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Leopard

Big cat or big hoax?

Big cats and wildlife

Claims of sightings of 'big cats' in Britain are persistent – yet no conclusive proof has ever been found of the mysterious creatures. Inside Out sent wildlife expert Rob Weaver on a mission to track down big cats in the West Midlands.

Big cats
Film maker:BBC Inside Out West Midlands
Date:February 2009
Subject:Are there 'big cats' roaming wild in our countryside?

Back in the 1970's all sorts of animals were kept as pets – that is until the Dangerous Animals Act was introduced.

Faced with tougher restrictions some owners set their animals free and it’s thought some of the smaller varieties – lynxes, pumas and leopards - could have survived in the wild.

Now a recent spate of sightings in the Forest of Dean has revived long-standing claims by locals that the cats are roaming wild.

Experts are divided on whether these big cats really exist in the wild - verified sightings and high quality photographic evidence are hard to obtain.

Wildlife challenge

It is difficult, even for professional wildlife experts, to be sure of what they’re seeing in the wild when it comes to 'big cats'.

Sightings of these creatures are often in bad light, at a distance and sometimes in thick vegetation.

Rob Weaver

Wildlife expert - Rob Weaver

Photographs taken of so-called 'big cats' by the public are often fuzzy and inconclusive.

We sent wildlife film maker Rob Weaver to take up the challenge of capturing big cats on camera.

Rob has also written a guide for budding wildlife spotters on how to get set up and what to look for - whether it's big cats or more conventional wildlife.

Here are his top tips for watching wildlife...

Rob Weavers's wildlife guide

Where to go and what to look for…

It's a myth that you need to go to far flung out of the way places to see wildlife. My films focus on the fantastic variety of flora and fauna that can often be found on the doorstep.

* Our own gardens, parks and local woods can all be great places to get close to wildlife, with species such as squirrels, garden birds, hedgehogs and foxes all showing up and making for great viewing.

Wildlife hide

Hidden hide - excellent vantage point

* Alternatively try and get friendly with your local farmers - farms are great places for wildlife, but can be dangerous so always get permission from the landowner before checking them out.

* For those looking at getting serious about wildlife spotting, visit to one of the many Wildlife Trust reserves around the country where loads of animals and birds can be really approachable.

* To improve your chances, look for clues! Many mammals such as deer and foxes tend to stick to well used tracks, and mark their territory by leaving droppings.

* Birds such as sparrow hawks and kestrels will often use the same perch time after time - look for their white splashed droppings on the ground below.

* I managed to film foxes as part of my farmyard film by finding the den first - the feather and scratch marks gave the game away, so I decided to wait a safe distance away and see what happened…

Watching wildlife - top tips
Film maker:BBC Countryfile
Subject:Nature expert Rob Weaver gives us his top wildlife watching tips down on the farm.

How to get set up to film or photograph wildlife by day…

* The best way to get close to wildlife during the day is to use some form of hide. I use either a dome tent hide, or simply string up camouflage nets in the hedgerow and then crawl inside.

* To film many of the animals in the farmyard film, I hid in an old stable and pointed my camera out of the window - it's amazing how close some animals will venture if they're unaware you're there!

* Work out the best places to put the hide by watching from a safe distance with binoculars for several days beforehand.

Hide camera

Hidden cameras - secret viewing

* Gradually move the hide into position over a few days, this way you'll make sure not to scare your subjects.

* Attracting birds such as buzzards or crows can be made much easier by putting down a road kill rabbit, which these species will quickly spot and come down to investigate.

* Take plenty of warm clothes and food as you could be in the hide for a long time and may need to get into the hide before dawn to ensure your subjects don't know you're waiting there.

I had to wait for nearly seven hours for foxes to leave the safety of their den!

* To get some of the great close up shots on the farmyard especially of the swallows and pigeon chicks, I used special 'mini cameras' - being only the size of a matchbox they are easily hidden in barns and stables.

I also took great care to ensure I didn't cause any disturbance to adults or chicks.

How to get set up to film or photograph wildlife by night…

Filming at night brings its own problems - most notably the fact that it's too dark to see!

This is where infra red technology comes into its own - it's possible to get some great shots in total darkness!

Wildlife watcher in camouflage

Camouflage - hidden in the undergrowth

Infra red shots are easily distinguished on TV by the eerie green glow they have.

The great thing about filming in infra red is that animals often appear completely relaxed. As far as they're concerned they are in total darkness and feel safe.

I used a remote link and waterproof case to protect my camera whilst filming at night, which animals will often approach quite closely.

If you haven't access to specialist night time equipment, try putting down a thin layer of sand across a deer track or near a badger's set - then return in the morning to see whether anything has been through in the night.

If it has, the track will be active and that could be a good place to wait at dusk or dawn - many nocturnal animals will still be active at these times, and you could be lucky enough to glimpse them!

Wildlife watching on farms
Film maker:BBC Countryfile
Subject:There are great opportunties for watching a variety of wildlife on farms from birds to mammals.

Top tips for spotting and identifying wildlife…

* Buy a good field guide and keep it with you whenever you're out and about.

* If you can - buy or borrow a pair of binoculars - they'll make identifying distant subjects so much easier.

* Spend time on wildlife trust reserves where other people will often help you hone your identification skills

* Look for clues - many animals are creatures of habit so learn to read the signs and improve your chances of seeing them.

* Remember the more you look for wildlife - the more you'll see. That may sound obvious but it's amazing how many people walk round the countryside or towns without properly looking around.

Just the other day I saw a Peregrine circling high over a city centre, a fantastic sight and one that I could easily have missed by not glancing skywards.

* When in the fields or woods, find a good spot, make sure you're concealed and wait patiently for the wildlife to come to you. You'll see far more than if you're walking around.

Be warned - wildlife watching does become addictive!

We want your big cats

Have you had a close encounter with a 'big cat'? 

Send your photos to insideout@bbc.co.uk with a brief description and we'll publish a selection of them.

last updated: 25/02/2009 at 16:36
created: 18/02/2009

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