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Helicopters join search for Essex lion

By Tom Lawrence and David Mercer

Firearms officers and police helicopters have joined the hunt for a lion that is thought to be roaming loose in Essex.

The claims of a potentially killer cat on the loose were met with a mixture of shock and disbelief but Essex Police scrambled helicopters with heat-seeking equipment to land around Earls Hall Drive in St Osyth, near Clacton, where the lion was apparently seen.

Initially police warned residents to stay inside their homes as officers began a search for the unusual Most Wanted target.

But today police said residents could still enjoy a walk in Clacton's countryside.

A force spokesman said: "Public safety is our priority which is why we are taking the sighting and all associated evidence seriously.

"We have an increased police presence in the area which will offer reassurance to local residents, motorists and holidaymakers.

"We would encourage people to enjoy the Bank Holiday Monday, indulging in activities as they want to.

"For those who wish to take a walk in the countryside surrounding Clacton, then we would just ask them to be extra vigilant and cautious.

"However, they will probably see us first before they see anything else."

The police enlisted the help of experts from Colchester Zoo who believe the sighting to be genuine after viewing a photograph of the creature taken by a local.

As well as a heightened police presence and helicopter search, zoo workers said to be armed with tranquilliser guns also joined armed officers.

Officers were today returning to areas where the animal was apparently spotted to search for clues such as pawprints.

Roger Lord, of Earls Hall Farm, St Osyth, said caravan residents on the farm land passed police a picture of the suspected lion after photographing it.

"The first thing we knew about it was a phone call from the police last night," he said.

"I am sceptical - I think it might just well be a large domestic cat but they certainly saw something that they were were concerned about and they went down the right route to the police.

"They have taken it very seriously and have put two helicopters up in the air and I don't know how many armed police that we still have on site now.

"They have taken it very seriously."

Most of the residents of the caravans were on site at the time of the sighting, he added.

"I think most of them were on site at the time, so more than one person saw it."

Mystery surrounds where the lion might have come from.

Police ruled out Colchester Zoo as all its animals were accounted for.

Rumours spread that the lion might have fled a circus performing in the Essex area, but they are yet to be substantiated.

The Great British Circus was based at Clacton Airfield but its run in the area ended around a fortnight ago, according to a local events website.

Che Kevlin said he heard what he believed to be a roar while out walking his dog last night.

"I heard a loud roar at 10pm. It sounded like a lion," he told the BBC.

"It was worrying as we had just been for a walk with the dog. We saw the police helicopter but thought it was just searching for a person.

"It sounded like the roar of a lion. We have a field and wood just behind our fence, so you never know."

Pub landlord Dave Sparks, who runs the Red Lion pub in St Osyth, described the police hunt as "surreal".

He told ITV News: "You don't really expect to be told there's a lion wandering around the area.

"No one really felt there was any immediate danger in the village - a couple of families with young children were a bit worried but after a while they were ok."

Last year West Yorkshire Police scrambled a helicopter and passengers were stopped from leaving a train after a motorist reported seeing a lion as she drove through Shepley near Huddersfield.

A hunt found nothing.

This afternoon, police said they had not yet found any proof, such as prints or droppings, to confirm the sighting.

A spokesman said between two and six people claimed to have seen the big cat but there had been no further sightings since yesterday.

The police hunt is likely to be scaled down tonight if no evidence emerges, the spokesman added.

Denise Martin, 52, a warehouse operative, was the first to spot the suspected lion yesterday evening from the windows of her caravan on the site at Earls Hall Farm.

Mrs Martin, from Canvey Island, was spending the Bank Holiday weekend at the site with her husband, Bob, 51, a professional driver, her brother, David Wright, 57, a lorry driver, and his wife, Sue, 58.

"I was looking out of the window and we saw smoke - it looked like there had been a bit of a bonfire. When you are in a caravan you panic about smoke," Mrs Martin said.

"When the smoke cleared I could see this shape in the field, so I got the binoculars out. We had a look and it looked like a lion.

"I said to my husband 'What do you make of that?' He said 'That's a lion.' We walked out of the caravan nearer to the field to get a better look.

"Five or 10 minutes later we got my brother and my sister-in-law to have a look. They came and looked at it and said 'It looks like a lion.' My husband phoned the police."

She said the lion was tan coloured with a white chest.

"We weren't scared at all - it was excitement. You don't often see something like that in the wild. One time it sat up and looked at us and we could see its ears twitching. It knew we were there and it sat down and started cleaning itself."

Mrs Wright, a housewife and a mother of three children, from Dagenham, Essex, said the group watched the lion for around half an hour before it disappeared.

"Denise was the first to see it at around 6.30pm and she called myself and my husband and her husband to verify that it was what she thought it was," she said.

"The moment I saw it, straight away I said 'That looks like a lioness.'

"We then phoned the police. We phoned the police before I started to take pictures. I just thought we would take them so that we had proof of what we were seeing.

"When the farmer came he walked into the field and the lion got up and walked away into the next field."

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