BY JIM BROWNE
I have always wondered if sightings of Big Cats in the countryside were real or the result of excitable folk in need of an optician’s appointment mistaking house-moggies for tigers and leopards.
I mean, it’s easy enough to make mistakes. On a foggy day, our neighbour in her furry white coat looks like a polar bear. At night, I often mistake the lasers emanating from Disco Cadiz for a UFO. After a bottle of Bell’s whisky, I see Brigitte Bardot everywhere.
Yet statistics never lie…
Data shows more than one big cat sighting is being reported to police every week. Forces in England, Wales and Northern Ireland logged 455 sightings of big cats from members of the public between 2010 and 2015. Norfolk and Suffolk had the most sightings, with 57 and 26 respectively. Out of the UK’s 43 police forces, 13 refused to provide data under Freedom of Information rules including Police Scotland. This means the total number of reports would have been higher.
In total, there are an estimated 2,000 sightings each year, the vast majority of which are not reported to the authorities.
It would seem odd in the extreme for so many sightings to be the consequence of drunks, druggies and Specsavers-avoiders.
So, what other evidence is there?
First, there’s the dead animals. In Devon and Cornwall, the police carefully logs each sighting and, according to the Mail on Sunday, “In Devon there were five instances of farm animals being killed in suspected big cat attacks. Three of these sightings were in two consecutive months. In December 2012, two sheep were found dead near Torrington, North Devon, with ‘claw marks on their backs’. In the same month, a ram was killed at Buckfastleigh, on the south-east edge of Bodmin Moor. The month before, two sheep were found ‘with throat ripped out’ near Axminster.”
Second, experts have confirmed that hairs found in the countryside, when tested in laboratories, came from the leopard family. One such test was recently carried out in a Government laboratory in Lincolnshire.
I walk my dog a lot in the countryside. And I least expect to come across a leopard when I’m out walking.
Occasionally I have to re-route because there’s a farmer shooting with a rifle in the vicinity or a tree has come down or because I see the village idiot running towards me. But a leopard? A tiger? A puma? How the hell did they get into the English countryside?
There are a few theories doing the rounds but the most plausible one relates to the Dangerous Wild Animals Act, which came into law in 1977, after which people in the UK have not been allowed to keep big cats as pets.
Because of that law, many believe that owners of big cats simply let them fend for themselves in the wild. These poor creatures would have bred and the current day sightings are the offspring of their offspring 40 years on.
Am I a believer?
During my many years I’ve seen ghosts and I’ve seen Leicester win the Premier League.
Put it this way, Donald Trump could soon be President – I have learnt to keep an open mind.