DNA tests to solve mystery of big cat sightings in Britain
The National Trust has ordered DNA tests on a deer mauled by a savage predator to finally prove whether big cats prowl the British countryside.
3:34PM GMT 11 Jan 2012
There have been thousands of reports of big cats across the UK but most are a fleeting glimpse caught by a member of the public.
The most definitive evidence that has been gathered so far are images on mobile phone cameras or blurry video.
Now experts are carrying out DNA tests on the carcass of a roe deer found at the National Trust’s Woodchester Park, near Stroud, amid speculation that it could have been brought down by a big cat after reports of large felines in the area.
A local walker sent photographs of the carcass to experts last week after noticing particular features on the deer which could suggest it had been killed by a large predator.
The injuries to the neck of the deer and the way the carcass had been consumed are thought to be highly indicative of big cat activity.
Dr Robin Allaby, Associate Professor at the School of Life Sciences at the University of Warwick has visited the kill site to examine the evidence and take DNA samples from the wounds of the roe deer to be tested. Theses samples are now being tested with the results due by the end of the month.
Rick Minter, author of a new book on the mystery of the UK’s feral big cats, said the results could solve the mystery of big cats in Britain once and for all.
“It is very helpful to have this forensic study of the deer carcass. The consistent feedback I receive from people about possible big cats is that the animals should be studied, so we can learn about the subject.
Previous evidence of ‘big cats’ in Britain include thermal images taken by the Forestry Commission in 2009 of two animals in the Forest of Dean, Gloucestershire.
A series of photos taken in Cornwall purport to show the ‘Beast of Bodmin Moor’, that is also blamed for mauled sheep in the area.
A film of what looks like a big cat was taken by a military policeman on his mobile phone in 2009 after spotting the creature in Dunbartonshire near the home of Britain’s Trident nuclear submarines.
Other sightings are mostly anecdotal or seen after attacks on domestic animals.
Mark Fraser, founder of Big Cats in Britain, said officials are afraid of admitting big cats are roaming the country for fear of farmers claiming compensation for livestock that is taken.
He said wildcats are “definitely out there” with up to 1,000 sightings a year. Most sightings are attributed to panthers, with a handful of reports put down to their smaller cousins the lynx, once native in this country, or leopards.
It is thought the cats were released into the wild in the 1970s following a crackdown in the law in keeping wild animals.
David Armstrong, National Trust Head Ranger for the Gloucestershire Countryside, said the Trust were taking a scientific view.
“With only one footpath, although it is popular with dog walkers, there is plenty of space for wildlife to live relatively undisturbed. There are 120 hectares of woodland nearby at Woodchester and both areas provide a good habitat for large numbers of deer, both roe and muntjac.
“There are some very occasional sightings of big cats in the Cotswolds but they have wide territories, so are rarely present in one particular spot for long. We’d be interested to hear of any more sightings at Woodchester.”
Officially Natural England claim that there are no big cats in Britain
But Mr Minter said you can never be too careful.
“Although people occasionally report a possible big cat from a distance, close up encounters with such cats are rare. Their hearing and movement are exceptional, which helps them avoid close contact with people. In the event of a close-up encounter you should stay calm and face towards the animal as you back off, but not threaten or aggravate it. The chances are it will have backed off very quickly first.”
Have you seen a big cat recently?