Rumours of big cats, such as leopards and mountain lions, living wild in the UK have been bubbling for decades. Now, a photo alleged to show a black leopard in Staffordshire and DNA evidence featured in a documentary have renewed interest in the idea that large felines roam the nation. Here is what we know about these mystery cats.
Where does the photo come from?
In August 2023, Dragonfly Films, the producer of the documentary Panthera Britannia Declassified, released an image apparently showing a black leopard (Panthera pardus) lying in long grass. The photo was allegedly taken in Smallthorne, Staffordshire, and sent by an unknown person to the Centre for Fortean Zoology, an organisation that investigates mystery animals in the UK, over a decade ago, says Tim Whittard from Dragonfly Films.
“My feeling is that it is a real photo of a big cat,” says Whittard. But whether the image was taken of a freely roaming cat in the UK is unconfirmed.
“It looks like it was photographed in such a way that you couldn’t see the background, which makes me think it’s likely a captive cat,” says Whittard. “This is one of those mysteries that will probably never be solved.”
Are there really big cats roaming wild in the UK?
The term “big cat” typically refers to species that belong to the genus Panthera , such as lions, jaguars and leopards. However, cheetahs, lynxes and cougars – also known as mountain lions – are commonly associated with the phrase.
There are a few cases of such animals being seen in the UK, such as a puma captured in 1980 and a lynx shot by a farmer in 1991, but, according to the UK’s Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), there has been no credible evidence of big cats presented to Natural England, a public body responsible for the protection of England’s natural environment, in recent decades.
“If we were presented with credible information to suggest there was a big cat living wild and posing a threat to public health and safety, we would report the matter to the local police and the Home Office,” a Defra spokesperson told New Scientist.
But a handful of people disagree with this official assessment. This includes Rick Minter, the host of the Big Cat Conversations podcast, who believes the evidence strongly suggests the presence of large felines in the UK countryside.
Where are they and how many are there?
Alleged sightings of big cats have been reported across the UK. The British Big Cats Society says that it receives between 500 to 600 reports a year, but these are mostly unverified and anonymous. Freedom of information requests to UK police forces have also revealed a small number of reports over the past decade.
The bulk of the reports have been of black leopards, also known as panthers, says Minter. Around 15 per cent of sightings are of sandy-coloured cats, which could be mountain lions (Puma concolor), says Minter, and the remaining 5 per cent are of lynxes.
To keep a stable and healthy population, there would probably need to be at least 300 individuals of each species, says Minter. There is no evidence of this though.
Is there any evidence, beyond reported sightings?
Nothing firm, despite the number of people saying they have seen big cats. “There should be scientific evidence to back all of this up,” says Andrew Hemmings at the Royal Agricultural University in Cirencester, UK.
One way to identify the presence of these cats is to look at the carcasses of animals such as foxes, deer and sheep; Hemmings and his colleagues have analysed over 100 carcasses. To date, only four exhibit tooth marks, also known as tooth pits, that suggest the involvement of a medium-to-large feral cat.
These analyses alone can’t provide definitive evidence though. “The gold standard would be to combine what we’re seeing with our tooth-pit analysis with verified DNA evidence,” says Hemmings.
Do we have DNA evidence?
In its documentary, Dragonfly Films also claims to have found the first DNA evidence for a big cat in Gloucestershire. Hemmings and Minter are optimistic about the claim, but others are sceptical.
“Unless they actually recorded how that hair sample was captured and tested, [the claim] will have a grey cloud over it,” says Danny Bamping at the British Big Cats Society.
If the big cats do exist, are they dangerous?
There have been no confirmed incidences of wild big cats attacking people or their pets in the UK.
“If given the choice, they would always avoid human contact,” says Hemmings. “In my opinion, they pose a negligible risk to people.”