The background

August, traditionally the high point of the UK media’s silly season, is always a good time for tales of the unexplained.

But the last few days have seen a bumper crop of mystery big cat sightings.

First, Essex Police scrambled officers after reports of a lion on the loose near Clacton-on-Sea. The hunt for the beast was called off after a day, and the latest twist appears to suggest that the lion was in fact a harmless domestic mog called Teddy Bear.

Not to be outdone, other parts of the country have reported their own big cat sightings, with newspapers in Gloucestershire publishing photographs of an outsize black cat in the area.

It’s a story that refuses to slink off into the undergrowth for good – but is there any hard evidence that secretive predators really patrol the hedgerows of Britain?

The analysis

There is no official national database of big cat sightings, so we have to turn to a number of different sources.

Piecemeal data from Freedom of Information requests to individual police forces reveal consistent patterns of sightings of cats, usually black, in certain areas.

Gloucestershire, one hotspot, had 11 sightings in 2011 and an average of ten a year in the previous few years. The most common descriptions were “black cat” or “panther”. Figures from Dorset and Kent Police were almost exactly the same.

A very small number of cases are directly reported to the government every year via the quango Natural England. There were three in 2011, six the year before and three in 2009.

The largest numbers of sightings come from groups of enthusiasts like Big Cats in Britain. Founder Mark Fraser told us the group gets around 500 reports a year on average, which could range from an alleged sighting or the discovery of a large paw-print.

What can we learn from these raw numbers? Not a great deal, it would seem. Natural England only count members of the public who approach the agency directly rather than call the police.

A spokesman for Gloucestershireshire Police said she believed there could be widespread under-reporting since, anecdotally, people who think they see exotic animals don’t always instinctively call the police.

Mr Fraser, who maintains a healthy sense of scepticism after 25 years on the trail of the big cats, told us he can discount about half the reports received by his organisation without further ado.

And very few of those that are worth following up result in hard evidence. Most of the sightings are really large feral cats or large domestic breeds like the Maine Coon.

He suggested straight away that the “Essex lion” was in fact a Maine Coone, but it was some days before the theory started to gain credence.

Mr Fraser says he has only seen three big cats in these isles in a quarter of a century, and the first sighting came after 15 years.

His conclusion after a lifetime of investigation is that there are “very small numbers” of individual lynx, puma and “black panthers” – not a real species but a melanistic (the opposite of albino) variant of the leopard or jaguar – on the prowl in the UK.

In fact, while confirmed sightings have dried up in recent years, it is indisputably the case that exotic big cats have been found living wild in the UK from time to time.

A keeper from London Zoo found a lynx in the back garden of a house in the suburbs of North London in 2001. A puma, later named Felicity, was captured by a farmer in Inverness-shire in 1980. Lynx were shot in Suffolk and Northern Ireland in the 1990s.

A plausible but anecdotal explanation is that invidivual animals escaped or were set free by private collectors after changes in the law made it more difficult and expensive to keep exotic pets.

But Mr Fraser admits that there is little hard evidence of big cats living in groups and breeding – which is also the government’s position.

Natural England told us: “None of the sightings of big cats have ever been confirmed and the evidence of all the sightings we have been asked to look at has either been unsubstantiated or has been attributed to other causes.

But big cat researcher and author Rick Minter, who also claims three sightings after many years of investigation, thinks patterns of sightings over many years mean escapees or released cats must have been breeding for several generations in the British countryside.

He pointed us in the direction of  “half-decent” photographs taken in recent years, as well as DNA evidence, which is compelling but imperfect.

We’ve no particular reason to doubt the veracity of this report about leopard DNA being found in Lincolnshire, but it’s difficult to FactCheck properly, as neither of the test labs referred to appear to exist any more.

Similarly, Durham University were happy to confirm to us that hairs given to them for testing last year were probably from a leopard, but they can’t guarantee that the hairs were really found in woods in mid-Devon.

On the other hand, several tests on carcasses left with savage wounds after apparently being attacked by large predators have only turned up traces of fox DNA.

The victims had probably keeled over from natural causes before being pounced on by scavenging foxes – a cautionary tale that appearances can be deceptive in the world of big cat hunting.

Mr Minter said it’s not surprising that sightings are few and far between as the lynx, leopard and puma are all “stalk-and-ambush” predators who rely on stealth and wariness to survive and hunt mainly by night.

And the inconclusive evidence of attacks on farm animals doesn’t necessarily prove big cats aren’t out there either, he said.

“They can live on rabbits, mice and pigeons, and their natural prey are deer – which are abundant in many parts of this country. In fact, life is easier for these animals here than it would be in their natural habitat.

“Livestock kills are low. The numbers of consistent, good reports of livestock kills go up when you get cold weather. In fact, sightings in general go up at times of cold weather. This is a consistent pattern.”

The verdict

There are a significant number of people who believe passionately that there are big cats living wild in the British countryside, and it is by no means the case that all of them are cranks.

Serving police officers in the Thames Valley and Lincolnshire have gone on record to say that they support the case for the existence of wild cats.

If the facts are as elusive as the animals, that is perhaps the nature of the beast.

But even enthusiasts who have spent their lives looking for big cats admit that there is a missing core of hard documentary evidence that they are breeding and living in groups in the wild.

That suggests that the government is right to be cautious about the extent of Britain’s big cat problem.

By Patrick Worrall