SIGHTINGS of mysterious big cats in Dorset have sparked intense debate in recent years.
Many are convinced that here are panthers roaming the countryside while others maintain that with no conclusive proof of their existence that it is highly unlikely they exist in the wild.
There have, however, been numerous reported sightings in recent years.
According to figures obtained by the Echo, a total of 53 people have made emergency calls to report their wild cat encounters since 2006.
After talk of a lion on the prowl in Essex, the popular subject has resurfaced with Dorset named as a ‘hot spot’ for sightings by big cat experts.
Experts claim that most people who spot a big cat do not contact police due to fears of not being taken seriously.
The most recent sighting given to police came in February from a caller who claimed to have seen a big cat which was ‘totally black’ and ‘stocky’ with a ‘very long tail’ in Sherford, Wareham.
A month earlier an informant called to report a sighting of a large cat which ‘looks like a panther’ in the Powerstock, near Bridport.
One caller claimed a ‘lioness’ was seen ‘lying in the grass’ in October 2008 in Sturminster Newton.
While seven callers dialled to warn police after spotting a mysterious creature in the Weymouth area, three people reported sightings from Dorchester during the last five years.
A spokesman for Dorset Police said: “We encourage members of the public to take a common sense approach to any such incidents and to call the police non-emergency number, 101 in the first instance.
“Dorset police urge people use the 999 number in an emergency, when a crime is in progress or life is at risk.”
Big cat researcher and author Merrily Harpur said: “There have been a lot of big cat sightings reported in the county over the years.
“Dorset is a hot spot for big cat sightings.
“In the last couple of years I have been told of more than 300 sightings.
“One of the interesting things about big cats in Britain is that they are very variable in their colours.
“Around 85 per cent of sightings report a black cat but quite a few say they resemble a panther-like creature or are brown like a puma.
“But there’s a whole range of other animals that vary in colour from brindled to gingery.
“Anyone who glimpses these creatures for more than a few seconds is very lucky and I would urge people in that area to carry a camera.”
She added: “There are a lot of big cats in Dorset and all over the country.”
Big cat expert Mark Fraser, 49, who records big cat sightings, said: “The number reported to the police is a low number. Many do not talk to them about this because they are scared people will think they are crazy.
“This year alone we have had hundreds of sighting across the UK but Dorset is a hot spot.”
How beasts have made the news
Over the years each sighting has added a new twist to the mystery of the Dorset big cat.
In March 2010 a lamb was savaged in Bockhampton in what was believed to be a big cat attack.
The ‘Beast of Bockhampton’ struck in a field close to Jean and Tony Waterman’s farm.
A single lamb was taken from the Watermans’ flock and the behaviour of the sheep afterwards left the couple – who run Pine Lodge Farm and Tearooms in Bockhampton – suspecting they had been paid a visit by an unusual predator.
Vet Duncan Reavell looked at a picture of a deer thought to have been killed by the predator in the same year and said a big cat could have been responsible.
RSPCA shop worker Judy Paterson came across the carcass while walking her dog at Conygar Hill near Dorchester.
In January 2004, Margery Hookings, former editor of the Bridport News, claimed to spot a big black cat while driving on the A3066 road between Melplash and Beaminster.
The location is the same as a previous sighting by teenager Ashley Blanning, from Bridport, who witnessed a similar animal running down the field in September.
In the same year, photographer Alan McNamee, of Bridport, had his first wild encounter.
He is now convinced of the existence of the animal and set up a team ready to respond to sightings.
Victoria Briggs, 31, of Weymouth, claims she saw a 'big black cat' in 2000 at Sea View Holiday Park in Preston while eating lunch with her mum.
STORIES of big cats go back to the 1960s and 1970s when it was legal and fashionable to keep exotic animals as pets.
Before the Dangerous Wild Animals Act in 1976, the wealthy could take their lion, tiger or cheetah for a walk around the park without needing a licence.
But the law was changed to protect the public and animals.
DORSET Police have received a total of 53 reported sightings of big cats since 2006.
In those five years 22 calls were made by those who had dialled 999 to report seeing a ‘big cat’.
A total of 20 believers picked up the phone after claiming to see a ‘large cat’.
While 11 told officers they had seen a ‘black panther’ in the county.