The mysterious big cats of Exmoor

lions footprint

Is there a big cat or two out there? - Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

For decades there have been reports of big cat sightings across Somerset but nobody has so far solved the mystery. Simone Stanbrook-Byrne investigates further....


My late father-in-law, AJ, was not a fanciful man. Straightforward and no-nonsense, AJ and colourful imaginings were uncomfortable bedfellows. 
So, when he told us he'd seen a big cat stalking the hedge-line across the valley from his home on the outside edge of Exmoor, we believed him. After a lifetime working alongside dogs, he was adamant that this was no canine. It was bigger than a dog. It walked like a cat, it looked like a cat; a large, panther-like cat. On two successive days he saw the creature and on the third day he set up his camera. But he never saw it again. A few days later he heard from a neighbouring farmer who had spotted something very similar. 

What had they seen?

The folded coombes of Exmoor could be the haunt of a secretive and elusive wild cat

The folded coombes of Exmoor could be the haunt of a secretive and elusive wild cat - Credit: Simone Stanbrook-Byrne

Rumours of fabulous panther-like cats on the moor have been prevalent for decades. Dramatically dubbed The Exmoor Beast, sightings are still often reported, frequently in a fashion sufficiently factual and unembellished to render accounts very believable. A friend of mine, Stephen Dallyn, whose family farms on northern Exmoor and whose work takes him to remote areas, has twice seen big cats in enviable detail (see panel).

Fascinated by these accounts, I approached the Exmoor National Park Authority to learn their view. They put me in touch with Rick Minter, who runs the Big Cat Conversations website and podcasts, a collation of personal insights and accounts from across the UK. 

‘I network with an increasing number and variety of landowners, who are helping by hosting trail cameras and pointing to potential evidence,’ Rick tells me. ‘This helps us learn about these animals and consider the bigger picture. It is an example of citizen science and The Royal Agricultural University study backs up part of this work. All locations are kept confidential.’

Rick explains that the term ‘panther’ is generic. ‘It does not refer to a particular species of big cat but is commonly used to describe two different types of cat in the wild: melanistic (black) leopards and more thick-set jaguars,. It’s the more slim-line black leopard which is the main candidate for black cats reported in Britain, together with tan-coloured pumas.

‘Releases probably began in wartime when people couldn't feed meat to these strict carnivores,’ he continues. ‘Since then, there have been alleged, and some admitted, episodes of releases of such cats, from their lives as ‘trophy’ pets and guard animals. The earliest credible report I've had from Exmoor is 1966 when an early-morning postman saw a black panther.

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‘Later, the 1976 Dangerous Wild Animals Act was a major reason for releases – owners perhaps couldn’t afford a licence, so released the cats. 

‘On Exmoor the situation is a little different from elsewhere. The ‘Exmoor Beast’ brand is very much alive and there are many credible and consistent reports from people who know nothing of these cats but describe them well, including sometimes their vocalisations, which are distinct.’

Rick says that around 20 per cent of his witnesses (around 1,400 reports) mention reactions of their dog or horse, usually before they notice anything themselves, confirming the observation of the human witness.
As the Somerset Life walks writer, I spend a good deal of time in remote parts of the countryside, but I’ve never been lucky enough to spot one of these magnificent creatures.

‘Most encounters are at dawn and dusk,’ Rick tells me. ‘This is when they are out and about. They are ‘ambush predators’ and are hard-wired to pursue deer.
‘Witnesses, and people with snippets of evidence, often lie low for fear of ridicule,’ he continues. ‘Landowners often don’t want the risk of fuss and hassle on their land or in their neighbourhood. However, when witnesses are visitors to an area they are more likely to report the sighting, because they have no loyalty to the location and don't consider the consequences of drawing attention to it.’

There is evidence that the cats breed successfully. One of Rick’s contacts had an encounter 10 years ago in an Exmoor woodland. On this occasion the cat seemed to ‘usher him away but not in stalking mode’. He was curious, thinking it might be distracting him from young, and he did glimpse a kit, but obeyed the cat’s ‘request’ and left well alone. 
Rick feels the cats’ behaviour is indicative of a wild-bred population.

‘Reports from Exmoor, like many places, are ongoing, widespread and consistent,’ he tells me. ‘This doesn't fit with a few vagrant cats, which live for up to 15 years. Also, freshly released or escaped cats wouldn’t be so wild and stealthy in their behaviour, and they would 'misbehave' more. In the early stages of adapting to a feral life they would take more stock, bungle some of the kills, and would be seen more frequently, before melting away and learning that there is plentiful natural game. 

‘The reports we get are of cats who do ‘melt away’ and are efficient deer killers, suggesting that they have grown up in the wild, taught by their mothers.’

It is very telling that the overriding impression one gleans from listening to landowners who have reported sightings to Rick, is one of interest in, and tolerance of, the big cat they have spotted. Any sense of feeling threatened is almost non-existent. Rick explains that these cats would, instinctively, avoid contact with humans and, in the rare cases of farmers having impacts on their sheep from a cat, Rick has found it is often when sheep are untreated, so have no chemical smell. He is keen that such farmers get support and a fair financial compensation.  

At the risk of courting controversy, it could be said that big cats play a useful role in the natural ecosystems of the countryside, filling the niche of the once-native lynx.
After my own ‘big cat conversations’ with eye witnesses I am left in no doubt: these superb creatures are at large in our countryside and, although a rare sight, those who see them are enthralled by the encounter. I hope that, one day, I will share that privilege.

Exmoor encounters

The hidden places of Exmoor could be the haunt of a secretive and elusive wild cat

The hidden places of Exmoor could be the haunt of a secretive and elusive wild cat - Credit: Simone Stanbrook-Byrne

Stephen Dallyn made detailed notes of his encounters:
‘My first sighting was on 22 September 1997. I was driving home across northern Exmoor in the dark, when I caught a glimpse of a black shape crouched on the road bank about ten yards ahead. In one powerful movement it leapt across the road to the opposite bank, then leapt again over a four-feet-high, fence. I knew it was a big cat because my headlights caught a shiny black muscular frame. At the end of its long tail there was the unmistakable upward curl of the tip.

‘My second sighting was again on northern Exmoor, in broad daylight on a warm sunny day when I was repairing a drystone wall. I paused for a moment and looked over the top of the wall, down to fields below. On the far side of the field, about 200 yards away, I saw a big cat strolling, watching a flock of sheep. Suddenly it changed its style of movement and slinked away, crossing an old hedgebank and disappearing. It was about four-and-a-half feet in length, not including its tail. The coat was jet black, the head small in proportion to its body and it moved in a feline way.

‘The sheep didn’t seem bothered. I think a big cat would probably only go for injured or sick sheep or lambs, or recently-dead lambs, unless it was starving. There was no sense of threat to me.’

Big cat conversations

Stephen Dallyn believes that ‘these cats could easily survive if there is enough cover and food, such as road-killed game birds, still-born lambs, rabbits and pheasants – there are plenty of these with the increase in game shooting enterprises. The cats could survive without needing to attack live sheep.’

Podcasts, giving accounts of sightings, can be found on Rick Minter’s website at bigcatconversations.com

He has also authored a book: Big Cats: facing Britain’s wild predators.