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The Mammal Society (MS)

Bungay, Suffolk
(with more on the Black Dog legend)

Illustrations from 'A Hand-Book to the Carnivora' by Richard Lydekker, published 1896.


More feature articles

Big Cats in Britain

John A Burton

LeopardMost people in Britain have heard of the tales of pumas and 'panthers' roaming Bodmin Moor and other parts of the British countryside, and many say they believe in them, or at least keep an open mind. But what are the facts behind these alleged occurrences? (left - Leopard)

First and foremost, very few trained naturalists have ever seen one. Most of the sighting have been made by persons who couldn't tell a hawk from a handsaw. Most birdwatchers know how difficult it can be to judge the size of an isolated bird, even under good lighting conditions. Identifying animals at dusk or in the dark is even more difficult. So, the majority of sightings can simply be explained as dog, cats and foxes seen by untrained inexpert viewers. By all means keep an open mind, but not so open your brains fall out.

The conclusive evidence against the occurrence of big cats living un the UK is the lack of any evidence other than these sightings. It is often claimed that the footprints have been found, but all of them when properly identified turn out to be either cats or large dogs - most people have simply no idea how large a genuine puma or leopard print is. I visit North America regularly, as well as Central and South America. I have seen jaguar footprints on numerous occasions - in fact I can almost guarantee to show a visitor the tracks when I'm in Belize - but I have NEVER seen one. And this is true of most naturalists. You can live among large cats for years, see plenty of evidence, but rarely see them. The same is true in North America. Puma kills, footprints scats can be easy to find, but the animals themselves are incredibly elusive.

PumaThe World Land Trust has recently bought a 15,000-acre nature reserve in Patagonia, and on my first visit I found puma (right) scats and footprints for myself, and was shown a kill. Lots of people have seen the footprints since, and at least a dozen puma kills have been found. After all an animal the size of a puma has a big appetite, and need around two sheep a week. But so far only one warden has actually seen a puma.

So what are these mysterious big cats in England? The simple answer is they are close relatives of the Hound of the Baskervilles, which also occurred on Bodmin Moor. I live a couple of miles from the town of Bungay in Suffolk, and Bungay's main claim to fame is the appearance of 'black shuck' on August 4 1577. These mysterious black dogs, with fiendish propensities, which often struck down their beholders, occurred widely throughout the country and throughout history. That is until they metamorphosed into big cats.

For more information on Black dogs visit:

John Burton is the CEO of the World Land Trust and natural history author.