Spot the Leopard
Have you seen a big cat in the wild? Not in Africa or Asia, but here in the West Midlands. This is not such an outlandish question as it may seem. I have just read 'Big Cats - Facing Britain's Wild Predators'* by Rick Minter. (Published by Whittles Publishing.) He reports that in recent years big cats have been sighted in Warwickshire, Worcestershire, Shropshire and Staffordshire. A little further afield Gloucestershire, including the Forest of Dean, is a particular hotspot for sightings.
The identity of the beasts is uncertain, they could be pumas, leopards, black panthers (which are actually black leopards) lynx or a number of other species. Some of the sightings are undoubtedly larger than usual domestic cats, or fancy breeds such as Bengal cat or Chausie, a cross between jungle cats and domestic cats. What they are certainly not are native wildcats, a few of which are clinging to existence in Scotland.
The book reveals that the history of big cats in the wild in this country is long and complicated. In the past 250 years many species were brought here as pets, or for zoos, menageries and circuses. Inevitably there have been escapes, releases and recaptures, but always fewer recaptures than escapes. There was a flurry of releases following legislation in 1976 and 1981 which imposed tighter regulation on keeping exotic and potentially dangerous animals. Two men, famous at the time for keeping big cats in Cradley Heath, admit to having released animals on to the moors near Saddleworth in Yorkshire.
There is little doubt that leopards and their close relatives are able to survive in the wild here. They are what ecologists call 'generalists', animals with less demanding requirements for survival. They are secretive, solitary, long-lived and will eat prey ranging from mice to badgers and deer. They make dens anywhere convenient: beneath old trees, in derelict buildings (one was once found in an empty caravan) or rocky crevices. Most importantly no predators threaten them, they are the top dogs, well cats in this case.
One of the problems with confirming the identity of likely sightings is the difficulty of judging size, colour and shape at a distance, in uncertain light, and, usually, for a fleeting instance. There is now though enough evidence from the remains of prey, such as sheep and deer, DNA analysis of hairs and examination of droppings and spoor, for there to be little doubt that big cats are around. Not everywhere and not in numbers but they are out there.
Are they a danger to people? Generally not, they are very wary of being injured. If you see one the chances are that it has already spotted you and is taking avoiding action.
If you think you have seen, or do see, a big cat let me know and I will pass the details on to those studying them.