Young film-makers set out to solve the mystery of Big Cats roaming Southern England

A Dorset film-maker is seeking funds to launch 'a full investigation' on reports that Big Cats are loose in the English countryside

Rumour has it that Big Cats are stalking the English countryside and a film-maker from Verwood, in Dorset, intends to discover the truth.

The past few years have seen repeated reports of panther sightings across Southern England—including this 2016 letter to the Editor of the Bournemouth Echo, in which Martin Hill, from Fordingbridge, in Hampshire, says he spotted ‘a big black cat at the edge of the wood’ while out walking on a footpath near Sturton Hatch.

The police was also called in Westbourne last year, after residents thought they had seen a huge creature roaming down a local road.

One of the ‘spotters’ is Mike Coggan, a producer and director at a video and animation company in Verwood, Dorset, who, several years ago, had ‘a strange encounter’ with an animal that he thought might be a black leopard.

This prompted him to investigate the sightings and, earlier this year, his company produced a popular YouTube documentary in which he interviews people who had close encounters with the cats.

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Among them is Derek Gibson, one of the carnivore keepers at Exmoor Zoo, who is undoubtedly experienced at telling a leopard from a big black dog. ‘I remember seeing a leopard, probably the best part of 15-16 years ago,’ he says in the documentary. ‘If you worked with them for a very long time, it’s quite obvious what you are looking for.’

Mr Coggan believes the first cats were set loose more than thirty years ago, following the introduction of the Dangerous Wild Animals Act in 1976, by owners who didn’t want the hassle of obtaining a licence and meeting the law’s stringent requirements.

‘The owners now needed to face a choice between building an enclosure with the appropriate size, temperature, ventilation drainage and so on, or they could just release their animals as easily and carelessly as they had bought them,’ he explains in the video.

‘While most exotic species either died out or were captured, it is believed that, being such adaptable animals, leopards, pumas and lynx went on to breed and have a quiet life in the British countryside.’

And because the cats look ‘for an easy target’, such as rabbits and deer, they are unlikely to attack humans.

Although Mr Coggan admits to the Bournemouth Echo that none of the cats has ever been clearly caught on camera, including the ones he and his crew placed in areas where sightings had previously been reported, this doesn’t rule out their presence. ‘It’s not surprising there is no crystal-clear footage or photographs around considering how brief the encounters are that people have with them and just how adaptable these animals are.

‘It seems very plausible that these big cats are out there and so the question remain: Can their existence be confirmed?’

In a bid to get a definitive answer, Mr Coggan is now seeking funds to launch ‘a full investigation’ which will include trying to track the Big Cats with a thermal drone.