From the Beast of Bodmin to the Essex lion, reports of big cats roaming the British countryside have been a "silly season" staple for years.
The claims are generally dismissed as the invention of cranks and fantasists, but now academics have found incontrovertible evidence that a large predatory feline similar to the notorious Beast of Bodmin was on the prowl more than a century ago.
A stuffed Canadian lynx, reliably dated to the early 1900s, has been found deep in the vaults of the Bristol Museum and Art Gallery. The creature – twice the size of a domestic cat – was shot dead by a Devon landowner after it had killed two dogs.
A multi-disciplinary team of researchers from Durham, Bristol, Southampton and Aberystwyth universities believe the animal is the earliest example of an "alien big cat" to be discovered in the British Isles.
"This Edwardian feral lynx provides concrete evidence that although rare, exotic felids have occasionally been part of British fauna for more than a century," said lead researcher Dr Ross Barnett of Durham University's Department of Archaeology.
Dr Barnett said he believed the animal may have been part of a travelling menagerie, which were popular before zoos became more commonplace. An analysis of the lynx's teeth and plaque suggest that the animal was kept in captivity before being released.
As yet there is no evidence to suggest that big cats are able to breed in the wild in Britain, although a type of Eurasian Lynx – similar to the Canadian variety – was present in the UK before becoming extinct around the 7th century.
The findings, published in the journal Historical Biology, challenge another key myth surrounding the British big cat phenomenon. It has been claimed that the animals were all released after the introduction of the 1976 Wild Animals Act which outlawed the keeping of exotic pets.
Co-author Dr Darren Naish, from the University of Southampton, said it was likely there had been escapes throughout recent history. "There have been enough sightings of exotic big cats which substantially pre-date 1976 to cast doubt on the idea that one piece of legislation made in 1976 explains all releases of these animals in the UK," he said.
Sightings of big cats remain commonplace. A study by the British Big Cat Society found 2,123 sightings of big cats reported between April 2004 and July 2005 with the South West the most common place to see them.
Last year a couple on holiday near Clacton-on-Sea, Essex, sparked a major police search involving firearms officers, a helicopter with thermal imaging equipment and experts from Colchester Zoo. The animal was never found.
A Ministry of Agriculture inquiry into the Beast of Bodmin in 1995 after the discovery of footprints and four suspected livestock kills concluded there was "no verifiable evidence" of a big cat on the loose. More tangible evidence came in 1980 when Felicity the puma was recovered by a farmer in Aberdeenshire. In 1993 a leopard was reportedly shot dead whilst attacking chickens in the Isle of Wight.
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