Leopards and pumas are breeding in the British countryside
Leopards and pumas are breeding in rural Britain, an expert has claimed, as new data shows more than one big cat sighting is being reported to police every week.
Forces in England, Wales and Northern Ireland logged 455 sightings of big cats from members of the public between 2010 and 2015.
Norfolk and Suffolk had the most sightings, with 57 and 26 respectively. Accounts of a black panther stalking the two counties have featured regularly in news reports.
Leopards and pumas are breeding in Britain, an expert has said, as new data shows more than one big cat sighting is being reported to police every week. Picture shows an African leopard
Jonathan Downes, an expert in unknown animals, said the frequency of sightings long after it became illegal to domesticate big cats proved they are breeding in the wild.
Mr Downes is head of the Centre for Fortean Zoology, said to be the world’s largest organisation for the study of unknown animals.
He told MailOnline: 'Since the Dangerous Wild Animals Act, which came into law in 1977, people have not been allowed to keep big cats as pets.
'Many big cat sightings are of animals that were kept as pets and released. Or they may be ones that escaped from zoos or were purposely let out into the wild.
'I am certain that big cats such as leopards and pumas must be breeding, as they do not live 40 years in the wild.
'Also, there have been occasional sightings of females with cubs.’
In Devon and Cornwall, where police logs describing each sighting, there were five instances of farm animals being killed in suspected big cat attacks.
Three of these sightings were in two consecutive months.
In December 2012, two sheep were found dead near Torrington, north Devon, with ‘claw marks on their backs’.
In the same month a ram was killed at Buckfastleigh, on the south-east edge of Bodmin Moor. Forces in England, Wales and Northern Ireland logged 455 sightings of big cats from members of the public between 2010 and 2015. Pictured is a black leopard
Norfolk and Suffolk had the most sightings, with 57 and 26 respectively. Big cats like this snow leopard can survive in cold conditions
The month before two sheep were found ‘with throat ripped out’ near Axminster.
Out of the UK’s 43 police forces, 13 refused to provide data under Freedom of Information rules to MailOnline, including Police Scotland.
This means the total number of reports would have been higher.
There are an estimated 2,000 sightings each year, the vast majority of which are not reported to the authorities.
Some have been dismissed as hoaxes, and John Royale, Livestock Manager at the NFU, said he had not seen evidence of wild cats attacking farm animals.
However, a DNA test on hairs found in Lincolnshire carried out by a government-licensed laboratory found they came from the leopard family.
Mr Downes himself carried out a test on fur found in North Devon which was found to be from a leopard.
He said: 'Leopards and pumas in the wild live in the countryside quite similar to the UK.
‘For example, there are pumas in North America pumas and leopards as far north as Siberia.’
Postal worker Phil Chapman, 38, was looking out his York motel room window while on the phone to a friend when a 'panther-like' animal emerged from the bushes
Mr Downes, who has written 20 books on unproven and mythical phenomena, said he did not think larger cats, like lions and tigers, are rearing their young in the UK.
Police forces in Devon and Cornwall, where there were 28 sightings, did not say whether any cases reported to them had been genuine.
Norfolk and Suffolk Constabulary also did not offer an opinion.
The fewest number of sightings were in the north of England, with two over the full six years in North Yorkshire and Country Durham.
Kent Police said: ‘Officers would attend if a member of the public was injured or if the animal posed a danger.
‘When appropriate officers will liaise with local big cat societies and the RSPCA as they are better equipped to deal these incidents.’
Before the Dangerous Wild Animals Act, which came into force in 1977, people were allowed to keep big cats at pets. Maurice Wheeler kept a puma in his London home during the 1960s
Locals signed a petition to get the puma, named Dax, set free. Mr Downes believes several animals escaped from private collections after the act required owners to get a license
A Norfolk Constabulary spokesman said: ‘All reported sightings are recorded by the police and each report is assessed on its own merit.
‘If encountering a large cat police would call the wildlife authorities to ensure the creature is captured safely.
‘We would always encourage members of the public to take a common sense approach to any such incidents.
'They should not to endanger themselves and call the police in the first instance.’