JUST hours after reading about a large, black cat being spotted in South Lakeland, two men found themselves staring at a panther-like creature.

Landscape gardeners David Shires and Ben Hyde spotted the animal at Orrest Head, Troutbeck, at about 2pm last Friday afternoon.

Earlier in the day they had read a report in the Westmorland Gazette about two fresh sightings of large, black cats at Winster and Farleton.

In the past four years sightings of similar-looking creatures have been reported in Levens, Brigsteer, Shap and Burton-in-Lonsdale.

Mr Hyde, 21, of Levens, said: "We were just leaving a job, coming out of the drive, and we saw it.

I thought it was a Labrador at first, because I've got Labradors myself but it was too muscly, and ran differently from a dog.

"David jumped out of the van for a closer look, and it turned round and looked at him before running off."

Mr Shires, 26, from, Kendal, added: "We were both quite shocked when we saw it because we'd just been reading about it, so we pulled up and I jumped out of the pick-up.

"I got quite close to it before it ran off up the side of the hedge.

It was a lot bigger than a cat, the same sort of size as a Labrador and it looked very athletic.

"It was like nothing I'd ever seen before."

Naturalist Terry Hooper, who is co-ordinator of the Exotic Animals Register, said reports of big, black cats being spotted in Cumbria date back as far as the 1950s.

"From all the information we have received, there is no doubt they are out there in Cumbria," he told the Gazette.

Mr Hooper confirmed that the animal seen near Windermere could have been the same one spotted in Winster.

"Females can travel up to 35 miles a night if they are hunting for rabbits or deer, and the males move in and out of an area, so it is possible it is the same one," he explained.

Mr Hooper appealed for anyone who thinks they might have seen a large cat, recently or some time ago, to call him on 0117-9024807.