Recent sightings of a big feline patrolling the Gloucestershire countryside have reignited the controversy surrounding the existence of big cats in Great Britain.

Officially speaking, Britain’s largest and deadliest carnivore isn’t a wolf, cougar or grizzly bear – it’s actually the badger.

Yet since the 18th Century, there have been rumours of much more fearsome beasts stalking British landscapes – namely a population of ABCs, or Anomalous or Alien Big Cats. These could range from a domestic moggy to a fully grown panther.

Big cats recently returned to the headlines following the discovery of two mauled deer carcasses at Woodchester Park in Gloucestershire, which seemed to show evidence of feline predation. The first recorded sightings of modern times date back to the early 1950s, when a large black feline dubbed the Surrey Puma was spotted prowling through the countryside near Farnham. Since then, there have been numerous other sightings – from the Cornish moors all the way to the Scottish hills – but conclusive evidence has proved elusive. Despite a wealth of grainy photos and shaky videos, no-one has been able to definitively prove that ABCs are at large.

As so often, DNA tests on the deer carcasses in Gloucestershire revealed another dead end: the only trace found on the carcasses was that of a fox, which most likely scavenged the creatures after death. For big cat believers, this is all par for the course. “There’s no doubt in my mind that big cats exist in Britain,” states Danny Bamping, a spokesman for the British Big Cats Society. “There’s simply too much good evidence to dismiss them as figments of people’s imaginations.”

While most sightings turn out to be nothing more sinister than house cats, some are harder to explain. After the introduction of the Dangerous Wild Animals Act in 1976, many private collectors are thought to have turned their animals loose. Since then, several large cats – including lynx, bobcats and leopard cats (smaller than leopards) – have been shot and killed on the British Isles, and in 1980 a tame puma called Felicity was captured in Scotland and moved to a Scottish zoo. Others are said to have interbred with domestic animals, leading to new varieties such as the Kellas cat – a hybrid with a wildcat – found in Scotland in 1984.

For Bamping, this is just more evidence to add to a substantial file. “No-one should be in any doubt,” he says. “Big cats are here, and if they’re breeding, then they’re here to stay.”

Where to look for Britain’s big cats

Galloway Puma, Dumfries and Galloway
Canadian tourists in the late 1990s spotted what appeared to be a black panther while walking in the forest near Kirroughtree in Galloway. Farmers and Forestry Commission workers have caught glimpses since, but no conclusive evidence of the animal has emerged.

Where to look: sightings were reported across the Galloway Forest region in the summer of 2009.

The Beast of Bodmin, Cornwall
Since the 1980s, more than 60 sightings have been made of a large, panther-like creature on Bodmin Moor. Locals have claimed that such cats have been responsible for numerous attacks on livestock. In 1995, a large leopard’s skull was discovered near the River Fowey.

Where to look: allegedly sighted at Trewithen Gardens near Truro in the summer of 2011.

The Beast of Exmoor, Devon
In 1983, a farmer in South Molton near Exmoor claimed to have lost more than 100 sheep in three months – the suspected culprit was the Beast of Exmoor, a panther-like feline that’s been sighted since the early 1970s. In 1988, a team of Royal Marine snipers attempted to track and kill the beast, but no trace was found.

Where to look: a cat-like carcass was found on a beach near Croyde Bay in 2009. This eventually turned out to be a grey seal.

The Fen Tiger, Cambridgeshire
First reported in 1982 in Cottenham, Cambridgeshire, this big cat apparently resembles a large puma rather than a tiger. Local man William Rooker captured some impressive footage of a large cat prowling across a field in 1994, and frequent sightings have been made in various parts of the Fens since.

Where to look: seen near the town of Royston in Hertfordshire in 2011.

Beast of Burford, Oxfordshire
Another notorious series of sightings began around 2005 when a black cat was snapped slinking across fields in Oxfordshire. Farmer Colin Dawes claimed to have watched the animal running off after mauling sheep, and off-duty wildlife officer Simon Towers even took a cast of a paw print he found in local woodland.

Where to look: Burford in west Oxfordshire is a good start, but the trail has gone cold in recent times.

Wildcat of Woodchester, Gloucestershire
The latest in a string of cats sighted in the UK, this one was thought to have mauled roe deer in the National Trust’s Woodchester Park this January. In February, a large cat-like animal was filmed in fields outside Stroud, while in April a paw print was found in a building site in Cheltenham.

Where to look: last seen sprinting across fields on the outskirts of Gloucester in May of this year.