As of February 2016, after 416 posts, and over six and a half years of blogging, I'm taking a break.
I've explained why here. There's plenty of past posts to read, though - hope you enjoy them !
Looking for a brilliant present for a young naturalist ? Buy my book ! Available from Amazon UK,
Amazon US and worldwide but buy from a local bookshop if you can.

Is there evidence of big cats living in Scotland ?


A few weeks ago when it was snowy Dad was walking on the moor near my house. He was watching a herd of ten roe deer from a small wood when he saw something moving up the hill. It was much higher than the deer, and it was on a high up part of the mountain where deer, foxes and badgers didn't normally go. 

It was a long way away, about a kilometre, and about 600 feet higher up than he was so he couldn't see it very well. It looked black and was moving slowly and he took lots of photographs of it.

Even though he uses a long lens, the photographs were poor quality because it was so far away, but he thought was much too big to be a fox or dog.

At the time he thought it looked like a wolf even though he knew there were no wild wolves in Scotland anymore. Here's a wolf from the Scottish Deer Centre:

It wasn't until he got these two photographs that he was sure what he had seen:

The thin black legs, the bushy tail, and the black ears meant it was a fox all along !

Once he knew it was a fox he could explain the rest. It was so high up in the mountains because the snow made it difficult to hunt for food lower down. It moved slower than normal because it was hunting. And he couldn't judge properly how big the fox was because there was nothing nearby on the hill, like a fence or a bush, to get a sense of scale.

So this got me thinking. If my dad who is on the hills a lot could get confused by a fox, maybe this explains why so many people in Scotland who report seeing big cats in the wild ? What would have happened if dad had believed in big cats in Scotland but didn't have the extra pictures to show it was just a fox ?

There are loads of big cat sightings in Scotland and the rest of the UK. In 2012 there were 70 sightings reported to a big cat study group, and 140 reported to police over the previous five years

That's about one sighting every six days in 2012, which means if they are were true there would be loads of big cats (or one that gets seen a lot). But there are no confirmed sightings of big cats, and none have been found dead or killed as roadkill. There was a lynx that was captured in 1980 near Inverness but it refused to eat raw meat and would only eat cooked food, and it wasn't wild at all, so it was most likely someone's pet that they released into the wild.

Here are some of the other cases of big cat sightings:

The Cullen Big Cat Corpse

Everyone wants to find a big cat body because its bones or DNA would prove whether big cats lived here !

In May last year, a dog walker called John Robertson found the body of a strange animal. The picture is a bit gross so you have to click on it to see it.

Very gross image. Click and hold down to see the full picture or click here to see in a new window.

He said "We came across a horrible rotting smell which was this big cat. It looks like it's feasted on the seagulls and maybe it has fallen down the cliff nearby, injured itself and just lay there till it died. I'm sure we'll find out from the DNA tests what type of cat it is, but it certainly seems like one of the big cats." A lot of newspapers published the story and the pictures. (I got permission from the news agency SWNS for me to use the pictures, thanks SWNS !). Here's one of the mouth:

Very gross image. Click and hold down to see the full picture or click here to see in a new window.

It might not have looked like any animal he had seen before but that didn't mean it wasn't an animal that lived nearby. There are lots of animals that live here that people rarely see, like badgers (shy and nocturnal) and grass snakes.

But there is one thing this animal could not have been, and that is a big cat. That is because this mystery animal has at least four cheek teeth on each jaw (cheek teeth are pre-molar or molar teeth which are the teeth at the back of the mouth after the big canine teeth). All cats, whether pussy cats or lions, just have three cheek teeth.

So what could it be ? I checked and the teeth were the same as my otter. 

Very gross image. Click and hold down to see the full picture or click here to see in a new window.

Otters might be strange to Mr Robertson but they are definitely not big cats !

The Faslane Big Cat

In 2009 a military policeman called Chris Swallow at the Faslane naval base in Scotland filmed this. He said "The animal wasn't moving the way I expected a dog to. It was then I realised that what I was seeing was a big cat. It was remarkable. I've heard stories about creatures like this moving about the countryside but never really believed them before. Looking back at the video I don't think there's any doubt that it's a big cat."

The thing about big cats like lynx and tigers is that they are a lot like small cats in the way they are and the way they move. Even their skulls look identical apart from size. Here is the lion skull from when I visited CAHID next to one of my cat skulls.

But the cat in the video was doing one of the things that domestic cats can do but big cats can't. It was walking with its tail sticking up in the air !

The person filming it made the same mistake as my dad did. Even though the cat was next to train lines, he got the scale wrong, and it was a domestic cat, not a big cat.

The Cotswolds Big Cat

This was in England, not in Scotland, but it's important because it is connected to the story I am going to write about next week. In February last year there were remains of animals found which were said to look like they had been killed by a big cat.

Frank Tunbridge who was described as a big cat expert said: ‘I have seen pictures of this carcass. It has all the hallmarks of a big cat kill. The woman found it in a field but when she came back to take photographs, it was completely stripped out, with just its spine left." The animal had been ripped open and was missing its heart, kidneys and liver, he said. Its snout was also missing - important because big cats clamp their jaws over the mouth, causing death by suffocation.

The thing about the snout being missing reminded me a lot about roe deer skulls I had found, like this one:

I didn't think this had been killed by a big cat, but had it been ? It was from a wood just a few miles from my house.

Anyway, the bodies of the animals were tested, and the only extra DNA found was from a fox. So while big cats might strip out the body and bite the snout, foxes sometimes do it too.

The Beast of Bodmin Moor

For a long time, people in Cornwall thought there may be a big cat living on Bodmin Moor in Cornwall in England (a small country to the south of Scotland). Then in 1995 a boy found a big cat skull in the River Fowey. He took it to the National History Museum in London who helped identify it. They have a brilliant interactive bit on their website about it (don't read on here if you want to play it first).

They identified the skull as from a leopard ! Did this mean that leopards were living in Cornwall ? But they also found two other important things. One was a beetle case, which was important because this type of beetle only hatches in the warm, which Bodmin Moor isn't. They also found that the back of the skull had been sawn off like on my leopard skull:

That happens when they are put into old rugs (like mine was) or mounted as trophies.

So wherever the leopard came from, it didn't die on Bodmin Moor.

Alan Stewart, the Wildlife Crime Officer

Where I live there used to be a famous policeman called Alan Stewart who was in charge of the Wildlife Crimes Unit at Tayside Police for ages. He wrote a few books which I have. In his first book "Wildlife Detective", in 2007, in a chapter called "The Myth of The Big Cat" he wrote:

"I have never visited the location of a sighting where I have smelt anything that may indicate the presence of a big cat, or heard anything that resembled any sound made by a big cat, or even seen any mark that could have without doubt have been made by a big cat."
Then he wrote a follow-up book "A Lone Furrow" in 2011 and in a chapter called "Getting it Wrong" he wrote:

"In Wildlife Detective I devoted a chapter entitled "The Myth of the Big Cat" - to my extreme doubt that there are leopards, puma and lynx wandering the Tayside hills and glens. I have been sceptical of alleged sightings, and while I believe the reports are genuine I think they are mistaken. Until now !"

Then he says that in 2010 he was contacted by a Perthshire estate manager who had found footprints on the estate. He said that the footprint was definitely of a big cat, not a dog or other animal,  that was running, and the footprints were twelve feet apart ! He spoke to a big cat expert who said the footprints could have been from a puma, a lynx or a leopard !

(You can buy copies of Mr Stewart's books here. They're really good)

The estate is not too far away from me, so maybe there is a big cat lurking in the woods near me after all !

Enjoy this post ? Share it !


Mori said...

Thank you for this excellent and informative article on a subject that has puzzled me for a long time. I had always wondered how so many supposed big cat sightings get through without anyone pointing out the lack of pawprints, remains of kills, dung etc that would draw attention to the presence of a big cat before a sighting. Many top predator mammals, especially cat-like ones, are notoriously hard to see, but their signs are easier, and yet it struck me that most of the sightings were of the animals not the signs. Your article informed me about some of the signs people have reported. And of course, how most of them have been disproved!

It's a shame that there probably aren't anywhere near as many big cats roaming the countryside as people would like to think, but I think that's part of why so many get reported- it's wishful thinking. People really, really want the excitement of believing that big cats are out there.

Jake said...

There's lots of great wildlife in Scotland without people inventing new ones !

Jack N said...

There is supposed to be a big cat near my house too.Apparently one escaped from an old wildlife park that was shut down a few years ago because of the poor conditions the animals lived in.Animal rights activists released a few including a panther.Since then there have been numerous sightings and a few years ago there was a kill found next to a huge panther footprint! I was pretty sceptical myself until one day with scouts hiking in"big cat" territory I found a gruesome kill.The victim was a lamb.The head was untouched apart from the lower jaw, which was a mess of shards of bone and blood.Two legs stripped of flesh were still attached whilst the others were untouched and about 7 metres away.The entire chest was stripped of flesh and all the ribs were snapped into stubs attached to a mangled spine.I researched all types of kills made by predators in the area until, as a last resort, I found that of a big cat.It matched perfectly.It seems the beast of Ribera is real indeed

Jake said...

You'll definitely want to read NEXT week's post then !

Paul Paterson said...

But experts have examined the shaky footage and say the animal’s characteristics are typical of a domestic cat.

Rob Weaver, a BBC wildlife presenter and film-maker, said it would be very unusual for a big cat to calmly walk around in a public place.

“The small, almost dainty steps the creature takes along the rail are not characteristic of a puma, or a similar big cat, which tend to have a far more loping gait,” he said.

Dr Luke Hunter, executive director of Panthera, a big-cat charity in New York, also said he was certain the beast was really a plump moggy.

He said that big cats such as black panthers do not walk about with upright tails – unlike the animal in the footage.

Graham Law, a zoologist at Glasgow University who has worked with leopards for 23 years, also said the animal was more likely to be of the domestic variety.

He said: “The video isn’t of a good enough quality to verify exactly what the animal is. A leopard would not confidently walk down a railway line. It would more likely move along the sleepers or stay in heavily forested areas.

“People like the idea of believing there’s a mysterious beast roaming around, which is why the sighting may have been hyped up a bit.”

Application of Locard's Exchange Principle as well as the Application of the Simons Test. Also we have Dr Luke Hunter of Panthera (well respected) & Dr Alan Rabinowitz, as well as Dr Graham Law as well as Prof McDonald, and so on, who all disagree completely with the big cat myth and have shown this in the Black Beast of Exmoor Documentary. Until there is fact and proof then this myth will continue as a crank subject. Even Mark Fraser said it was a crank subject before he closed down BCIB. With 27 years experience as a big cat keeper and curator of carnivores, the myth is just that, it is all myth and hype. Even someone such as Peter Dickinson who has 40 plus years experience in the zoo industry, well known and respected, his blogs show that such UK big cat cryptozoological sites are sadly dysfunctional and lack experience, common sense and practical know how. The question that "can such exotic cats live here?" is another question that is different to "are there big cats here?". It is widely accepted that small to medium exotic felines can and do have the ability to live in the UK but not all of the UK and only in very small pockets of the UK. It is also accepted that the UK does indeed have small hybrid cats such as leopard cross jungle cats, these cats are not exotic any true sense and likewise, are third generation plus or F3 status. Such as this hype of UK big cats has become, the truth is that there are some really dangerous groups and people who pretend to know what they talk about and also feed the public and the press with severe rubbish. If someone says they are an expert or can tell that a big cat has been here in the UK, then please keep clear of them, they tend to be what is called fantasists.

Jake said...

But that's exactly what I said in the post. I said "But the cat in the video was doing one of the things that domestic cats can do but big cats can't. It was walking with its tail sticking up in the air ! The person filming it made the same mistake as my dad did. Even though the cat was next to train lines, he got the scale wrong, and it was a domestic cat, not a big cat."

Jake said...

And I do look at six bits of evidence and show that five of them are definitely not proof of big cats.

Free counters!