Belfast Telegraph

Police probe 23 reports of big cats running wild in Northern Ireland in six years

By Adrian Rutherford

Police have investigated more than 20 reported sightings of big cats in the Northern Ireland countryside in the past six years.

A total of 455 suspected sightings took place around the UK between 2010 and 2015.

PSNI figures show 23 of these were in Northern Ireland, including 12 in one year.

A number of high-profile sightings have made headlines in recent times.

In September 2013 police and the USPCA urged vigilance following claims of a big cat terrorising livestock in Co Down.

A number of farmers in the Dromara and Hillsborough area had reported some sheep missing and others left bloodied.

Some residents also claimed to have seen a big cat in the same general area over a similar period of time.

And in July 2014 a woman claimed to have spotted a beast similar in appearance to a puma or jaguar prowling the countryside near Limavady.

Across the UK, more than one big cat sighting is reported to police every week.

Norfolk and Suffolk had the most sightings, with 57 and 26 respectively.

The figures were obtained by MailOnline after a Freedom of Information request.

Jonathan Downes, an expert in unknown animals, said it was likely big cats were breeding in the wild. He cited as evidence the frequency of sightings long after it became illegal to domesticate them.

"Since the Dangerous Wild Animals Act, which came into law in 1976, people have not been allowed to keep big cats as pets," Mr Downes said.

"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."

Out of the UK's 43 police forces, 13 refused to provide data, including Police Scotland. It means the true total could be higher.

An estimated 2,000 sightings take place each year, the vast majority of which are not reported.

Last year the Belfast Telegraph reported how tigers, wolves and even a rattlesnake were being kept as pets in Northern Ireland.

A total of 39 exotic creatures are held by 11 licensed keepers.

The list also includes vipers, raccoons, coatis and a Gila monster - a venomous lizard native to desert land near the US-Mexican border.

The animals were licensed under the terms of the Dangerous Wild Animals (NI) Order 2004.

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