Archive - Friday, 22 September 2006
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Big cat sightings sparks off debate once again
THE most recent sighting of a large, lion-coloured feline animal in Cirencester by teacher Rob Carmichael (The Standard, September 14) has brought the big cat issue into the public eye once again, just a year after we published a CCTV footage picture of a large black animal on a zebra crossing near Cirencester Hospital.
CCTV image of Big Cat near Cirencester Town Centre
Although big cat sightings are reported from many parts of the country, there is no doubt that many of these are in the Cotswolds and North Wiltshire.
In the last few years there have been sightings around Malmesbury and in Highworth, South Cerney, Tetbury, Chedworth, Minchinhampton, the Cotswold Water Park and several in Cirencester itself, particularly in the summer and autumn of 2005.
Danny Bamping, founder of the British Big Cat Society (BBCS) told The Standard late last year that the area was a hot spot for big cat sightings. For 15 months to September 2005 the BBCS logged 105 sitings for Gloucestershire and 64 for Wiltshire and at a similar time Gloucestershire Police appointed Mark Robson as the county's wildlife crime officer.
The presence of big cats roaming wild in this country is often put down to the 1976 legislation regulatlng the keeping of large animals which meant that some owners simply turned their animals loose.
But big cat specialist Frank Tunbridge from Gloucester, who was one of the speakers at the recent big cat conference held at Keynes Country Park, is convinced that such creatures were roaming about in Victorian times, having escaped from menageries.
Sitings were few because people didn't travel so far and communications were sparce.
Frank has studied big cats for many years and he is convinced that there are actually not as many animals as sightings would suggest since the cats are nomadic and often the same animal is seen in a different place.
But he also thinks that different species of big cat are now able to mate together after the third or fourth generation when cross-bred females become fertile. This may have led to the larger number of black big cat sightings, if the black gene has become predominant.
The fact that sightings appear to be more frequent in spring and autumn is probably because the cats are becoming more urbanised and venture into towns looking for food, hence the recent Cirencester sighting and those recorded a year ago.
The enormous increase in the wild deer population over the last decade and the fact that deer are also becoming increasingly urbanised, means that big cats are more likely to come into town for dinner. It could also be that a new generation of male cats are looking for mates or a new territory.
Although there have been reports of farm animals being killed by mysterious large creatures, Frank Tunbridge is convinced that deer is the big cats' preferred diet, especially after an anonymous call from a local poacher who told him that when he came to skin a fallow deer he had shot he found the claw marks of a large animal on its haunches - obviously a meal that once got away.
Deer hair and blood have also been found in trees which is where big cats drag their prey.
The reason for the many sightings in this area is because it provides an ideal big cat habitat, with fields, streams and woods in which to take cover.
But there is still very little known about these mysterious animals because none have actually been found or examined.
Frank, however, sounds a note of caution.
"The government should take the big cat situation more seriously. These animals are usually quite wary of human beings but if an animal is run over or injured it could easily attack a young child. The problem should be addressed before it is too late, perhaps by setting up cameras in areas where the cats been spotted most and getting some genuine footage," he said.