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Mystery beasts are big and black and spied all over; THE UNEXPLAINED BIG CATS; Panthers, leopards and pumas go wild in the country as giant felines are spotted roaming free across Scotland.

They are the shadowy beasts that haunt our moors...and our imaginations.

Big cats on the prowl across the Scottish countryside have long been a topic of hot debate.

Supposed sightings of everything from large puma–like animals to black panthers and lynx are regularly made.

In the last five years, police forces across Scotland admit they have received reports of more than 140 sightings.

Yet in that time, no live big cat has been captured, no body of any big cat has been proven to be found, and there have been no reports of any person being attacked by one of these creatures.

Kilmarnock–based Mark Fraser, founder of the Big Cats in Britain group, says he is in no doubt – and has even seen for himself – that there are big cats roaming the Scottish countryside.

Mark said: "From the research we have carried out, and from the stories we have heard and evidence we have seen, I do believe there are big cats out there.

"Five or six years ago, I know I saw a brown puma wandering wild at Stonehouse near the A71 in south Lanarkshire. But people want conclusive proof, which is as it should be."

Scotland's most famous wild big cat was a puma captured alive near Cannich, Inverness–shire, by a local farmer in 1980.

The animal – named Felicity – was caught two years after farmers in the area started reporting a spate of attacks on their sheep.

Mark said: "Even after Felicity was caught, a lot of people refused to believe that she had been roaming wild in the Scottish countryside.

"Many people suggested that the farmer who caught her had staged her capture and that Felicity had been privately owned.

"She probably had been privately owned at some point, but it is also true to say that examination of her stomach contents revealed she had been living in the wild and fending for herself for some time."

The Big Cats in Britain group receive five or six calls every week from concerned people who believe they have seen a big cat.

Many send the group photographs or video footage.

Mark said: "The people who contact us come from all walks of life, and are often completely sceptical about big cats roaming wild until they see one themselves.

"We can usually tell straight away from a picture that it is actually a dog or domestic cat. But often we receive information about sightings which do sound like the person has seen a big cat, or are sent grainy photographs where we can't discount that it might be a big cat.

"In a case like that, we will go out and look for proof – for tracks or for DNA – but it is very difficult to get the conclusive proof you need." Mark says his group regularly receive calls from farmers who have found the savaged bodies of their livestock – including carcasses of sheep – that have been dragged up trees.

He said: "We get calls about animal carcasses in trees on a regular basis.

"Unfortunately, by the time we get to the carcass then it will have been mauled by other animals and birds so again proving it was pulled into the tree by a big cat is impossible. We also know that poachers have been known to hide their kill in trees, so just because a dead sheep may be up a tree isn't conclusive proof it was killed by a big cat." There is also great debate over where the cats may come from.

Mark said: "When the 1976 Dangerous Wild Animals Act came into force, a lot of privately owned big cats were released into the wild by people who couldn't meet the conditions of the act, and we know this because some of the people who released them have admitted it to us.

"But the average life of a big cat is 12 years, and a bit more if they are kept in captivity, so these animals have all gone."

For more information on Big Cats In Britain visit www.bigcatsinbritain.org

Puma trapped by farmer

A live puma was caught by farmer Ted Noble near Cannich, Inverness–shire, in October 1980.

Reports of large cats had been circulating in the area for almost two years.

Ted set a baited trap to catch the female puma, later named Felicity. The animal was relatively tame, which led experts to believe it had been in captivity at some point. But analysis of its stomach contents revealed it had been living in the wild and fending for itself for some time.

It lived out its days at the Highland Wildlife Park near Kingussie. Felicity's stuffed remains were later positioned for pictures on a street bench, above.

It was reported that someone had confessed to releasing both Felicity and another puma into the Inverness–shire countryside.

CAPTION(S):

HUNTER Mark Fraser of Big Cats in Britain group

BLACK BEAST Big cat was filmed near Duffus Castle in north east of Scotland in 2009

PUMA First shot of scary big cat taken in Fife
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:Sunday Mail (Glasgow, Scotland)
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Nov 11, 2012
Words:860
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