for National Geographic News
If it is true that big cats haven't lived wild in the U.K. for 2,000 years, then, judging from the results of a new survey, a lot of large house cats now roam the British countryside.
Organized by British Big Cats Society (BBCS), the nationwide survey recorded 2,052 unconfirmed sightings of big cats in just 15 months, between January 2003 and March of this year.
The sighting counts averaged four each day. Two-thirds of the sightings involved large black animals resembling melanistic leopards, also known as panthers. If all these sightings had been confirmed, it would mean the U.K.'s leopard population now rivals that of the Kashmir region of the Indian subcontinent.
The survey was compiled with the help of farmers, police officers, and other observers. The BBCS, based near Plymouth, England, says, "There is little doubt that big cats are roaming Britain."
Besides leopards, the society claims Britain may also be home to wild pumas and other exotic felines such as lynx and caracals that have either escaped from or been deliberately released from zoos and private collections. Officially, the last large cat living in Britain was the northern lynx some 2,000 years ago.
The new data include reports of five attacks on horses, more than 30 sheep-kill incidents, and several discoveries of paw prints. Southwest and southeast England had the highest percentage of reported sightings.
Farmers were among the main contributors to the study. The National Farmers' Union, which represents farmers in England and Wales, had encouraged its members to become the "eyes and ears" of the countryside for the BBCS.
"They have had a lot of unexplained livestock kills and attacks," said British Big Cats Society founder Danny Bamping. "These involved not just sheep but goats, chickens, and horses. Farmers know what sort of damage foxes or dogs can cause, and many of them have seen these cats."
While Bamping concedes that a significant number of these "big cats" were probably nothing more than oversized domestic cats, deer, or foxes, he believes around 70 percent of the sightings were genuine.
He says the society already has good evidence for the existence of large felines in Britain, including records of 19 pumas, lynx, jungle cats, and leopards trapped, shot, or run over since 1980.
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