In the coming days scientists at Warwick University will have completed tests on two deer carcasses believed to have been mauled by a big cat roaming the Gloucestershire countryside in England. But could big cats - puma, panther and lynx like creatures - be prowling much closer to home?
It may seem hard to believe to many, but six big cat sightings have been reported to police in the north west over recent years.
Details released to the ‘Journal’ by the PSNI under the Freedom of Information Act reveal that reports of big cat sightings have been recorded in Derry, Strabane and Limavady over the last decade.
In June 2007, the PSNI’s Wildlife Liaison Office was notified of a report that a tiger or puma was on the loose in the Foyle area, while in April 2009 a “fawn coloured large cat” was reportedly sighted in Strabane.
Strabane, it seems is the big cat capital of the north west, with two further sightings in recent years.
Back in February 2005, “a very big black cat” was also sighted in the area, while a “large black cat” was also spotted in there in 2004.
Across the north west, and in December of the same year, police received reports of a puma prowling in the Limavady area.
In June of 2004 “ a large black cat” was also spotted near the Co Derry town.
Since 2004, police in the north have received reports of more than 50 suspected sightings, including “a large black cat” and a “sandy mountain lion” in the Cookstown area, a “black panther “ in Armagh, and a “large cat the size of a great Dane/female lion” in the Ballymena area.
Sightings of big cats have been reported across the border too.
In 2008, the discovery of paw prints and a dead sheep in the fields around Manorcunningham in Donegal gave rise to fears a big cat was on the loose.
Chris Johnston, an English based big cat researcher of more than 20 years experience, yesterday told the ‘Journal’ that while many people will be dubious about the existence of big cats on these shores, there is evidence to suggest otherwise.
“There is evidence that big cats have been and our today roaming the countryside, but it is how we define and interpret this eviden
“Anyone who researches sightings of big cats will come across the evidence, it may be not be visually seeing the animal itself, but finding signs and clues it leaves behind.
“These may be deer kills or attacks on livestock, scats, scrapes and scratch marks, these signs are invaluable to a researcher and do prove the existence of big cats living around us. But to many other people, and understandably so, this evidence is just not enough.”
He says that attitude may change if the DNA testing at Warwick University proves conclusive.
The expert says the most common sightings are likely to be “leopards, puma and lynx that have been released.”
“Many of the sightings reported to myself over the years do fit the description of a black leopard.
“The leopard is one of the most adaptable creatures, and its survival in many different environments is a testimony to this. If our big cats are surviving from one generation to the next then they have adapted to the countryside with great success, and this does appear to be the case.”
He says anyone who thinks they have witnessed a sighting should contact their local police.
Could big cats be on the prowl in the north west? What do you think? Let us know your views at derryjournal.com