Are there big cats in the UK? Worries panther ‘discovery’ could lure hunters

Although sightings are rare, it is possible to detect the likes of panthers by other means  (AFP/Getty Images)
Although sightings are rare, it is possible to detect the likes of panthers by other means (AFP/Getty Images)

Big cats have been said to “definitely exist” in the wild in the UK after scientists tested the DNA of a stray hair.

A laboratory did the test after a spate of unusual activity and appears to have confirmed that there are indeed big cats such as panthers stalking British countryside. The hair was found on a barbed wire fence on a farm in Gloucestershire, which was left following a sheep attack and further “unusual predatory activity”.

The forensic laboratory, which wants to remain anonymous, analysed the hair using mitochondrial DNA methods and ascertained a 99.9% match to the leopard species panthera pardus. The finding confirms the presence of big cats in the UK’s woodland areas and will be featured in a documentary soon.

Documentary filmmaker Matthew Everett has been investigating the area for a while and, after a sheep was found dead, the jawbone of the dead animal, which had toothmarks in it, was sent to the Royal Agricultural University in Cirencester for analysis. The indentations were confirmed as potentially belonging to the molar and pre-molar of a big cat.

The findings form part of the upcoming documentary Panthera Britannia Declassified, which investigates claims of big cat sightings around Britain.

Mr Everett, from Dragonfly Films, said: “The DNA was from hairs caught on a barbed wire fence where there had been some unusual predatory activity. It’s taken five years for the production team to find such evidence and film its journey from collection to analysis. People in Gloucestershire and Britain have described what appear to be black leopards for decades. So, a leopard DNA result from a black hair sample is unsurprising.”

Dragonfly Films is currently looking into broadcast options for the documentary, while an earlier version of the film, Panthera Britannia, is available on Amazon Prime, Vimeo and Apple TV.

But now there are fears that the discovery could lead to trophy hunting. Big cat expert Frank Tunbridge told the Mirror that he fears trophy hunters will flock to kill them and the news could cause the public to panic and put pressure on councils to put down the animals, even though big cats have been living in the wild in the UK for 40 or so years.

“They keep themselves to themselves and they haven’t harmed anyone ever,” said Mr Tunbridge, adding: “The DNA confirmation is a double edged sword. On the one hand I think more people will come forward with really good images now it’s been verified.

“But I also fear that there we will suddenly get bounty hunters most probably coming out of the woodwork shooting them. With trophy hunters, they won’t just want a blurry photo. They’ll want something more realistic to show their friends.”