big cat research in Sussex

Frequently asked questions:

Whilst out and about I am often asked my opinions. Here are some of the most asked and I have tried to answer them with the plausible evidence I have gleaned from research........


This is difficult to fathom accurately however I have studied a number of big cats intensely and keep track of others that I have little information of apart from witness sightings but they keep getting reported nonetheless. Overall, up until the autumn of 2012 there may of been least a dozen,these are from west to east;the Chichester cat, Milland cat,Midhurst, Bignor,Horsham(extends into south Surrey),Steyning cat,Offham,Telscombe(1st year female),Ashdown forest cat,Eastbourne,Hastings,also Robertsbridge.These big cats were named after the place that is central to their (usually summer)home range and they can extend from anything up to at least 20 miles away from it. It,s been possible to separate each one almost entirely however the ranges often fluctuate from year to year and it is also possible 1 or 2 may be the same. It is hoped by summer "11 additional data will have come in which would separate the Bignor cat from it,s neighbours which would clarify this.These are all females who are easier to quantify,there are at least 4 males who cover 2 to 3 females in their own territories but it is very hard to understand where 1 male begins and another ends.It is only a guesstimate but there could be at least 18 British big cats in Sussex,probably more and although this number is restricted by the huge area each individual big cat needs throughout the year,something in the region of 200 to 300 it doesn,t seem to have changed much for the past 5 years.We could have already reached critical mass so far as numbers of big cats are involved as it is dependent on how many can Sussex hold in the winter as it is for any non-migrant animals.......(N.B data has recently come in after a fair amount of intense gathering that certainly separates the Bignor cat from it,s neighbours the Steyning and Midhurst cats,in other words it,s impossible for it to be in 3 places at once,in fact,at least from last summers results there may actually be a fourth cat in the area which for convenience sake is called the Petworth cat however more info is needed on this)




It,s often been said that sightings are few and far between of what could presumably be a mother with cubs ie.a larger big cat with smaller ones in tow and this is true and that they are generally not often seen past autumn whereas leopards in their native countries have their young with them for up to 18 months at a time but then British big cats are not leopards as such and would account for the many differences between them as Bbc cubs are only with their mothers for around 6 months.In this time they get to grips with hunting their prey and get to know the area allotted to them by their mothers (a portion of her own)they also learn what to avoid such as traffic,dogs,humans and other day to day hazards in life such as barbed wire.Why only 6 months is needed to learn this is a mystery that could be explained by the fact that British big cats are actually incredibly intelligent ,an adaptation that would account for very few getting run over or are trapped.Generally,only 1 or 2 cubs are seen,usually born in spring to coincide with the baby rabbit boom and by september are usually seen on their own.In areas where it is thought a cat has bred often a strange looking mottled cat the size and shape of a serval is seen and typically mystifies the witnesses who cannot pigeonhole the animal they saw into any species-specific identity.In all cases the animal is never seen again fitting the same description so by this reasoning it would appear that cubs lose their mottled appearance after 6 months to become the usual black or browns most often seen.In common with leopards they would appear not to breed every year and this is consistant with the females producing well developed cubs that she has put a lot of work into rearing.



This is a very difficult question to seek answers to and could best be explained that they avoid sheep as the fleece gets caught up in the long teeth of big cats!Joking aside,Sussex,especially on the chalk downs,has huge flocks of sheep with typical amounts held by individual sheep farmers numbering 5000 upwards.The county is a net producer of lamb and yet it,s extremely rare for any reports of sheep carcases being found that are properly attributed as big cat kills.One reason for this could be that Sussex can support far more big cats than it does at present and so the natural,wild prey available to them is too abundant and they are far too successful at hunting  for them to bother with sheep.As it is to be believed,at least by myself,that big cats have increased since the late "80,s only in step with the rise in deer and rabbit numbers and not to do with the escapes from captivity,then they are supremely adapted to this prey and not to mutton.In other words they only take sheep as an extreme last resort.In areas where intense big cat activity is taking place i make it a priority to contact every sheep farmer available and also the local knackers yard and the answer is usually the same,no sheep or lamb carcases that have been killed by big cats.........


Simply put,although there are still large tracts of open farmland and huge areas of dense woodland that are attractive to big cats,Sussex is also extremely crowded with an average poulation density of over 1000 people per sq.mile.Any wild animal would mot get very far in life if it confronted every dog or human it came across.Being very fleet and agile creatures big cats can easily out run any dog and so in our terms discretion is the better part of valour.On occasion,twice only last year and once the year before,a witness will report that a big cat has growled at them ,often,however ,it has emerged that the animal was cornered and so was only seeking an avenue to escape but needed the person to back away to enable it to.Other evidence also pointed to there being as well in tow a cub that of course would need protecting and a warning growl would precede any type of conflict.There has only been a fistfull of reported attacks on people in the last 30 years in the whole of the country and these all amounted to only scratches that required limited hospital treatment,the most famous of these,the "Beast of Sydenham",south London) was verified by both the police and medics that attended as being of a very large cat......


According to the multitude of witness statements and also the physical evidence collected and inspected by big cat researchers over the years,big cats,at least in Sussex,employ varying techniques depending on the type of quarry they are after.The classic ambush that is waiting at vantage points for especially deer is used mostly in autumn and winter or at least the evidence of this happening has been found at this time of year.In spring,when after rabbits,they procede stealthly through cover making use of anything that will hide them from view,when noticing their prey they will either stalk or ,on occasion,rush through gaps in the hope of surprising the rabbits.There are numerous examples of big cats coursing rabbits out in the open in daylight and it,s assumed they also use this technique at night.It appears that they use eyesight at night rather more than hearing but their sense of smell has to be quite acute to balance this.There is no argument that they are mostly crepuscular (dusk)and nocturnal hunters when the odds are balanced more in their favour as animals such as deer and rabbits find their vision fades in the low light levels.Although big cats are often seen up trees it,s thought that they mostly just lie up here to find solitude rather than predate on birds or their nests.The regular reoccurance of big cats in certain areas at the same time of year does point to them specifically targeting certain prey items such as fledging birds like rooks which find their way onto the ground or waterfowl like moulting ducks who can,t fly or pigeons that struggle to..........


There is a lot to this question and as every year goes by more and more data becomes available.To answer this with any degree of accuracy it,s necessary to split the British big cat into 3 broad groups these are 1st year cubs and yearlings,adult females and males.The first group,the youngsters,seem to cover a much smaller area in their first year spending longer in any given area and are often seen in daylight resulting in multiple sightings giving rise to media speculation that a big cat is "resident"in a given area.They appear to move slowly around the place where a much bigger cat was previously often occasionally being seen in urban or at least suburban districts,they would do this to suss where they can or can,t go to find food or lie up and also work out the best corridors from one place to another.Because of their smaller size they can survive quite well on smaller game and so do not have to move on so quickly,reaching full size in their second year  around 18months old it is only now that they are capable of pulling down the bigger roe deer.The second group,the adult females,make up the bulk of sightings throughout the year.They tend to have home ranges split into roughly winter and summer areas spending anything from a day or 2 up to 2 weeks covering ground from their base where they lie up like impenetrable scrub moving along hedgelines and suchlike to return each daybreak or thereabouts.They will then move on to their next hunting hotspot which could be quite a few kilometres away moving quickly and evidence has shown that when travelling they will use easier routes like used/disused railway lines or green lanes and tracks.One particular Sussex big cat has been noted to head north rapidly using a railway line and then to head back south gradually moving from one hotspot to another.Being nocturnal hunters they are tied to the moons cycles and often they can reemerge at a place at the same stage of the moon at the same time of month.The spring range apppears to be much smaller than the summer one when they will move farther afield bringing in the outlying areas that are only now bearing fruit prey wise.As they are predators restricted to flesh big cats have to keep on moving before the game gets wise to their ways and adjust their behaviour accordingly.The winter ranges do at this time appear smaller and this is thought to be because big cats  avoid damp,waterlogged places seeking instead the drier higher ground or more underlating sandy and chalk soils.The males are the hardest to study or at least what is believed to be males and in Sussex it would seem that they are usually brown.Given this and the fact that most big cats(around 80% )are black they should be easier to trace but they do seem to be particularly nocturnal and therefore more elusive.At least one of these males appears to visit or at least be in the same area of 3 females and covers 35 kilometres in any one direction.This male has a very distinguishable feature described by witnesses not noticed in other cats(ommited to obtain true accounts) and has been spotted(no pun)25 kilometres away within a week giving rise to the theory of male cats extreme mobilty.All in all an adult big cat in Sussex would only visit a clump of parishes at the most 3 times in a season however there has been one to regularly reappear in the same area monthly throughout the summer only to dissappear north for the winter to higher,more forested ground.Availabilty of prey to hunt is the key.........


Finding physical evidence of big cats is extremely difficult.They slip through barbed wire fences leaving little fur,they avoid mud like the plague so leaving few paw prints and often their prey is killed or at least eaten in heavy cover leaving little trace of their passing through however simply by keeping yours eyes peeled for anything and everything especially the unusual or out of place is a good start.The local dogs are sometimes the first to notice anything strange and often act out of character when they sense a big cat is about,dogs barking in relay or acting diffently on a walk are sometimes pointers.If ,say you are acquainted with the wildlife goings on in your neck of the woods often a big cat showing up will cause the locals like deer and foxes to act strangely.The pheasants will go up to roost earlier calling more urgently especially at night if they notice a cat is around.Incredibly,squirrels have been observed to avoid the ground when a big cat is about.The deer will change their habits drastically sometimes feeding in the open fields or are more easily alerted than normal.The foxes will often depart the place entirely returning several weeks later.In other words the whole atmosphere of somewhere has changed discernably but will return to normality within a few weeks.This is thought to be because big cats hunt through an area methodically with most wild things being a target and so all the animals act seemingly in unison of the greater threat of these apex predators.Another way is to familiarise yourself with the difference in paw prints of big cats and say the most commonly confused prints of large dogs.Carcases found like deer killed by big cats exhibit the hallmarks of a clean feeding site with no mess like deer fur or blood lying around.Ask around the people in your area if they have seen a big cat often people won,t mention they have for fear of not being believed but when they know someone else is interested in what they have seen will reveal what they have observed.As most big cats are black,finding black fur in strange places like between second and third strands of barbed wire is always worth taking a sample of.Weird tree scratches not seen before could be a sign as are partially eaten bird or animal carcases that are not attributed to the usual predators like foxes.It hardly needs mentioning that anything found ought to be photographed at different angles as well as taking in the situation it was seen in like the position in the field.


Beyond having a digital camera or good quality camera phone with plenty of memory the list is short.I take with me a small notebook and pen ,a cheap tailors measuring tape,some small plastic bags for samples and a bin liner for bones,a few pairs of surgical gloves for handling samples hygenically which all weigh very little,a jar of plaster cast powder left in the motor for going back for when needed(not often enough!)which does weigh a bit and lastly,most importantly,an open,enquiring,questioning mind which weighs nothing at all........


Big cats are seen on a day to day basis in the county from people of all walks of life.Most want to tell someone of what they have seen as it can be an event that they will remember vividly for the rest of their lives.Some only tell close friends,others might mention it in passing to people in the area,sometimes local gossip will spread the news until it,s virtually impossible to find the original witness/es.It is very rare for a witness to actually seek out their local big cat researcher either via Google or recomendation and fewer will approach the press,the reasons for this are many,a lot of people lead buzy lives and don,t actually get round to it,others fear ridicule by sceptics.Some would rather keep quiet for reasons of their own.When i think a big cat could be active in an area or has or will pass through i will try and contact as many people as possible in an effort to get info,if a big cat has been seen by say one of the dog walking fraternity then gossip will usually fly faster than a falcon.The other extreme is a dyed in the wool farmer who will keep it to himself(unless bought a pint) so it can be seen that although people keep on encountering these elusive creatures it is necessary to actually go out and get the info in rather than placidly wait for phone calls or e-mails .Leaflets are put up as well however even these are only really a flag waving exercise as a lot of people will understandably only confide in others with whom they have met,known and trust........


 Big cat numbers have risen since the 1960,s in step with the rise in deer and rabbit numbers.In year previous to this especially pre-myxamotosis and also pre-"90,s before big cats were particularly widespread across the county rabbits and deer were reaching localised plague numbers and causing significant damage to crops,woodlands and other areas where deer in lesser numbers would benefit the other animals more and with deer there was significant loss of human life due to traffic collisions.Having studied these animals as well as big cats there is a noticeable better balance in numbers where big cats are active.It,s best to concentrate on quantifying deer numbers to study the effect that big cats have on them and with my research so far i am certain that big cats cap deer numbers well in excess of the 8% found in other regions of the world.Of course it,s hard to give an exact figure but 15% is by no means excessive.In other words by preying on deer fawns and yearlings they reduce deer numbers to a more acceptable figure and these results keep on getting repeated time and time again.Deer have no other natural predators since wolves were extinct apart from humans and will breed until they exhaust winter forage and succumb to disease and hunger,where there is less food they travel more and so cause more accidents.Big cats are good for deer and other wildlife as too many deer can wipe out food sources and cover needed by other species and an excess of only 15% can cause this.An example of this is over browsing of cover up to 6ft in the case of fallow which impacts on low nesting birds like wrens ,some warblers and nightingales and also things like butterflies which need say blackberry flowers from which to sip nectar.A very simplified method of judging over browsing by deer can be carried out by anyone although this is by no means an exhaustive and complete system:in late winter by measuring the amount of common ivy growing up tree trunks to deer level the impact of deer can be judged,if there are no ivy leaves on any trunks in the locality up to browse level then it,s possible that levels of deer could be too high.Other plants eaten to excess include hazel,blackberry and saplings.

Foxes too are taken as well as badgers and too many of these will virtually wipe out ground nesting birds such as peewits,larks and also the relatively uncommon mammal in Sussex the graceful hares.The wildlife surveys carried out have shown a more harmonious balance in the animal structure top down from the largest mammals to the very smallest insects in areas of the county where big cats are active and so,along with other evidence, prove that our largest big cats are intrincally linked with other wildlife and have become an indispensible and valued part of the wildlife of Sussex......


This question was asked of me by someone who lives on the outskirts of a West Sussex town who then promptly answered it by saying that their dog flushed a roe deer from some bushes at the bottom of their suburban garden that they had never seen there before but knew it had visited them frequently.If quite a large animal such as a roe deer can hide up so near to habitation unknown and unseen then for such an elusive creature like a big cat  to creep about hiding in undergrowth or up trees it should be a breeze.Sussex is very heavily wooded on the whole and the countryside is latticed with an interconnecting network of hedges,shaws and much scrub especially on the downs.Even the large towns have many areas where people can,t,won,t or daren,t go like the railway lines or the planted sides of main roads and these provide ample cover for a big cat to hide up in or routes from one place to another.In winter there is less choice as when the leaves are gone and the cold winds blow big cat sightings or the the evidence of them being somewhere diminishes to far fewer places........

(12)What do big cat paw prints look like?

An idea of a big cats paw print type can be found on the evidence page but generally speaking they are around 10cm wide.As they are commonly confused with dog prints i,ll outline the differences.Cat prints are wider than taller and usually without claw marks,the toes leave a more rounded impression than dogs and the front 2 are not parrallel like dogs are.Strangely enough,the big cat prints found in the wild in this country are slightly different from any other "known"species of cat like leopard or puma adding weight to the theory that we have a different type of big cat here whilst it may be descended from them......




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