WHAT are big cats and do they exist in Britain? That's the questions delegates will be discussing at a forthcoming conference on Big Cats where the public is invited to submit photographic and physical evidence.

The Big Cats in Britain Group (BCIB), which is staging the conference over the weekend of March 7, says it logged 675 reports of apparent big cats around the country last year with 12 in Dorset and six in Hampshire.

The group says that on average there are at least three sightings daily from all over the UK and they are now so common that people are more likely to spot a big cat than a pig.

The top place in the UK for sightings was Yorkshire with 64 sightings with Devon in second place with 38 sightings and 37 sightings in Somerset.

The conference will discuss if these cats are really black leopards, hybrids or an indigenous species that we never knew existed alongside us since the Ice Age.

BCIB is inviting everyone interested in big cats to come along and share their evidence with the researchers.

Speakers at this year's conference at Tropiquaria near Watchet, Somerset, on the weekend of March 7 include Dorset experts author Merrily Harpur and zoologist Jonathan McGowan.

A spokesman for BCIB said: "It is now generally accepted that there are large cats in the British countryside - the question is, what are they?

"BCIB is interested in hearing from witnesses who believe they may have seen a big cat.

"We are especially interested in any hard evidence such as photographs and casts. Completely anonymity will be given to witnesses.

"Everyone is welcome to attend the conference and it should be a weekend to remember.

"There is so much interest in big cat sightings now and this will be a chance for people to hear from experts as well as the many people who have actually seen them with their own eyes."

Zoologist Jonathan McGowan said there is evidence of many different types of big cats in Dorset.

He said: "Here in Dorset there are certainly animals that are derived from captivity. There is evidence of leopards, lynx and puma but also other types of cats.

"There are hundreds of them out there.

"They are wild animals and they defend themselves but they are not dangerous.

" Dogs and wasps are far more dangerous. They mind their own business.

"They will either run away or they don't take any notice and class people as part of the scenery."

The conference from Friday March 7 until Sunday evening March 9, also includes book stalls, debates, quiz, raffle, stalls and a tour of Tropiquaria.

Full details can be found by visiting the website at bigcatsinbritain.org or ringing organiser Mark Fraser on 07940 016972.