BIG-CAT SIGHTINGS 'MOST EXCITING YET' |jon_downes||09/06/03 at 21:39:16|jon_downes|xx|0||BIG-CAT SIGHTINGS 'MOST EXCITING YET'

10:30 - 06 September 2003

Experts have hailed this summer the most exciting ever for panther sightings.

Today, big-cat watchers said they are convinced Leicestershire is inhabited by panthers - some with cubs in tow.

Leicestershire and Rutland Pantherwatch has been inundated with reports of panther sightings.

Nineteen people have called the organisation since June and a cluster of sightings has been reported around the Cossington area.

In the latest sighting, a train driver reported a large panther-like cat sitting motionless beside the track as he passed through Cossington.

Earlier in the year, Cossington Neighbourhood Watch members reported two separate sightings of a big cat with a sleek, black coat.

David Spencer, of Pantherwatch, said: "This is the most exciting summer we've had so far.

"It's turned lots of sceptics to believe us. I definitely think there's more than one panther now.

"I think there are around seven but they can move around. I'm certain more than one of them has a cub.

"It's only a matter of time before we get absolutely conclusive proof in Leicestershire.

"It's not just the number of sightings, but the quality and the fact that patterns are forming.

"We've also had sheep being killed clearly by big cats.

"The sighting by the train driver is most exciting. It backs up others sightings in the Cossington area and it was so clear."

Dick Rowlatt, co-ordinator of Cossington Neighbourhood Watch, said: "We were out in our patrol vehicle after midnight and it just crossed the road in front of us.

"The following night we were coming down the same road and it was running up a grass verge.

"It was a bit bigger than a Labrador and had a sleek black coat.

"I'm now completely convinced there are panthers and I was always sceptical before."

Most of the sightings reported to Pantherwatch have taken place in east Leicestershire. Early in the summer a Twyford farmer reported what looked like a panther with cub dart into a hedge as he sat in his combine harvester.

In Owston, the gruesome remains of two sheep were found with one completely stripped of its flesh.

They mirrored similar discoveries, reported in the Leicester Mercury in June.

Then, the mutilated carcasses of four sheep were found in the grounds of Launde Abbey, near Loddington.

Mr Spencer said the discoveries bore all the hallmarks of big-cat kills.

Neil Hughes, wildlife officer for Leicestershire police, said: "I know we've had a lot of sightings this summer. The evidence appears to point to the fact that there are these animals out there - and more than one.

"Normally they will have nothing to do with people."