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Police and scientists team up to identify ‘mystery predator’ after large paw print discovered in the Highlands

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A police officer was sent to investigate reports of a big cat running wild in the Highlands and savaging livestock, newly released documents have shown.

Sightings of puma and leopard-like creatures stalking Scottish hills and glens have been reported for decades but little evidence has been found.

Recently, police and government scientists worked together to try to identify a “mystery predator” that appeared to be at large in the far north.

Correspondence from the past two years between Police Scotland, Science and Advice for Scottish Agriculture (SASA) and other government-funded agencies was released after a freedom of information request.

A police officer, whose name and title have been redacted, wrote to SASA in November 2018 asking for help in identifying a large paw print. They wrote: “I’ve had lots of reports over the past three years of big cat sightings and activity on the north coast, mainly in the Bettyhill area of Sutherland.

“There have been sightings of a large feline and a lot of dead or injured sheep. On one occasion I was present when a ewe was brought in off the hill with two puncture marks on the front of her right shoulder and two at the back of it. The wounds were over three inches apart, while some of the recent carcasses have very large puncture marks.”

The officer conceded that it was a “very controversial topic” but added: “Some crofters say there have always been very big feral cats in this area. I’m told there is a photograph of one shot, years ago, which was over four feet long.

“We definitely have a wild cat population as well; I’ve seen one myself. We don’t have many domestic cats in the area; there is a very sparse human population and miles of unoccupied land.”

The officer sent images of a paw print and one of a “recent kill”, writing: “The carcass was stripped clean, down to the spine/skull.”

They said that the paw print was 2.8ins long and 2.4ins wide, adding: “Am inclined to think it might be a cat.”

The response from the SASA was inconclusive. They replied: “I’m not sure about the footprint. It does look a bit like a feline print but is also reminiscent of a fox or a dog.”

There was more clarity relating to an image of a dismembered fox sent to the SASA last December. An official said: “I would guess it has been scavenged by a number of animals, the main culprits are probably a group of several badgers.”

The investigation was closed last year.

The Bettyhill area has been the centre of previous big cat sightings between 1976 and 1981.

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