As debate rages on whether grainy images and videos can conclusively prove big beasts are lurking, experts insist they lurk in our countryside, including around Doncaster.
Leading wildcat expert Rick Minter, who has investigated the movements of the mysterious creatures for 20 years, says there could be as many as 1,000 ferocious felines lurking in forests across the country.
The environmental consultant appears in a new documentary, Britain’s Big Cat Mystery, which uses DNA analysis and photographic evidence to ‘prove’ that fearsome creatures from black leopards to pumas and lynx live in our wood.
“It’s a critical question,” Rick told The Sun in an interview. “How can we accept living alongside big cats in Britain?”
“It is difficult to judge how they are distributed. Deer are their main food source, so they are all over the UK in reasonable numbers.”
It comes after the latest sighting from Doncaster which saw walkers spot a large black animal prowling the fields near Sutton cum Lound, south of the town, earlier this month.
It is estimated that there are 2,000 reported sightings of big cats each year, but this month a number of incidents have raised fears that the creatures are getting bolder.
Rick says it’s possible animals “roamed into new areas” as a result of the closures, but thinks human activity could have caused a change as well.
“Green spaces on the outskirts of town have become busier, with people taking more local walks, which would disturb big cats and their main prey, deer.”
Rick, who runs the Big Cat Conversations podcast, says predators “very occasionally venture into urban areas at quiet times” in search of food.
He added: “This is likely due to a big cat having territory nearby and sometimes turning away to the urban outskirts.”
Britain’s Big Cat Mystery brings together some of the country’s most compelling photographic and video evidence that feral cats roam free in our countryside.
They included John Bilney’s 2020 photos of a big cat’s torso, which expert Trevor McKenzie said was “the most conclusive evidence” he had seen.
He said the trail camera shots showed “a juvenile mountain lion or puma” and added, “There’s no doubt in my mind.”
Matt Smith’s 2016 photo, taken in Devon, was also highlighted for depicting rose-like markings on a creature’s fur that are commonly associated with a big cat.
The documentary also examines compelling physical evidence, including 240 bone samples collected by Professor Andrew Hemmings, from the Royal Agricultural University.
They come from “emaciated carcasses” and show teeth marks that seem to come from the powerful jaws of a big cat.
Field naturalist Jonathan McGown has found a “beautiful double footprint” in Devon, of a big cat stalking its prey.
Overlapping footprints are called “direct register” – when cats’ front and back paws walk in the same footprint to reduce noise.
Jonathan takes a mold and experts conclude the prints are from a “large non-native species” – likely a large cat due to its circular toes and double register.
Rick says he has personally heard of 1,400 credible tales of big cats in the UK over the past decade, but thinks they are just the “tip of the iceberg” as most are not reported.
Despite recent sightings, he insists these big cats are “shy and wary animals” and not “large free-roaming predators”.
He said: ‘They’re much more scared of us and more often than not they’re just trying to keep humans away from their territory.
“They don’t want to risk being harmed in an encounter with humans or machines, so they live in the shadows, hidden away.”
“If attracted to urban areas, house-sized cats can unfortunately be taken, but this happens very rarely.
“They have an abundance of natural prey available – especially deer – so they don’t need to adapt their behavior to feed regularly.”
There have been many big cat sightings in Doncaster in recent years.
In May this year, 11-year-old Harry Abonyi was cycling through the woods with his father Martin when a mysterious large animal started chasing the youngster.
The father and son were cycling through Black Carr Plantation on Warning Tongue Lane near Cantley and Branton when they were approached by the animal.
Martin said: “As we rounded a corner I saw out of the corner of my eye a large black animal sprinting out of the cover of the woods heading straight for my son, running diagonally to scare him away.
In June, a woman said she spotted a large cat “the size of a Great Dane” while walking in Barnby Dun.
In August 2021, a dog walker reported seeing a beast prowling the fields near Thorne while another reported seeing a ‘big black cat when leaving the M18 on the M180 near Thorne Golf Course.
And earlier last year, images emerged of a mysterious animal in fields near Armorpe.
In 2019, mum Jessica Clark spotted a huge 5ft black cat in fields near the city’s Eco Power Stadium.
“When I realized what I had seen, I started to panic. He was massive and very muscular and certainly a big cat. It was pretty scary to see something like that up close,” she said.
In January 2017, Alan Tomlinson said he saw a ‘panther’ near Junction 1 of the M180, close to Doncaster services.
Meanwhile, later that same year, trucker Graham Byram said he saw a trio of motorway workers struggling to lift a huge dead animal into the back of a lorry on the A1 near Harworth.
Big cat stories date back to the 1960s and 1970s, when it was legal to keep exotic animals as pets.
But in 1976 the government introduced the Dangerous Wild Animals Act and while many owners gave their pets to zoos, rumors began that some people released their animals into the wild where their offspring still roam around. this day.
Britain’s Big Cat Mystery airs at 9pm on Friday, October 25.