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Expert on prowl to solve ‘big cat’ mystery

By Hector MacKenzie

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This image shot by Lisa Sydenham of Tain, sparked a flurry of interest amongst big cat enthusiasts.
This image shot by Lisa Sydenham of Tain, sparked a flurry of interest amongst big cat enthusiasts.

THE mystery of a panther-like big cat spotted by a series of credible Ross-shire witnesses has been revisited by an acknowledged expert in the field.

The Ross-shire Journal was the first to report a number of mysterious sightings in the area last year — and on the aftermath of some grisly and still unexplained livestock deaths.

In an exhaustively researched new book, "Big Cats: Facing Britain’s Wild Predators", author Rick Minter acknowledges that "the watch for the Highland panther goes on".

Appealing for sensible, scientific checks and scale measurements to take precedence over strong opinions and emotion, the author probes in detail a sighting near Embo by sisters Lisa and Alana Sydenham, first reported in the Journal.

The pair from Tain had been out driving on April 27 last year when their attention was grabbed by what they first thought was a black Labrador moving at the edge of a sown field.

Watching closely, they believed the animal was much more cat-like. Lisa had the presence of mind to snap off some pictures with a point and shoot camera and remained convinced this was no ordinary domestic cat.

The reported sighting coincided with a number across Ross-shire and the wider Highlands.

Mr Minter told the Journal, "Lisa and Alana’s sighting was used for an important part of the book, to illustrate how to do a scale measurement of a photographed cat. It is essential to do a scale exercise to be more certain of the scale of the animal seen, rather than just make assumptions.

"For the purposes of the book Lisa and Alana created a cut-out silhouette cat as a comparison scale and also used a marker pole. They then reshot the photographs from the same location, with the props in the location of the original cat. They also paced out the distance. They took several photos marking the exact location where the cat moved and was photographed.

"We then sent the new photos to film maker Mark Fletcher who makes wildlife documentaries for BBC Natural World and is working on a documentary on UK feral big cats."

He admitted, "We were all genuinely surprised at the results, as the Embo cat appeared to be in the region of 60cm nose to rump. That is at the extreme scale of a domestic cat."

Mr Minter concluded, "The cat was not a Tiddles at all, but neither was it a panther. It registered at close-on 60 cms from nose to rump. The largest of my own two black adult moggies is 41cms nose to rump, but such domestics can occasionally reach 60cms. The Embo cat could be a range of things, perhaps most likely a large feral, or more intriguingly a cat, young or mature, of more exotic or mixed origin.

"From its behaviour, as watched by Lisa and Alana, it appeared more wild than domestic in its character. Knowing it was being watched, it stayed confident and kept to itself, unwavering in intent."

Lisa told the Journal, "I can’t really argue with the experts!

"Rick is aware that I am not convinced that the size comparison is right but I don’t want to cause any uproar. His book is very good though."

The sisters are far from alone. Fearn-based Sheena MacBain (46), pictured right, environmental science graduate and daughter of a gamekeeper, told the Journal last September how she had a dramatic change of heart after seeing a mysterious black creature cross the road in front of her.

She said the morning sighting near Cuthill had turned her from an extreme sceptic. "I now know this is no longer just a story," she said.

? Big Cats: Facing Britain’s Wild Predators is published by Whittles. Watch out for a review in a forthcoming edition.

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