Sunday, 18 March 2007

Which 'big cats' roam Kent ?

Although KENT BIG CAT RESEARCH believes the press is a vital aid with regards to appealing for witnesses to come forward to report sightings of cats, at times the media can also provide obstacles due to lack of knowledge.

The term 'big cat' applies to large cats which can roar, including the leopard, lion, tiger and jaguar. However, the only 'big cat' roaming the UK, officially, is the leopard. In nearly all these cases the leopard is of melanistic form, meaning it has a dark pigment to the coat. The press tend to confuse the issue but over time are gradually catching on to realise that leopards can be 'black' but black pumas DO NOT exist. Black leopards, also called the 'panther' although this term in the USA is used to describe the fawn-coloured puma, are simply darker versions of the normal spotted leopards and are native to Africa and parts of Asia. The reason only black leopards are seen in the UK is as follows; such animals were very common pets in the '60s and '70s, and when released into the wilds, as many were, such animals only produce black offspring, hence the continued sightings of black only leopards. In most cases such cats are in fact very, very dark brown and under the right conditions, the rosettes of the coat can be viewed, however, more and more reports are coming through of jet-black leopards. This 'blackness' is caused by a recessive gene, as over time, various generations of cats are becoming darker and darker, as if the rosette pattern is fading out.
The black leopard can reach a length of around six-feet but in the UK a majority of reports seem to describe Labrador-sized cats, at times slinkier. This is down to the fact that such cats are not simply being imported from Africa and released, they are very much British 'big cats' as such, but evolving in a smaller habitat, smaller territories and smaller prey. Other sightings of smaller cats would also concern younger cats. Some researchers theorise that what people are seeing are in fact new species of cats, but in Kent there is no evidence to suggest a species other than the black leopard. Whilst melanism occurs in certain other species of cats, there is no evidence to suggest, in Kent, that people are seeing other species of melanistic felid.

The puma is the largest of the Lesser cats and not a 'big cat' as it cannot roar, but omits a horrifying, eerie scream. Again, such a cat in its native land, being Canada and parts of the USA, can reach quite a length, but in the UK a majority of the species seem to be slightly smaller. The puma, aka Mountain Lion and Cougar, is a tan-fawn-coloured animal with a long tail and smallish head. These cats were also common household pets in the 1960s onwards, and also part of the travelling menageries and Roman exhibitions.
unfortunately, around the time of the Surrey puma episode, the press continued to report sightings of black pumas, but such animals do not exist. Much of this confusion obviously came about due to the fact that the term 'panther' was being used for the black leopard and witnesses and the like did not realise that leopards could be black, and so all cat sightings of the time were pretty much being blamed on the puma. All it did show was that there was in fact a variety of felids at large in the UK, but instead the ignorance of the press merely eradicated any notion that a variety of cats were inhabiting the woods.
In the USA locals are convinced that they are seeing black pumas. In areas such as New Jersey and Vermont the puma was allegedly driven to extinction during the early 1900s, but this seems not to be the case as sightings still crop up proving that these elusive animals have simply cowered into the remotest parts of each state. Sightings of black cats in the USA are probably black leopards, but because the native cat is the puma it is very likely that sightings of darker but similar looking cats, are being blamed on the native cat. The only way we can fully prove the myth of the black cougar in the US is if someone sees a big black cat scream, until then, the black puma remains pure fantasy.

Both the puma and the leopard will find Britain ideal habitat. These are very elusive and agile hunters and the wildlife of the UK is ample enough for such predators. Pigeons, pheasants, foxes, domestic cats, sheep, lambs, squirrels, deer, small dogs, ducks, geese, rabbits, are just a few animals on the menu of these cats. Such animals also have vast territories. In their native land territories may stretch to 250 sq miles but in the UK these cats will have a range of some 50 to 80 sq miles, the only obstacles being major wide rivers although such cats can swim.
There is certainly enough woodland for these animals to disappear into, and mainly hunting throughout the night provides them sufficient cover. A majority of sightings tend to occur on the roads, hedgerows and close to towns when these cats are on the move. Unfortunately, the press does confine such animals to certain areas. The press love headlines so tags such as 'the beast of Bodmin, the Fen Tiger' and 'the beast of Blue Bell Hill' may have caught the eye but also tied certain felids to areas which are only just a segment of their territory.

The lynx was native to the UK around 4,000 years ago ? Did it ever die out ? Whilst it's difficult to actually monitor as to whether such an elusive cat did become extinct, such a felid is very common in the woodlands of the UK but sightings are slightly less than those of the puma and black leopard. The lynx is a smaller animal, reaching up to four-feet, but weighing up to 80lbs, known for its bobbed tail and large, tufted ears and large padded feet. The coat is a mottle grey and rusted brown at time with spots, and the prey and territory of such a species is smaller, although if the opportunity comes, such a cat will take large prey such as deer. The Eurasian lynx inhabits northern Europe and east Asia.

Even smaller cats have been sighted across the UK. The leggy Jungle Cat, also known as the Swamp Cat or Reed Cat and native to Asia and the Middle East, is able to breed with the domestic cat. This cat bears some similarities to the Caracal, but has shorter ears, wildcat stripes on its head and stripes at times on its limbs, with a white upper lip. This cat reaches a length of around three-feet and hunts along rivers, streams and on marshland, feasting on small prey such as lizards, mice, birds, and also fish.
The Caracal, often confused with the lynx, and at times known as the 'desert lynx', and native to parts of Africa has large, pencil-lined ears, and is famed for its ability to spring to a height of ten-feet! Melanistic individuals have been recorded of this species which can reach up to three-feet in length.

Other cats sighted in Britain:

Bobcat - roams parts of the USA, Mexico and Canada, often confused with the lynx, having a bobbed tail, tawny coloured with a facial ruff.
Ocelot - sightings usually occur after such cats have escaped private collections or zoo parks. The ocelot has a coat of chained rosettes, is a nocturnal cat which hunts small prey in South America.
Serval - sightings in Kent of such a cat are few and far between but DO exist, suggesting very small populations that may eventually die out. However, as with all the smaller cat species, it's difficult to determine just how individuals there are out there. The serval has large ears and resembles a very small cheetah. Its yellowish fur is covered in dark spots, and again, such a cat can grow to around three-feet in length.
African Golden Cat - could this animal be responsible for some puma sightings ? It's unlikely that such a cat exists in great numbers in the UK. This medium-sized felid has a coat that can range from grey to reddish-brown but as a species has hardly been studied.

The cats which certainly DO NOT roam the UK:

During the 1960s around the county of Surrey several witnesses reported seeing a lioness in the woods. This was a simple mistake to make at the time, as the public were not accustomed to seeing wild cats in the woods, and the press despite numerous reports, were not accustomed to identifying the varying species and so often went along with the eye-witness descriptions. However, what people were seeing was in fact a puma, but because the only animal most people had seen in zoo parks was a lioness, when they encountered a sandy-coloured cat in the woods, Labrador-sized, they'd truly believed they'd seen a young lioness.
Reports across the UK of lions, tigers, jaguars, cheetahs and clouded leopards have trickled to the press. However, such sightings would only occur if such an animal escaped from a zoo which has happened in the past. During the mid-'70s a clouded leopard escaped from Howlett's Zoo Park in nr Canterbury. It was on the loose for 18 months before being shot.
Tiger's and the likes have escaped from enclosures and private collections but the larger cats would require larger meals and are not as elusive as the puma and leopard. Reports of the jaguar also occur. Such a beast is bulkier than the leopard but its rosettes have dark centres. These cats, native to central and south America have heavily muscled quarters, but again, sightings would only occur should one escape. Felids such as the lion, tiger, jaguar and cheetah are not evolving in our countryside.

No comments: