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On the prowl for Dorset's Big Cats
10:00am Saturday 9th February 2013 in News
Big cats in Dorset are a reality, says naturalist Jonathan McGowan who has been studying sightings for nearly 30 years. He tells Maria Court about the evidence
It’s a debate which has been raging for years. Are big cats really on the prowl in Britain’s countryside?
Coming face-to-face with one has been dubbed Britain’s most common encounter with the unknown, with more than 2,000 sightings now logged every year with the Big Cats in Britain Group.
And one local man has amassed so much evidence, even the most hardened sceptic would find it difficult to ignore.
Naturalist Jonathan McGowan has been studying the big cat phenomenon in Dorset for nearly 30 years.
His files are now packed with images of slashed sheep, half-eaten deer, astonishing faeces, and mysterious hair samples. Then there are the definite puncture wounds, the strange scrape marks and recordings of odd noises at night.
He receives so many emails from eyewitnesses that he regards the subject less of a novelty as an everyday occurrence.
“Statistically you are more likely to see a big cat in Dorset than a live badger,” said the naturalist and lecturer who runs the zoology section of the Bournemouth Natural Science Society.
Jonathan, who lives in Bournemouth, said that the evidence is coming in from naturalists, biologists, zoologists, and environment workers. “Only around 10 per cent of people are misinformed.”
Fuelling his theory that large, non-native felines have made their home here are the increasing number of farm animals killed and left with a ‘clean carcass’ – a trademark behaviour of larger species of cat.
Large droppings have been found to contain deer fur and crushed animal bones. Dog remains have been discovered up high in trees, while on the ground pawprints the size of a man’s hand have the tell-tale feline ‘leading toe’.
Of course, some of this evidence could only be detected by an expert in the field. But the general public have their own part to play, too.
Eyewitnesses are usually late night workers such as pub management, hospital staff and ambulance drivers who see unusual prowlers on the roads after dark.
“We have had reports of melanistic (black) leopards, lynx, and pumas which are light brown and otherwise known as cougars,” said Jonathan who saw his first puma while badger-watching as a sixth-former in 1984.
It sparked a three-decade interest and in total he has seen around 26 non-indigenous big cats in Dorset. His evidence is being collated for a book he is currently writing, The British Big Cat Phenomenon: The Dorset Enigma.
“Most areas of heathland in Dorset have their resident large cats,” he explained matter-of-factly.
“In this area they have been spotted between Southampton and Weymouth but 90 per cent are in Purbeck and Bournemouth.”
Jonathan regularly receives around five emails a week from people largely claiming to have seen big black animals which aren’t domestic cats or dogs.
So why has the infeasible become so feasible?
Jonathan explained: “Leopards and pumas are the most adaptable cats. They have lived everywhere across the old world. More cats live in temperate regions than in the jungle, so the British weather suits them well. There is also an abundance of game in the UK. It’s impossible for them NOT to be living here.”
For years people kept such exotic animals as trophy pets, until the introduction of the Dangerous Wild Animals Act in 1976. Faced with new and onerous legislation, many people believe some big cat keepers simply chose to turn their charges loose.
Jonathan says they have mated in the wild. “If you were to release just 10 leopards in the country they will find each other,” he said. “They communicate using strong visual and olfactory signs.”
He stressed there is no danger to humans as big cats like to remain undetected and won’t attack unless provoked. “There is no documented case of them killing a human. We aren’t on their prey list.”
More of a problem, Jonathan believes, is the authorities trying to cover up the presence of big cats. “That, and trying to persuade the sceptics that the animals are actually there,” he said.
- If you have any big cat sightings or information please call Jonathan on 01202 419878
This piece is from our new Seven Days magazine, free in this weekend's Echo. For more, including last minute romantic breaks, the best seven things to do this week and how to tell if you're a MAMIL, see bournemouthecho.co.uk/sevendays