The UK only has one native species of cat: the Scottish wildcat. It is about the same size as a domestic cat and lives in tiny, dwindling numbers, exclusively in the Scottish Highlands. But every year thousands of people across the British Isles report seeing much larger felines on the prowl.

For several decades there have been sightings of phantom cats: cat-like creatures that are reportedly far larger than any domestic or wild cat. Most say the creatures are black and about the size of a domestic dog, sometimes larger.

The animals could be leopards in their black, non-spotted form

The sightings are something of an enigma. Only a small percentage are ever reported to the government. This means that the true figure for how many people see a phantom cat is hard to get at.

The most reliable source of information is the British Big Cats Society, an organisation of amateur enthusiasts. It regularly receives reports from people claiming to have glimpsed a suspiciously large cat. Going by their figures, a few thousand such sightings are made each year.

Many people dismiss phantom cat sightings as misidentifications of dogs or as over-imagined domestic cats. But others maintain that exotic felines really could be stalking our shores.

Various explanations have therefore been suggested. The animals could be leopards in their black, non-spotted form (colloquially called "panthers"). They could also be cougars, sometimes known as pumas or mountain lions, as some sightings describe a light or "sandy" coloured creature. But is there any truth to any of this?

 

Phantom cat sightings in the British Isles date back to at least 1825. In that year William Cobbett, a famous farmer and journalist, reported seeing a large grey cat, which he compared in size to a medium-sized spaniel, in the grounds of an abbey in southern England.

But it was not until the mid-20th Century that phantom cats really began to capture the public's imagination.

A woman was walking her dog in rural Surrey and reported seeing a "puma-like" creature

It started with a sequence of strange sightings, once again in southern England.

The first came in 1955. A woman was walking her dog in rural Surrey and reported seeing a "puma-like" creature, which quickly slunk away, next to the mutilated carcass of a calf.

Two more sightings followed in 1959, both of them in the neighbouring county of Hampshire. One man reported seeing "an enormous great cat" crossing a country lane, while a cab driver supposedly saw a "lion" jumping over a hedge into a rural racecourse

In the 1960s, there followed many other reports of large, cat-like creatures in and around Surrey. Despite numerous police investigations, none of these sightings was ever substantiated. Nevertheless the "Surrey puma" soon became an established urban legend.

 

Phantom cats were soon spotted in other parts of the country too. In the 1970s and 80s, numerous sightings of a large, black cat-like creature were reported in Exmoor, an expanse of moorland and woods in south-west England. We now know this creature as another legendary phantom cat, the "beast of Exmoor". 

Southern England remains a hotspot for phantom cat sightings to this day

The Exmoor sightings caused so much concern that the military were called in. In the summer of 1983, following a number of unexplained sheep killings in the area, a team of Royal Marines was deployed in an attempt to track down this mysterious beast. The soldiers spent several weeks hunting for traces of the creature, but ultimately failed to find any evidence that it existed. 

Similarly, a spate of phantom cat sightings in the 1990s, this time on nearby Bodmin Moor in Cornwall, caused the government to call in a pair of investigators to search for the creature – which by then had been dubbed the "beast of Bodmin". The officials spent several months in the field, examining livestock carcasses and footprints for evidence. But like the marines, the pair returned empty handed. 

Southern England remains a hotspot for phantom cat sightings to this day. But in recent decades, sightings have also been reported across central and northern England, as well as in various parts of Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. 

Could there be any truth to the sightings? 

Most experts believe that it is extremely unlikely that any breeding population of non-native felines exists in the UK. That is also the official position of the British government. 

But that does not necessarily mean that all of the sightings are false. The phantom cats spotted in the UK could be animals that have been released – or even escaped – from captivity.

Animals which escaped or were set free from illegal collections could be behind some of the phantom cat sightings reported

The latter is certainly plausible. Since 1975, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has received 27 reports of exotic cats that escaped from zoos or private collections. All but three (a jungle cat, an Asiatic golden cat and a lynx) were quickly recaptured or killed following their escape.

That is not to say that all these escaped cats were officially reported. It is against the law to keep non-domestic cats without a license, a law that has existed since 1976. So animals that escaped or were set free from illegal collections could be behind some of the phantom cat sightings reported each year.

For example, a handful of such exotic cats are known to have been captured or killed while roaming wild in the UK: a puma was captured in Scotland in 1980; a jungle cat was killed by a car in rural Shropshire in 1989; lynx was reportedly shot in Norwich in 1991; a spotted leopard was shot in the Isle of Wight in 1993; and another lynx was captured alive in London in 2001. All of these animals are believed to have escaped from private collections or zoos.

Given that, phantom cat sightings no longer seem so outlandish.

Interestingly, none of these escapees were black. In fact, no conclusive evidence has ever been found to suggest that any of the large black cats, which feature in the majority of phantom cat sightings, have ever roamed wild in the UK – at least, not since the last of Britain's native leopards died out around 24,000 years ago. 

There are enough clues to keep the rumours alive

This has led to speculation that phantom cats are simply figments of people's imagination. Still, there are enough clues to keep the rumours alive.

News outlets occasionally publish photographs or videos, shot by members of the public, which supposedly show a big cat or another large feline. Most of these are far from convincing, with the supposed cat either too distant or obscured to properly identify. Some have even been revealed to be outright hoaxes. 

But some of the visual evidence appears more convincing.

For example, one photograph, taken in Derbyshire in 2007, appears to be a large, black cat walking along a stone wall. The creature seems significantly larger than a domestic cat.

Similarly, a video filmed by a police officer in 2009 seems to show a large black animal – apparently feline – walking alongside a railway line in southern Scotland.

Governmental sources also claim to have observed exotic cats on camera in the UK.

In 2009, the Forestry Commission disclosed that its rangers had spotted big cats on two separate occasions in 2002 and in 2005, both in the Forest of Dean in Gloucestershire. The animals were reportedly seen during a deer survey using heat-activated vision equipment. Unfortunately, if any images exist, they have never been made public.

Scientists are now trying to detect the presence of phantom cats by searching for the mutilated prey that they allegedly leave behind

There are also people attempting to catch phantom cats on camera using a different approach. Members of the public have started deploying camera traps, which are remotely activated by motion, in an attempt to snap passing cats unawares.

One of these is Rick Minter, who writes about phantom cats. In 2016, Minter says he has set camera traps at various locations in southern England and Scotland where people claim to have seen big cats, or where landowners have reported sheep killings, which they believe may have been attacked by a large predator.

But although Minter says his traps have captured "one or two" photos that could show an exotic cat, his approach has yet to produce anything convincing.

In a different approach, rather than capturing the animals on film, scientists are now trying to detect the presence of phantom cats by searching for the mutilated prey that they allegedly leave behind.

In 2007 Ros Coard, a researcher at the University of Wales Lampeter (now the University of Wales Trinity Saint David), published a study that drew a surprising conclusion: large cats could be hunting sheep in Wales.

The spacing of the points suggested that some kind of cat, significantly larger than a domestic cat or wild cat, had bitten the sheep

Coard is an expert in the analysis of animal bite marks on bone. She examined the skeletal remains of a young sheep, which had been found dead in pastureland in southern Wales. The carcass – which was mostly defleshed and missing its entire spinal column – was sent to the university by a concerned landowner. 

Coard found a tantalising clue that an exotic cat could have been to blame. On one of the sheep's bones, she found a tooth imprint with a three-pointed pattern, which closely resembled the type of imprint that would be left by the carnassial tooth of a large cat. These are a set of large back teeth, present in some carnivores, specifically adapted to shear flesh.

The carnassial teeth of many carnivorous mammals can leave this type of imprint, including foxes and domestic dogs, both of which are known to attack livestock in the UK. But Coard found that the spacing between the three points on the sheep bone was significantly larger than a dog or fox could produce. In fact, Coard concluded that the spacing of the points suggested that some kind of cat, significantly larger than a domestic cat or wild cat, had bitten the sheep.

 

Intriguingly, another scientist may also have found feline bite marks in animal carcasses elsewhere in the UK.

Andrew Hemmings, a lecturer at the Royal Agricultural University in Gloucester, has found tooth imprints in the carcasses of three animals. He believes these marks also match the shape of the teeth of a large cat.

The tooth pit data certainly points to the presence of carnivores bigger than those indigenous to the UK

Hemmings discovered the imprints in two deer carcasses found in the Dorset heathlands, and a wild boar from the Forest of Dean in Gloucestershire. The findings have not yet been published in a scientific journal. However based on his analysis, Hemmings says that the tooth imprints in the three carcasses "strongly resemble" those of a big cat.

"When considered alongside the wealth of reliable witness reports, the tooth pit data certainly points to the presence of carnivores bigger than those indigenous to the UK," he says.

Find out more

Nothing captures the imagination quite like the possibility of big exotic cats living wild in the UK.

Many have been debunked as hoaxes or misidentifications, but there are a few of the 2,000 or so that are recorded every year that remain as mysteries. Recent scientific studies are also adding weight to the argument that something – or some things – may be out there.

Combined with the ongoing calls to reintroduce the once-native Eurasian lynx, the idea that large cats could be roaming the UK may not be that far-fetched.

Read more: Could big cats be roaming the UK?

This latest evidence is intriguing, but tooth imprints on their own will never be enough to settle the phantom cat debate. The same goes for the blurry photographic and video evidence, which is difficult to substantiate. 

Until an oversized black cat crosses the path of a high-definition lens, or somehow wanders into a trap, these enigmatic creatures will remain phantoms.

This story is a part of BBC Britain – a series focused on exploring this extraordinary island, one story at a time. Readers outside of the UK can see every BBC Britain story by heading to the Britain homepage; you also can see our latest stories by following us on Facebook and Twitter.