Essex lion: Charting the big cats of Britain

Could big cats be roaming the British countryside?

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The search for a "lion" in Essex was called off after no trace of the animal could be found.

While many newspapers have suggested the animal may be a large domestic cat a couple who photographed it remain convinced it was not a household pet.

The sighting is not the first time members of the public have claimed to have spotted an exotic animal in Britain.

Stories of big cats go back to the 1960s and 70s when it was legal and fashionable to keep exotic animals as pets.

Dangerous Animals Act

The wealthy could take their lion, tiger or cheetah for a walk around the park without needing a licence.

But in 1976 the government introduced the Dangerous Wild Animals Act to protect the public and animals.

Image of 'lion' in St Osyth A couple took this photograph of what they said appeared to be a "very large animal" in Essex

While many owners gave their pets to zoos or put them down rumours started that some people released their animals into the wild where their offspring still roam to this day.

In the mid 1990s photos and video emerged of a large panther-like animal in Cornwall.

Dubbed "the beast of Bodmin" it has been spotted on and off for 20 years.

In 1995 a 14-year-old boy found a leopard skull in a river in Bodmin perhaps lending weight to the beast's existence and its demise.

But scientists at the Natural History Museum found an insect egg case inside the skull which they said proved the animal had not died on the moors.

The skull was thought to have come from the tropics or been stored in a warm warehouse where tropical cockroaches can be found.

Toy tiger

The researchers also found cut marks on the back of the skull which showed it had come from a rug or wall trophy suggesting it had probably been dropped into the river by hoaxers.

But sightings and evidence of big cats are not always a hoax.

In Wales there have been a number of reports of big cats sighted in rural areas close to the scene of animal attacks on sheep.

Dogs or foxes may be behind the attacks but some remain convinced the hunter involved is feline in origin.

In February DNA tests on two roe deer discovered dead in Gloucestershire found only saliva relating to foxes.

Last year it was not other animals but a stuffed toy that was behind a big cat sighting.

A life-size toy tiger sparked a major operation involving armed officers and a force helicopter in Southampton.

While no evidence has been found of the Essex lion public fascination with big cats in Britain looks set to continue.

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