I’ve reported on Big Cat sightings in the West Midlands for decades - but there aren't any out there

Journalist Mike Lockley discusses the probability of Big Cats roaming the country parks and open spaces across the West Midlands
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For members of the press, it is the purrfect storm – something they can really get their claws into. 

The topic of big cats on the loose is again fur game for those seeking dramatic headlines, even if the stories lack a little substance. The fresh drama was whipped up following this week’s “incredible” footage of an oversized feline roaming Cheshire countryside

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It is even more incredible than last year’s incredible footage of a panther in Smallthorne, Staffordshire, that featured in the documentary “Panthera Britannia Declassified”, aired on Amazon Prime. 

There are a staggering 2,000 reported sightings of big cats in Britain each year – and our region is, if the claims are to be believed, a fertile breeding ground for the animals. The West Midlands is big cat country. The beasts have been seen in Birmingham, frequently on Cannock Chase and across Warwickshire. 

  • Last year, it was reported DNA proved black hair found tangled on barbed wire fringing Gloucestershire farmland came from a big cat. 
  • In 2021, a walker caused excitement by alleging the panther of Pebworth, Warwickshire, was back. It’s been seen on a number of occasions since then. 
  • In 2018, teaching assistant Dawn Paige provided very compelling video evidence of a big cat prowling near bins close to her home in Oldbury. 
  • In 2010, police were even called over reports of a panther resting in a tree in Wednesfield. 

A 'big cat' sighting in CheshireA 'big cat' sighting in Cheshire
A 'big cat' sighting in Cheshire

Many are convinced the dangerous animals are out there. It is merely a question of whether they are successfully breeding in our countryside. I’ll admit to being part of the frenzy. As a reporter who, for 25 years, worked a patch that included Cannock Chase I’ve been on numerous big cat hunts. All were fruitless. 

I’ve published the eye-witness accounts of many, many people who alleged Close Encounters of the Furred Kind. I know how mistakes are made, I know the panther pitfalls. 

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When the snow falls this week, there will be another wave of big cat sightings. I guarantee it. That’s because a covering of snow produces endless photographs of over-sized “paw prints”, those who took them claiming they were made by pumas or panthers. 

They are wrong. The prints belong to rabbits, the bunny’s bum making a large indentation in the centre, the claimed claw marks are its feet. And, as a rule of thumb, any paw prints showing claws were made by dogs. Felines can – and do- retract their claws when walking, canines can’t and don’t. 

Big cats are occasionally out there. I will stick my neck out and say that’s a fact. But they have all escaped from captivity. There is no thriving, sustainable population. 

Carl Marshall, who appeared on Netflix show Tiger King, discusses seeing big cat tracksCarl Marshall, who appeared on Netflix show Tiger King, discusses seeing big cat tracks
Carl Marshall, who appeared on Netflix show Tiger King, discusses seeing big cat tracks

One senior West Midlands detective – a big cat believer – told me: “You can get anything into this country. For some years, owning a big cat was something of a status symbol for criminal hierarchy – blame Mike Tyson. Some of those pets escaped.” 

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If they had been thriving for years in our countryside, we’d be seeing them much more regularly. They’re elusive, but not that elusive. Surely someone by now would’ve provided images of cubs? Surely a hi-res, decent quality picture would’ve been taken? 

Back in 2015, TV naturalist Gordon Buchanan told the Shropshire Star: "I said about five years ago that, with everybody carrying mobile phones with cameras, we will soon have conclusive evidence if there were really big cats out there," he says. "So far that has yet to materialise.” 

And the many photos provided of mutilated carcasses are not the aftermath of big cat feasts. The damage was done by foxes and badgers. We have undeniable proof they’ve spent a short time away from captivity in our open spaces. 

On February 3, 1989, an Asian jungle cat was discovered dead on the roadside at Richards Castle, Ludlow. A puma was shot in Inverness in 1980, a lynx captured in Cricklewood a year later. All are believed to have been on the run from captivity. But there’s not a chance they are breeding in the wild. Not a prayer. 

Canada Lynx shot in Devon in 1903.Canada Lynx shot in Devon in 1903.
Canada Lynx shot in Devon in 1903.
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A panther has a life expectancy of 12 years, so that drives a coach and horses through claims we are seeing animals deliberately released when the 1976 Dangerous Wild Animals Act, banning ownership of such exotic pets, came into force.  

 Rhoda Watkins, Britain’s top big cat tracker, takes issue with my belief that Britain holds a breeding population. She said: “I have studied the behaviour of animals, including prey species and big cats and see things with a tracking mindset. 

“There is just too much evidence out there that cannot be anything other than big cats. There is a lot of nonsense around sightings of domestic cats and dogs, but all the signs are there is a decent-sized population out there. 

“I spend all my time outdoors and am tracking wildlife constantly. When you do that you find other things that don't fit with the native wildlife. This could be tracks or footprints. On a couple of occasions I have seen kills with carcasses you could not attribute to anything other than a big cat. I have also spoken to so many credible witnesses who have seen similar things.” 

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She added: “People are often shaky when they see something so the photos are often not the best quality. I am always sceptical as it is not something you see every day which is why I take the scientific approach. But the science is out there to corroborate the sightings and I think everyone has got to take that approach otherwise it just falls into legend.” 

The jury is out. But remember one thing, if, in the next few days, someone shows you a picture of a panther’s paw print in the snow, tell them to hop it. It’s a rabbit. 

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