Could big cats be roaming the UK?

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1. Big cats in the UK: Fact or fiction?

Nothing captures the imagination quite like the possibility of big exotic cats living wild in the UK. The video above shows just some of the more recent alleged sightings of mysterious large cats.

Many have been debunked as hoaxes or misidentifications, but there are a few of the 2,000 or so that are recorded every year that remain as mysteries. Many groups are gathering data around the UK to try to help explain strange goings on near them. Recent scientific studies are also adding weight to the argument that something – or some things – may be out there.

And with calls to reintroduce the once native Eurasian lynx, is the idea that large cats could be roaming the UK that far-fetched?

2. The cats that once roamed Britain

It wouldn't be the first time big cats have roamed the UK. Click/tap on the individual labels to find out more about the sometimes large and ferocious felines once found on our shores.

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Image credits: Cave lion, European jaguar and Homotherium (c) Roman Uchytel / prehistoric-fauna.com, Swamp cat: Ashish & Shanthi Chandola / naturepl.com, Eurasian lynx: Lassi Rautiainen / naturepl.com

3. Fakes, mistakes and mysteries

Heard of the 'Hampshire tiger' that turned out to be a cuddly toy? Or maybe the 'Essex lion' that was actually a large domestic cat? Take a look at some of the fakes, mistakes and mysterious cats seen in the UK.

Frame grab of Beast of Bodmin by Colin Shepherd in Oct'93 (credit: Colin Shepherd / SWNS)

The fabled Beast of Bodmin Moor has certainly captured our imaginations over the years. An investigation into a 1993 video recording concluded the animal was not more than 12in (30cm) at the shoulder.

Elvis

SWNS

Stuffed white tiger sparks police alert (Credit: Solent News/REX)

In 2011, a cuddly toy sparked a police helicopter hunt. The alert was raised when members of the public thought they’d seen a live tiger in a field near the M27 motorway in Southampton, Hampshire.

REX

Solent News / REX

The "Epping panther" cuddly toy (Credit: City of London / Christine Brassey)

Another stuffed toy made the news in December 2013. Christine Brassey, a keeper at City of London's Epping Forest site, spotted something unusual in the trees, which turned out to be a toy sneakily placed by fly tippers.

City of London, Epping Forest

Christine Brassey

This photograph was taken in 2007 in Derbyshire. The larger stones in the wall are approximately 7in wide. Using this as a scale, that makes the cat at least 18in high and 3ft long excluding its tail, excessively big for a domestic cat.

www.bigcatmonitors.co.uk

Philip Grey

This black cat was photographed by Sharon Larkin as dusk approached in 2014, near the Scottish / English border. Some allege its appearance means it is also unlikely to be a domestic cat.

Rick Minter

Sharon Larkin

4. Tracks and signs of cats

Cats by their very nature are difficult to spot.

As ambush predators they are sleek, stealthy and slip into the background. Many cats are crepuscular – active at dawn and dusk – and some hunt under the cover of darkness, so even catching a glimpse of them in their natural habitat is hard. However, animals leave traces that they've been in an area – if you know what you're looking for.

Paw prints

One of the most common ways to try to identify an animal is by the tracks it leaves behind. Paw prints are easier to spot in mud, sand or snow, although prints from large cat species are usually very difficult to differentiate from domestic dog prints.

Scrapes

Scent is a very important means of communicating for cats. Many of them mark their territories with 'scrapes' – shallow hollows they make with their back paws – which they then scent mark into as a means of passing on information about themselves, such as their sex and whether they are looking for a mate.

Droppings

Poo, or scat as it is also known, is another potential sign that can reveal what type of animal has been in an area. A dropping from a wild exotic cat is identifiable from domestic dogs by the fact it contains large amounts of fur. They also tend to be noticeably larger than other wild carnivore scat, such as a fox's.

Scratching posts

Just like domestic cats, large cats use scratching posts as both a visual and a scent message to other cats in the area, as there are glands on the cat’s feet which leave scent behind... only they tend to use large trees rather than ones specially bought from pet shops!

5. The secrets of bones

Research being conducted at the Royal Agricultural University, Cirencester is beginning to unravel the secrets held within the bones of animals killed by unexplained predators.

Ben Garrod looks at some interesting results with Dr Andrew Hemmings, whose recent carnassial tooth pit analysis on bones from sheep and deer carcasses points toward 'probable consumption' by an as yet unidentified 'medium-sized felid'.

6. Could a long lost cat return?

Eurasian lynx disappeared from the UK roughly 1,300 years ago. However, the Lynx UK Trust believe they could be part of Britain's wildlife once again. They are carefully assessing reintroduction sites that would be suitable for the cats and the native wildlife, but also for local residents and livestock farmers.

The team would act as a centre point for monitoring and support of the population and are seeking government backing for their plans. Some groups are in favour of the return of the lynx. However, others have concerns that the cats may ultimately come into conflict with either humans, livestock and rare or endangered native wildlife.

Jonny Hughes, chief executive of the Scottish Wildlife Trust, believes there is a case for lynx to be reintroduced.

"Although reintroductions of this nature are complex and must follow strict international guidelines, Scotland is leading the way with its new Scottish Code for Conservation Translocations launched by the Scottish government earlier this year, through the work of the Scottish National Species Reintroduction Forum of which the Trust is a key member."

"Finding the right locations will be one of the major challenges for a potential lynx project and there will be a range of stakeholders who will need to work in partnership to ensure the best chance of success and support, as has been the case in the Scottish Beaver Trial."

"It is important that we all understand the potential benefits of bringing back the lynx to our woodland ecosystems, but also to our forestry and tourism industries. At the same time we should understand the challenges that this beautiful once native cat will bring with it."

However, Andrew Bauer, deputy director of policy of the National Farmers Union Scotland, believes there are many questions still to answer before lynx could be reintroduced.

“Whilst the prospect of lynx reintroduction has excited some, there are good reasons why the farming community is more wary. In some parts of Europe the impact of lynx is moderate – distressing for those who lose lambs but not a widespread problem. There are other parts of Europe, most notably Norway, where the impact is far greater – with thousands of lambs being predated each year in Norway alone."

"Farmers are quite right to question why and how lynx, absent from Scotland since medieval times, should be reintroduced. Those who advocate lynx reintroduction should be up front about the potential impacts on sheep farming and the potential cost to the public purse."

"Those who are concerned about lynx reintroduction should take heart from the fact that any such proposal would be subject to a considerable level of scrutiny. As a member of the National Species Reintroduction Forum, NFU Scotland would be consulted as part of that process and would feed in the many views and concerns likely to be voiced by our membership.”

7. Should we reintroduce lynx to the UK?

Eurasian lynx blurred motion (Credit Klaus Echle / naturepl.com)

The debate of whether or not to reintroduce the once native Eurasian lynx has been reinvigorated recently. If the government backs plans from the Lynx UK Trust, some relatively large cats, which weigh around 10-30 kg, could be roaming the UK once more. Some support the concept, others oppose it and some are not sure either way. But do you think lynx should be reintroduced to the UK?