A RADIO producer says his research into sightings of big cats in the Welsh countryside is backed by findings from the British Big Cat Society (BBCS).
Wales is fourth on the list of big-cat hot-spots in the society's UK survey. Most sightings are in Denbighshire, Gwynedd and Powys.
BBC programme maker Aled Jones has collated more than 100 sightings in north and mid Wales in 18 months.
As part of his research Mr Jones has seen video footage of ‘a large black animal’ moving through dense undergrowth, and photographed large feline-like footprints near sightings.
“There is a remarkable similarity in most of the reported sightings, size, posture, the only variable is the colour,” said Mr Jones.
“I've heard of sightings from all sorts of places, even a seaside town, but the majority of sightings are in mountainous, wooded, remote areas,” he added.
The BBCS study finds sightings increasing across the UK. Almost 60 per cent of sightings were of black cats, and 32 per cent sandy-coloured or brown, which the BBCS believes are pumas.
In Wales, big cat sightings are investigated by the Welsh Assembly Government, in the form of the Wildlife Management Unit based at Aberystwyth.
Site visits are carried out when evidence is present and if an unknown predator has killed an animal, the carcass may be taken for post mortem examination. Samples of hair and droppings can also be sent for DNA analysis, while unusual footprints are also inspected.
Marcus Matthews, who has researched big cat sightings since 1986, is convinced. His study is cluttered with 25 files and 5,000 letters he has collected on the subject.
“I have over 1,000 letters confirming sightings,” he says. “But for every reported sighting there are probably two or three others which have never been recorded.
“We are talking of maybe 50 big cats out there, ranging from black leopards to lynxes and smaller jungle and leopard cats.”
And the big cat story is getting bigger:
u First there was the Beast of Exmoor and the Surrey Panther.
u A swamp cat was run over by a car at Hayling Island, Hampshire.
u A Devon farmer shot a South American leopard.
Puma and panthers are known to cross over a wide area of Mid and North Wales.
In November 1980 near Llangurig, a farmer saw a strange, cat-like animal bound across a field. In June 1981 a farmer near Aberystwyth saw a another cat - the police and RSPCA called it a puma.
In January 1996, police marksmen combed Tywi forest near Aberystwyth. In December 1994 a panther was sighted near Builth Wells.
Pumas and panthers have also been reported on the hills near Ruthin and Bala. A wolverine was also shot by a farmer near Llangollen, in November 1997.
Earlier this year there were confirmed reports and prints of a puma near Treuddyn and Leeswood near Mold.
Malcolm Moy, former owner of the Argyll Wildlife Park in Inveraray, says: “It started when the Dangerous Wild Animals Act was introduced in 1976,” he said.
“Before that you could even buy these things in Exchange and Mart and many people had them as exotic pets. But after the Act local councils told owners to either get a local authority licence and provide secure caging or have their pets put down. Many couldn’t afford the expensive cages and couldn’t bear to have their cats destroyed, so dumped them in remote places in Wales and Scotland.”
Other beasts escaped from insecure small zoos and careless owners.
Terry Moore of the Cat Survival Trust believes the estimate of 50 big cats at large may be high. But he is confident there are as many as 24, from seven different species, living on mainland of Britain.
Meanwhile zoologist Quentin Rose claims to have identified 27 reliable reports of leopards, 32 of pumas and 18 smaller members of the cat family in Scotland, Wales, the West of England and East Anglia.
He believes the known reports are the tip of the iceberg. And he warns that if nothing is done, the big cat population could explode, posing a threat to indigenous wildlife, livestock and humans.