British big cats, also referred to as ABCs, (Alien Big Cats or Anomalous Big Cats,) phantom cats and mystery cats, are supposedly Felidae not native to Britain which inhabit the British countryside. Their existence is unproven and these sightings are often reportedly named as "panthers", "pumas", or "black cats". Many suggestions exist to explain how these animals have come to possibly inhabit Britain, including that they are a species unknown to science1; that they were either released or escaped from captivity in circuses, escapees from private collections in the 1960s and early 1970s when regulation was relatively lax, released after the Dangerous Wild Animals Act 1976 came into force, or that they were deliberately released for reasons of game control or as a scientific experiment2; that they are surviving Ice Age fauna3; or that they have a supernatural origin.4
Evidence for their Existence
In the 1760s the great radical writer, William Cobbett recalled in his Rural Rides how, as a boy, he had seen a cat "as big as a middle-sized Spaniel dog" climb into a hollow elm tree in the grounds of the ruined Waverley Abbey near Farnham in Surrey. Later, in New Brunswick, he saw a "lucifee" (North American lynx – Felis lynx canadensis) "and it seemed to me to be just such a cat as I had seen at Waverley."5. Chris Moiser found a report in The Times, dated 1827, of a tiger hunt in Sherwood Forest.6 Another old report was found in The Daily Express of January 14 1927 of several cats being seen in Inverness-shire.7. One of the animals shot was identified as a lynx.
Farther back there is a medieval Welsh poem Pa Gwr in the Black Book of Carmarthen which mentions a Cath Paluc8, meaning "Palug's cat" or "clawing cat", which roamed Anglesey until slain by Cei. In the Welsh Triads, it was the offspring of the monstrous sow Henwen.9
Captures and Remains
Felicity the Puma was captured by farmer Ted Noble, at Cannich in Inverness-shire, Scotland in 1980 and reports of the cat in the area dated back to 1976. The cat was moved to the Highland Wildlife Park.12
A jungle cat was found at the side of the road in Shropshire, probably hit by a vehicle. It is believed by some that the cat had mated with domestic cats in the area and had produced offspring. One large grey cat called Jasper had all the characteristics and markings of a jungle cat. It later found its way to Dr Karl Shuker.13
In 1993, Stuart Skinner shot a leopard cat on the Isle of Wight, initially believing it to be a fox. The incident was not reported for several months as Mr Skinner believed that he had shot a protected species.14
A Eurasian lynx was shot in 1991 near Beccles, Suffolk.15 It had killed around 15 sheep within two weeks. The story was only reported in 2003, and the lynx is apparently now in the possession (as taxidermy) of a local collector. For many years this incident was considered to have been a hoax, particularly by the hunting community, but in March 2006 a police report confirmed that the case was true. It was probably an escapee from a facility in the area that bred animals, including Eurasian lynxes.16
In 1996, a lynx was shot dead by an Royal Ulster Constabulary marksman near the village of Fintona in Northern Ireland on February 18 1996. For several days prior to the shooting reports of a 'young lion' in the area were made. The lynx was wearing a collar and was believed to have escaped from a private collection. The body was allegedly stuffed and placed in the RUC museum.17
In 2001, a lynx was captured in London following the witness report of a leopard sat on a garden wall. The cat was captured after being sedated by a vet with a dart and blow pipe and was subsequently taken to London Zoo.18
Video and Photographic Evidence
Many photographs have been taken of "cats" over the years, mostly indeterminate, some fakes. In recent years indeterminate evidence has also come from CCTV cameras.
Footage allegedly showing the Fen Tiger was captured by Mr William Rooker in Cambridgeshire in 1994. The large cat is visible for about two minutes. Mr Rooker described the animal as being black in appearance and with a flat face.19
The Possible Species of British Big Cats
The world's big cats comprise lions, tigers, leopards and jaguars.
- Other Cats: Species that have been noted only occasionally include the leopard cat, which are the size of domestic cats but with leopard-like spots, a clouded leopard, a specialised species from the tropics which was captured after living wild in Kent in 1975, and there are even extraordinary cases of lions being reported in Devon and Somerset.21
Main British Big Cat Sightings
- Cath Palug, Isle of Anglesey, medieval.
- The Beast of Pembrokeshire, Pembrokeshire, Ceridigion, Carmarthenshire, numerous reports from 1970s to recent times.
- Beast of Exmoor, Devon and Somerset, 1970s-present.22
- Beast of Bodmin, Cornwall, 1992-present.23
- "Felicity" the Puma, Inverness-shire, 1980.24
- Surrey Puma, Surrey and Hampshire, 1959-1970.25
- Fen Tiger, Cambridgeshire, 1950s-1990s.26
- Wrangaton Lion, Devon, 1998-1999.27
- Bucks Beast, Buckinghamshire, 199528-present.
- The Beast of Basingstoke, a big cat sighted around Basingstoke in the early 1990s, and believed to be a lion or puma.29
- The Beast of Bevendean, a big cat which has mauled dogs in the suburbs of Brighton.30
- Galloway Puma, sighted in Dumfries and Galloway, 1990s to the present.
British Big Cats by Locale
In 1988, the Ministry of Agriculture took the unusual step of sending in Royal Marines to carry out a massive search for the rumoured Beast of Exmoor after an increase in the number of mysteriously killed livestock, and farmer complaints over subsequent loss of money. Several Marines claimed to have seen the cat fleetingly, but nothing other than a fox was ever found. The Ministry concluded that reports of the Beast were nothing more than mass hysteria.31 The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has published a list of predatory cats that they know to have escaped in the United Kingdom, although most of these have been recaptured.32
- Fraser, Mark (ed), 2008. BCIB Yearbook 2007, CFZ.
- Beer, Trevor, 1988. The Beast of Exmoor: Fact or Legend?, Countryside Productions.
- Brierly, Nigel, 1988. They Stalk by Night - The Big Cats of Exmoor and the South West, Yeo Valley Productions.
- Francis, Di, 1993. The Beast of Exmoor and other mystery predators of Britain, Jonathan Cape.
- Francis, Di, 1982. Cat Country, David and Charles.
- Harpur, Merrily, 2006. Mystery Big Cats, Heart of Albion.
- Moiser, Chris, 2001. Mystery Cats of Devon and Cornwall, Bossiney Books.
- Moiser, Chris, 2005. Big Cat Mysteries of Somerset, Bossiney Books.
- Moiser, Chris, 2007. Mystery Big Cats of Dorset, Inspiring Places.
- Shuker, Karl, 1989. Mystery Cats of the World: From Blue Tigers to Exmoor Beasts, Robert Hale.