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  • Karen Hamilton-Viall

Big Cats in the British Countryside

On a clear, dark night two decades ago, I was sitting in the back seat of a car travelling through the winding lanes of the Yorkshire Dales. My friends and I were on our way to a camping and hiking holiday. A male friend was driving the car and my two female friends were asleep beside me. I was relaxing in the back of the car but still awake. I was excited about the trip as they were relatively new friends and camping/hiking was still a novel experience for me. Suddenly, in front of the car, I saw a large black cat crossing the road. It was caught in the headlights of the car. It moved with purpose but was not running.

"What the f**k?", my friend said who was driving. I saw his head turning to look at me and, for some reason, I suddenly closed my eyes and pretended I was asleep. I've often regretted that action ever since. Was he going to say, "Did you just see that?"

Why I did this, I'm not sure. I really liked this guy, so perhaps I didn't want to seem silly. I knew he came from a scientific background and was more likely to be sceptical. He never mentioned it the next day. Nor did I. Now we're no longer in touch, so I can't ask him.

I've heard many theories about what big cat sightings are over the years; it's just a fox, it's a large domestic cat, etc. I've grown up with cats my entire life. I'm very used to the proportions and relative sizes of cats compared to their environment. Personally, I know that it wasn't a domestic cat I saw that day, but it was a cat. Cat's move in a very particular way, unlike any other creature. It was a skulking movement, a larger version of how my own cats move.

I always listen with interest, therefore, to other people's claims to have spotted big cats in the British countryside. I never dismiss them out of hand because my own experience makes me open-minded that others may have seen something too. I was very curious to hear recently about big cat sightings local to me in the Essex Villages of Great and Little Sampford. The Yorkshire Dales National Park sounds plausible. It's a big open, relatively empty area with lots of places to hide, but a large cat hunting amongst the chocolate box thatched cottages of Essex? Well, that's another thing entirely. It sounds so implausible, yet over recent years there have been several sightings in the area. The latest was by a local dog walker, out early one morning, travelling down a small country lane. He stopped dead in his tracks when he saw the creature in front of him. He captured the photo I've used to illustrate this article before it disappeared.

There have been many theories over the years seeking to explain how big cats could exist in the British countryside. Everything from aliens to zoo escapees or the Dangerous Animals Wildlife Act in the 1970s. There are several sites devoted to recording these incidents and if you're interested, you can find out more on Darrell's Big Cat's GB website, which just to warn you contains images of predated animals. You can see where big cats have been spotted on this UK big cat map, or even report your own sightings. There seems to have a very high number of sightings in Wales. There is also the British Big Cats website which contains some very interesting evidence and photos for big cats.

Do big cats exist in the British countryside? I certainly think so, but I'll leave that up to you to decide.

Photo with permission of the owner.


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