic persona, with the rugged appearance of a man used to sleeping under the stars and a knack for telling stories as if huddled around a campfire. As Minter kept a firm hand on proceedings, Tunbridge chipped in to share witness reports. More than once he broke out into full-throated imitations of big cat cries.
Asked who among them had seen a big cat in Britain, around one in five audience members raised their hands. Minter presented a slideshow of photos from phones and trail cameras, featuring a series of blurred black creatures. “You guys must think we’re desperate to present this,” he said. “Obviously we want the perfect picture and these are rubbish, really, but we think these are big cats…” On the sidelines, Tunbridge could be heard wondering aloud: “But what else could they be?”
Tunbridge recalled a story of a woman who was walking her dog in woods nearby. “Suddenly she looked up. A big black cat was following her from tree to tree,” he said, with dramatic flair. “When she moved, it moved. When she stopped, it stopped. She said she was absolutely terrified.” Eventually, a lorry on a nearby road scared the cat away. Minter had spoken to the woman and believed her story checked out. “She was in touch with us for two weeks after because she couldn’t sleep and we were the only people who believed it.”
At the end of the evening, a woman in the front row raised her hand. “Say we found ourselves in a situation like the lady with her dog, and the cat’s stalking you…what would be the best thing to do?” she asked. “Don’t act as prey, is the key thing,” said Minter, gravely. “They’re looking for you to submit. Do not submit.” Tunbridge agreed: “Whatever you do, don’t run.” He conceded this might be difficult advice to follow. “Everyone I’ve known who’s seen one, they’ve turned round and skedaddled back to the car as fast as possible.” Minter added, with a note of regret: “And they’ve then said to Frank or me, ‘We realised then we shouldn’t have run, but we did.’”
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There’s little doubt that Britain has occasionally been home to wild big cats, if only for brief periods. In 1903 the body of a Canadian lynx was donated to Bristol Museum; the museum’s records indicate the animal was shot and killed after attacking two dogs in Devon. In 1980 a Scottish farmer trapped a puma in Cannich, in the Highlands. The animal was given the name Felicity, and lived at a wildlife park for five years before being stuffed and displayed in Inverness Museum. In 2009 the Forestry Commission revealed it had observed big cats on two occasions while conducting deer surveys in the Forest of Dean.
Minter believes there is much more to the big cat phenomenon than these isolated incidents, and thinks a minimum of 250 cats would provide a healthy gene pool. “I think it’s reasonable to suggest we’ve got our 250; it may be more than that.” Britain might even be home to a new big cat subspecies. “In an isolated population, things can change very rapidly, and nature can take a burst forward. That is scientifically really bloody interesting.”
But where is the proof? Minter points out that sightings are rare even in countries where pumas and panthers exist in far greater numbers. He claims to have seen conclusive photos, though the evidence has been withheld from publication by landowners reluctant to attract publicity. There are other lines of inquiry. Dr Andrew Hemmings, a researcher at the Royal Agricultural University, has for several years been conducting analysis of bite marks on animal carcasses. In 2016 he told the BBC: “When considered alongside the wealth of reliable witness reports, the tooth pit data points to the presence of carnivores bigger than those indigenous to the UK.”
In the weeks after Minter’s talk at the Old Flying Club, news of several more sightings emerged. A man in Cornwall claimed he was attacked by a panther as it tried to climb through his window. In Gloucestershire, a Liberal Democrat councillor spotted a lynx at Coaley Peak, just a few hundred yards from the spot where Minter and I had looked out over the vale. “It was not my imagination,” Ken Tucker told Gloucestershire Live. “I managed to see it quite close up. I believe in big cats being in the area.”
David Clarke, of Sheffield Hallam University and an expert in British folklore, has noted that, in its reliance almost entirely on witness reports, the big cat phenomenon shares similarities with reports of UFOs. Clarke believes the number of sightings far outweighs the number of cats that could feasibly be running wild. “People believe it because they want something magic back in their environment,” he says. Likewise, writing in his 2013 book Feral, the writer and environmentalist George Monbiot dismissed the notion that big cats inhabit Britain in any significant number. “Certain paranormal phenomena afflict every society, and these phenomena appear to reflect our desires; desires of which we may not be fully conscious,” he wrote. For Monbiot, British big cats exist only in our minds, reflecting an “unexpressed wish for lives wilder and fiercer than those we now lead”. Minter is in no doubt the cats exist, but offers a remarkably similar view. In his own book, he wrote: “Perhaps our recognition of the cats is as much about the rediscovery of our wild side, the power of our senses when they brush with something elemental.”
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It’s possible that the hunt for Britain’s big cats may never be resolved. In 1995 the authors of the official investigation into the Beast of Bodmin conceded, “it would never be possible to prove that an exotic ‘big cat’ was not present”. Like the protagonist of Schrödinger’s famous thought experiment, British big cats inhabit a contradictory state, their existence both imagined and real. Regardless of whether or not they are roaming wild in any great number, it is intriguing to wonder why so many of us want them to be.
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