RICK Minter, author of BIG CATS – Facing Britain's Wild Predators, considers Gloucestershire's big cat reports.
"THE big cat reports make us look like yokels," read a comment on the TIG website recently.
But far from being rednecks, people who report big cats are mostly responsible and want the subject studied.
The recent panther reports at Winchcombe follow previous sightings in the Stroud Valleys, three wallabies predated on a private estate in the county, and a black panther reported in the suburbs of Gloucester.
This has all been in 2012, but big cat stories go back many years in the Echo, and researchers like myself and local tracker Frank Tunbridge are regularly contacted by big cat witnesses directly.
In Gloucestershire each year, around 75 per cent of reports are of black panthers and 25 per cent of sandy-grey pumas.
Occasional sightings of lynx also occur.
Misidentification happens, of course, but ordinary citizens are now routinely describing the form, movement, and sometimes the calls of panthers (most likely to be black leopards) and pumas.
These stealthy ambush predators are rarely seen in their native lands. Such cats can readily melt into the UK countryside, mainly living off rabbits, mice, pheasants and deer.
Many landowners aware of big cats have no wish to report that these powerful predators occasionally visit their land.
Not all the evidence is revealed but previous DNA hair samples have tested positive for black leopard in Lincolnshire and for puma near Neath.
Last year, Thames Valley Police and the Home Office announced a plaster cast taken from puma tracks in Berkshire had been created.
Reactions of dogs and horses sometimes alert a witness to the presence of a big cat, while some people adjust their activities due to these predators, for instance ensuring lambing is indoors, keeping dogs on lead at key locations at dawn or dusk, or being more alert.
People mostly fear trophy hunters more than the big cat they watched, and many witnesses have "felt privileged" to experience something truly wild and beyond our control.
Panthers and pumas need to stay injury-free to survive, so they are shy of humans.
But on rare occasions, people have reported meeting such a cat close up, and realised that backing off carefully was the wisest move.
With abundant natural prey, the cats should not get stressed, but we should avoid aggravating them.
Big cats are a culture shock for official bodies, who view the topic as a Pandora's Box.
But no one is taking pitchforks to the hills over these animals. The cats have learnt to live around us. Maybe we should now learn about them.
Rick Minter and Frank Tunbridge will be giving a talk on big cats at Abbeyfields Community Centre, Winchcombe, on May 9 at 7.15pm.