THE number of ‘big cat’ sightings in Cumbria is much higher than the total reported to police and includes several reports in the Kendal area, it has been claimed.

A Freedom of Information request to Cumbria Constabulary revealed the force had been made aware of nine sightings in the county since 2016.

But the founder of the ‘Big Cats in Cumbria’ Facebook page says that number is much higher.

Sharon Larkin-Snowden felt that the Facebook group was ‘taking the pressure off the police’ and said the page had received 12 reports of big cat sightings in the past year.

The Westmorland Gazette: ENTHUSIAST: Sharon Larkin-SnowdenENTHUSIAST: Sharon Larkin-Snowden

Sightings in south Cumbria in recent years include a video, captured in fields at Dalton in 2019, appearing to show a large black cat in the distance.

In 2018, a couple visiting South Walney Nature Reserve was left in shock after spotting what they believed was a big wild cat near the coastline. However, staff at the reserve insisted it was just a ‘fat and fluffy feral cat’.

Ms Larkin-Snowden said there had also been sightings of a puma in the Lake District and, in the Kendal area, several sightings of two big cats which were hunting together.

Three of the nine reports to Cumbria Constabulary since 2016 were in the south of the county - in March 2017, May 2017 and July 2018. No reports to police were made in 2020.

Police inspector Richard Smillie said: “We wish to reassure the public that the reports of this nature are extremely rare and all sightings are investigated.

“We work closely with farmers and community groups to address any concerns.”

Police said four of the nine sightings referred to ‘big cats’, three to ‘panthers’, one to a ‘large cat’ and one to a ‘large black cat’.

Ms Larkin-Snowden, 48, from Cockermouth, is currently awaiting results from a testing lab regarding marks left on a deer jawbone found in the Lake District.

“They are going to see if the marks are the same as a leopard, the marks were made by sharp teeth that have crunched the bone,” she said.

Ms Larkin-Snowden believes big cats may have been released following the introduction of the 1976 Dangerous Wild Animals Act, which brought in regulations and licenses for people wishing to keep these types of animals.

“There are a small handful of cats in the UK that keep breeding, and the white leopards that are seen could be as a result of inbreeding between a small community,” she said.

“The most recent sighting [in Cumbria] was at Thirlmere, where there has been reports of a black-and-white leopard.”

Ms Larkin-Snowden said she had also had a hair sample that was found in Kendal confirmed as being from a leopard, after it was sent away for analysis.