Phantom Cats of the UK: The Reality Behind the Myth

big-cats-britain-panther (Image: Midnightblueowl, cc-sa-3.0)

Stories of spectral dogs haunting railway lines, church yards, moors and old gallows crossroads are common in UK folklore. Some legends relate to man’s-best-friend guarding treasure or arriving during a moment of need, while superstition dictates that the appearance of a fiery canine, such as the saucer-eyed grim, is an omen of death. But with a lack of evidence for the existence of a ghostly black dog in modern times, it seems that the supernatural hound has been superseded by the newer urban myth of the phantom cat.

spectral-black-dog-britain (Images: Liza Phoenix, cc-3.0; Man vyi, public domain)

There have been many reported instances of big cats roaming the vales and uplands of rural Britain, and an ongoing debate about what their origins may be. One theory posits that the mysterious felines have been native to Britain since the Ice Age and are living secretly in secluded areas, with only fleeting sightings coinciding with the disappearance of farm animals. Such predatory cats have been apparently elusive. The so-called Beast of Exmoor remained undiscovered when Royal Marines snipers were sent to search for it in the 1980s after a notable loss of livestock. Reports continued, but 30 years later the beast is still considered a legend.

big-cats-britain-black-panthers (Images: Ron Singer; Lizars; public domain; QilinmonAndreas Tille; cc-sa-3.0)

Numerous photographs of big cats has come to light over the years, only to be proven hoaxes or false alarms created by cardboard cutouts, soft toys, large Maine Coons or other domestic cats. But there have been several credible sightings of alien or anomalous big cats since the passing of the 1976 Dangerous Wild Animals Act, which allegedly led to the illegal release of wild cats which were previously being kept as unlicensed pets or used to breed unusual ‘domestic’ variations.

big-cats-britain (Images: Ian Carroll, cc-3.0; Cburnett (inset), cc-sa-3.0)

Real Lynx have in fact been found in Northern Ireland (1996), Suffolk (1991) and London (2001). Worryingly, a puma was also captured in Scotland around 1980 and a leopard was shot on the Isle of White in 1993. Furthermore, in the late 1980s, a jungle cat found dead by the roadside in Shropshire was thought to have mated with domestic cats in the area. While there is no supernatural element surrounding these particular beasts, big cat rumours from the Surrey Puma to the Sheppey Panther have been scaring locals and haunting rural Britain for decades.

But what is the fact behind the myth? Do Britain’s big cats constitute a few runaways, or have the fabled black panthers really stalked the countryside and terrorised livestock for generations?

Keep reading – investigate 5 Eerie Myths of the Natural World.

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